When I arrived in France a week ago, many Americans were asking whether this election was going to be the French Brexit, and Marine Le Pen the French Trump. Given the strength of Emmanuel Macron’s lead in the polls, I thought this was the wrong question. France, in fact, already had a Brexit-sized political earthquake, when neither of the two mainstream parties of left and right made it into the second round.
The center-right Republican Party currently seems to be flailing around, trying to decide where it goes next. It is nonetheless in better shape than the left’s Socialist Party, whose devotees are currently standing around its sickbed, speaking in hushed tones. Jean-Luc Mélenchon pinched many Socialist voters, particularly lower-income and unemployed urban dwellers, with his “France Insoumise” (France unbowed) platform; Macron won over the prosperous by coming out full-bore for Europe, globalization, economic reform, and immigration. Even Le Pen got a few in the second round, mostly those who identify as “far left.” One hates to prematurely report a death, of course, but it’s certainly hard to see how the Socialists manage to recover from their humiliating single-digit performance in the first round of this election.
With both major parties in disarray, the question naturally arises: If Emmanuel Macron’s brand of ardent globalization becomes the focal ideology for one side of the political spectrum, what will constitute the natural opposition?
Electoral systems can be roughly divided into two sorts: those that tend to produce bipolar results, and those that tend to be run by coalitions of varying degrees of stability. Single-member districts with a first-past-the-post system (where the person with the highest votes takes the office), tend to produce two strong parties. Proportional representation systems tend to be more favorable to small parties, at the cost of somewhat weaker heads of government.
America, of course, is a bipolar system. And so, sort of, is France. They don’t have two centuries-old political parties. But control of the government has tended to alternate between the mainstream parties of right and left, though the identity of those parties has altered somewhat since Charles De Gaulle ushered in the Fifth Republic. The runoff system narrows down the field of candidates, forcing voters to choose between more popular options — and the parties have tended to help this process along through strategic withdrawals from the second round. Too, the structure of the system gives both voters and politicians incentives to hand the head of state majorities in the legislature.
Bipolar systems often divide along the great fault lines in their societies: capital and labor, urban and rural, taxpayers vs. net beneficiaries of government programs. In recent decades, those fault lines have mostly been over the size of government, both its spending and its regulation. But the past year has brought forward a divide that doesn’t quite map onto those well-trodden paths: between those who embrace globalization, and benefit from it, and those who want less immigration, less free trade, a return to the economic and social order of what was, for them, a happier past.
Macron is the distilled essence of one side of this debate: a Rothschild banker, the graduate of an elite school, an unapologetic extoller of social liberalism and an open economy. If his brand of technocratic globalism is one pillar of a new French political divide, then that implies that the other side of the political spectrum will shape itself in opposition to him: less friendly towards the European Union and free trade more generally; less interested in dismantling France’s somewhat overbearing labor market rules; less friendly to immigrants from distant places and cultures.
That sounds a lot like “Marine Le Pen,” and indeed, I have heard mainstream conservatives worrying about just that. But that’s not the only possibility; given how toxic her party’s name seems to be, it is not even necessarily the most likely one.
To take an American parallel, look at the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The winning electoral formula for Democrats turned out not to be “The opposite of everything Reagan says,” but Bill Clinton, a sort of “kinder, gentler Reagan,” one who criticized Sister Souljah for making inflammatory racial remarks, and spoke about making abortion “safe, legal, and rare”; who used tax cuts instead of subsidies to help selected constituencies; who pushed for a national health care system, but ended up signing a historic welfare reform (even if under electoral pressure to do so). It’s possible that French politics could evolve similarly.
And yet, it’s also possible that it won’t. Right now French politics doesn’t have two poles; according to political scientist Arun Kapil, it has five: the far left, the small and hardy band of loyal Socialists, En Marche!, the Republicans, and the National Front. And one possibility is that these poles winnow somewhat, but never come back to the old intra-right and intra-left alliances that stabilized French politics into something approaching a two-party system. Mélenchon is a true believer who so far seems unwilling to make strategic alliances, and the National Front is similarly uncooperative, even if other parties wanted to cooperate with them, which they don’t. If those blocs hold onto enough voters to tip an election, but never quite enough to win one, future French elections may get kind of wild.
It’s too early to tell yet which of these possible futures will hold. But we may start to get some guess in June’s legislative elections. How well En Marche! does will provide clues to just how big a shift Macron has actually achieved in French politics. How well the Republicans do will give us some sign of whether they can get their mojo back. And the performance of the far left and the far right will indicate whether France is on its way to establishing a “new normal” not that much different from the old — or striking out for uncharted territory, where there may well be some dragons lurking.