Solid institutions facing rising populist distrust
France enjoys solid institutions of governance – the most stable, consensual and efficient period over the past 200 years, marked only occasionally by dubious constitutional experiments. Yet, the country has struggled to effectively address the challenges associated with Europeanization and globalization. The institutional system has been weakened by the rise of populist parties: primarily the National Front but also the radical left led by Mélenchon, which advocates a strange mixture of statist economic proposals and libertarian political choices. Both populist manifestations express a deep distrust between segments of the population and the political class. In the wake of President Trump’s election in the United States and of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, there were fears that Marine Le Pen might be the winner of a polarized presidential election in France, which has raised serious doubts about the country’s capacity for systemic reforms.
Hollande reforms marred by poor execution
Coming to power in 2012, President Hollande initially attempted to reverse his predecessor’s reforms, but further economic collapse soon led to a U-turn, and the adoption of supply-side reforms and more budgetary discipline. Deep division within the Socialist Party and the government combined with the president’s confused communication style and lack of clear commitment to policies discredited the government. As a result, the potential political benefits of these limited but important reforms (i.e., labor market reforms, business tax cuts, liberalization measures and budgetary consolidation) have been marred. Overall, the policy changes were steps in the right direction, but insufficient to meet future challenges. The characteristic gap between real (if limited) change and immobile concepts, and between liberal reforms and the traditional statist interventionist discourse persisted under President Hollande. As a result, the Socialist Party was deeply divided between social-democrat reformists and leftist radicals.
Socialists fail to rally behind new candidate. Scandal eliminates center-right party. Election left to outsider candidates
The division was so deep and the popularity of President Hollande so low that Hollande renounced his candidacy for the 2017 presidential election, leaving the Socialist Party divided and directionless. The open primaries organized in January 2017 left the floor to the most radical elements of the party, contributing to the elimination of the reformist candidate (the former prime minister, Valls) and to the selection of a leftist candidate (Benoît Hamon). Hamon’s leadership proved to be deprived of charisma and unable to reunify the Socialist Party. On the right side of the political spectrum, the landslide victory of François Fillon, who presented a strongly conservative program, and the very high turnout at the open primary organized by the Républicains and the centrists in November 2016 (4.4 million voters) seemed to indicate the certainty of Fillon’s victory. However, paying for a political scandal related to the hiring of his wife and children with public money, Fillon only came third in the first round of the presidential election and was eliminated, leaving the floor to two different outsiders and challengers to the traditional parties of government. On the one hand, Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigration, anti-globalization, anti-EU, populist candidate; on the other, the improbable winner of the first round, Emmanuel Macron, who was both challenging the traditional political left/right cleavage, and suggesting a new cleavage between progressive, liberal pro-Europeans and autarkic, reactionary nationalists. It was difficult to conceive of more antagonistic proposals for France’s future political and policy choices.
Macron’s strength lies
in reform program
in reform program
The final choice was clear but at the same time pointed to the fragmentation of public opinion (populist votes, abstention). However, the strength of the new president lies in his reform program, which he presented to voters during the electoral campaign. Once elected and with a strong parliamentary majority, the new president has a mandate for reforming the country. Since he has taken office, the new president has shown his clear commitment to his pro-EU, liberal-reform agenda. He benefits from a strong parliamentary majority and a deeply divided, crisis-shaken opposition (the traditional socialist and conservative parties are fragmented, the National Front is in deep disarray and split, and the radical left led by Mélenchon is isolated). The division within and the weakness of the unions have undermined resistance to Macron’s labor-market reforms, and his pro-European and pro-business policies proceed undisturbed for the time being.
New optimism behind
This successful start is supported by the improvement of the European and global economic outlook as well as by the first effects of some reforms adopted during the Hollande presidency. Contrary to what could be feared at the end of 2016 when the future of the country looked rather bleak (unemployment, debt, terrorism, populist challenges), a new optimism supports the new majority. Many problems have still to be faced but there is the political will and the capacity to tackle them.