Expert Commentary

A Revolutionary Race in France

Philippe Le Corre
Visiting Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Round one of the French presidential elections, on April 23, looks as if it’s going to set up a battle of non-traditional parties. Polls predict Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate who recently created his own party, versus Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front party. Now, some polls are showing far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and even the traditional conservative Francois Fillon gaining a bit of ground. By the end of the first round, though, traditional socialist candidate Benoit Hamon may be out, but Fillon could stage  a comeback. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow from France at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, how U.S-French relations could develop under the various candidates.

The Cipher Brief: How do you think round one of France’s presidential elections is going to play out? What if neither traditional party candidate makes it to the second round? By that I mean, how will traditional voters vote? Will they choose either, for example, Le Pen or Macron? Or will they decide to not vote at all?

Philippe Le Corre: You have different possible scenarios. It’s the top candidates out of 11 that are now lining up for round one. Two of them will emerge as the finalists. The problem is Mélenchon has been rising recently, and Le Pen and Macron have been going down a bit. Fillon is kind of stable, but rising a little bit, and my own feeling is he’s got a lot of hidden votes for him – people actually will show up and vote for him on Sunday. If you have Le Pen versus Mélenchon, you’ll have the two extremes – the far right and the far left, respectively – this would be an absolute revolution. It would be a clash of cultures, a clash of ideas with, in both cases, two revolutionary candidates who want France out of the European Union, who are against globalization in some way, and who are non-traditional candidates.

But the difference is that Le Pen runs a far-right party, the National Front (FN), which has been around for over 40 years (it was founded by her father Jean-Marie Le Pen) and which has built its name by saying it was not part of the establishment. It has been a pariah of French politics. But actually, my own analysis of this is that is has become part of the establishment in a way, though not as a real political force in the parliament – they only have two members of parliament, two senators, some members of the European Parliament, and around 15 towns, which is really not a lot. Chances that the FN could win a majority in the National Assembly in June are close to nil.

Then you have Macron, who is a centrist politician and who served as Minister of the Economy in Francois Hollande’s government. His party is more like a start-up. It’s very young – only about a year old. It’s called En Marche! Macron has a lot of supporters – 200,000 plus – but how would he be able to govern in Parliament? In his team, you have some people in his party coming from the left and a few from the right, but that doesn’t make a majority in parliament.

So the parliamentary race, which is coming up in June, is the big question mark.

For the final top candidates, you have Mélenchon, who is far left and almost revolutionary. He doesn’t call himself a communist, but he really wants a more egalitarian society. He wants the rich to give way to the middle class, and add $180bn in public spending. Some people would say that’s socialism, and France is not a socialist society. It’s a middle class society. A lot of people feel disillusioned maybe with capitalism, but I don’t see him being elected. The problem would be if you have him facing Le Pen. That’s a crazy scenario.

Then finally you have Fillon, who is the most traditional of the four, who has done every job in government including Prime Minister from 2007 to 2012 and who has been elected for the past 35 years. He’s the official nominee of the Republicans party. He’s the most experienced guy, and he would have no problem whatsoever getting a majority in parliament to govern effectively.

All the other candidates are probably out. But between these four, there are several possibilities. One is very very scary (Le Pen and Mélenchon). In most of the other cases, Le Pen would lose. In these cases, when people would be given the choice between a traditional candidate and a non-traditional candidate, they would likely choose the traditional candidate.

TCB: Let’s go back to the question of parliament. If a non-traditional party member is elected president, then how does that person form a majority in the National Assembly?

PL: What happens is, the president is elected in round two on May 7. He or she then appoints, in the following few days, an interim prime minister. The current president leaves office and the current government is dismissed immediately. The new president appoints a government. Now, that government will only be an interim government, because it won’t have a majority in parliament. The parliamentary election in the National Assembly will take place in two rounds on June 11 and 18. That could require, depending on who is the winner of the presidential elections, a redrawing of the political map, especially if one of the three non-traditional candidates is elected.

If it’s Fillon, we’ll have a usual situation – there will be Republicans candidates, right wing, center right, maybe some others, but overall the right will win in parliament. If it’s Macron, he will have to redraw the map and present close to 600 candidates all over France for his party. Some will come from the left, some will come from the right. It’s a real mystery at this stage whether he would get a majority in the National Assembly with such a program, and such a new political concept of his party which is neither right nor left. This is something that hasn’t happened in many many years.

TCB: And if, for example, Macron did not get a majority in the National Assembly, then what would happen?

PL: Suppose he’s president and the Republicans party gets the majority. Then, the Republican party will have a majority in the National Assembly and will propose the name of a prime minster. The prime minister, by the constitution, will basically run France – at least the French economy and all the important things. But the president, of course, having been elected by the people for five years, will oversee France’s foreign and defense policy. He will be like the supreme leader directly elected by the people. But without a majority in parliament, he will not be able to implement his program.

It’s called co-habitation, where you have presidents and prime ministers from different parties. We’ve had that three times in the past, and it has not been very successful. This is the very weird thing about the French constitution. If someone is elected president, then wins parliament – that is, the lower house, called the National Assembly – he can do pretty much what he wants. If for some reason he doesn’t win the majority in parliament, which has not happened for a long time, then there will be this system of co-habitation between a president on one side and the National Assembly on the other side, and it becomes very difficult to govern.

If Macron is elected, it could be interesting, because he has been advocating a kind of German-style grand coalition, which means that he would likely be open to do business with the right. I know people close to him, and from my understanding, he would be happy to compromise with the other parties, provided of course it’s not the National Front, but there’s absolutely no chance the National Front can win the parliamentary majority.

TCB: You said that the past cases of co-habitation were not successful because neither the president nor the National Assembly could agree on an agenda and get reforms passed.  Or was there more of a power struggle in which the National Assembly could get its legislation through, but the president tried to block it?

PL: The latter. I was a journalist like you for many years. And I remember when President Jacques Chirac had to co-habitate with a left-wing prime minister in the late 1990s, Lionel Jospin. They would appear together at a joint press conference, and then it would be like two opposing people talking to the media. Of course they would try not to contradict each other, but it’s a very embarrassing situation. It was almost like if President Donald Trump were to show up with the leader of the Democrats in Congress, should Congress be dominated by the Democrats. They would have completely opposite views. It’s a very embarrassing situation for the French president because he has won the presidency but he has lost the French parliament, which means he cannot implement the ideas for which he was elected.

Having said that, the three co-habitations that took place in the 1980s and 90s took place at a time when the president’s term was seven years. It was reduced to five years in 2000, which means that since 2002, presidential elections have taken place every five years, usually in May, like we have this year, and followed a month later by parliamentary elections. It hasn’t been the case, at least for the past 15 years, that a newly elected president would be given a blow by a complete opposite National Assembly. But this time we have a very peculiar lineup with some very unusual candidates, who have a real chance of making it to the second round, especially Le Pen and possibly Mélenchon.

TCB: Are there specific French factors that contribute to the increase in popularity of what you just called “unusual candidates,” or are there parallels between the rise of populist and other fringe parties across Europe and the populist trend in the United States?

PL: France has had a relationship with globalization which has not always been smooth. There’s this idea of the French way of life, which is questioned by globalization, also by immigration. So out of this you have the far right and now the far left – led by Mélenchon, who happens to be a pretty charismatic guy, who is not anti-immigration but is certainly very critical of markets, of the European Union, and of rich people taking advantage of globalization, a little bit like Bernie Sanders. That’s truly specific to France.

The National Front, Le Pen’s party, is also specific in the sense that it started as a very extremist, racist party in the 1970s. Its history is based on France’s colonial past in Algeria, things like that. And Jean-Marie Le Pen himself – the party’s founder and Marine Le Pen’s father – has completely backward and almost fascist ideas. Of course his daughter has been completely different – or at least she has appeared to be completely different, although occasionally, sentences come out of her mouth that sort of reveal her true self.

She has kind of plateaued with 25 percent of the votes, which is already a lot. I don’t see how she could get more than that because I don’t see more than a quarter of the French people voting for someone with such a name. The name recognition is both good and bad. She has been trying to cut off her father from her team, but that doesn’t really work. He’s still the honorary chairman and, in some ways, the financial backer of that party.

Mélenchon is more interesting, in a way, because he’s a loner. He doesn’t have a party. He’s basically a charismatic guy who speaks well, who wants to change the constitution, make it a parliamentary system with less powers to the president and more powers to the people through an elected government, give more power to the parliament. But it would be a complete changeover from the current constitution, which was set up by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Of course, there was only one de Gaulle. He came back after the Algeria campaign, became the first democratically elected president, remained in power for nine years and then retired. Subsequent presidents have taken advantage of that system he created, but sometimes it doesn’t work out because of co-habitation.

TCB: Turning to France-U.S. relations under the Trump administration and the future French administration, do you think military ties are going to remain as close as they’ve been under President Obama and other U.S. presidents?   

PL: If Macron is elected, the answer is yes. He’s the candidate that the markets love, that bureaucrats love, that Germany loves, that Washington loves. He will continue the current relationship. There will be a lot of changes, to be sure, because he doesn’t really have a party in the traditional sense. But his foreign policy will be pretty much the same as today.

If Fillon is elected, there will be minor changes, especially toward Russia. But once again, it’ll be the traditional kind of Gaullist policy, slightly more independent from the United States. It depends a lot on the chemistry between him and Trump. I suspect it’s going to be difficult to get chemistry between any French president and Trump, but we’ll see, things change.

The problem is the remaining two. There’s this idea that Marine Le Pen, because she’s a populist, will get on with Trump, but I’m not sure of that. I’m not sure how she could even govern; once again, I’m pretty sure she won’t get a majority in parliament. So what will she do? People will vote for her, and then we’ll have this woman in the presidential palace who will oversee French foreign and defense policy with some powers. But the prime minister, who will be appointed by her, will also have a lot of powers and will be able to run France. So that’s a little bit complicated for the U.S. administration. It would have to deal with two people.

And then there’s Mélenchon. I have no idea really. Mélenchon may have no interest in talking to the United States. He also wants France to leave NATO.

The various scenarios are quite different, and for the United States, I’m sure there are two candidates who are acceptable, but two who are quite unpredictable. Although, like I said, there’s this theory that Le Pen and Trump would get on well.


The Author is Philippe Le Corre

Philippe Le Corre is a visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. His research focuses on France and the future of Europe, as well as China's foreign policy. His is also a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Science and a senior adviser to Sciences Po Executive Education. He has written multiple books and contributed to a number of publications, and he writes a column for one of France's top daily newspapers, Ouest... Read More

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