France’s unpredictable election: the consequences for the EU
Among the various elections taking place in EU member states in 2017, the French presidential election, taking place on 23 April (1st round) and 7 May (2nd round), is so far the one posing the greatest threat to EU’s future. What may we expect from this French presidential election and which policy with regard to the EU could France follow in the years to come, depending on the election results?
The Dutch elections in March provided a sigh of relief with the lower than expected score for the Freedom Party (PVV) led by the radical-right leader Geert Wilders. There is a good chance the German federal elections in September will provide continuity; furthermore, the Czech legislative elections will carry less risks and consequences for the EU, and the potential Italian headache has not been announced yet. But European partners are holding their breath with the French vote.
The closer we went to the first round, the less predictable became the result. Even if some safeguards should limit the risks related to the potential election of an extremist and Eurosceptic President, the current situation nevertheless underlines the French disarray and the deep divisions within the French society. France’s relationship with the world and the French EU policy are at the heart of the questioning.
A wind of change
The French political spectrum is in great flux and the result of the upcoming elections almost impossible to predict.[i] The French Right and Left primaries that took place at the end of 2016 and early 2017 respectively both signalled a desire for change at the level of political leadership. Former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and Alain Juppé lost the vote, former President Nicolas Sarkozy failed to reach the second round, and incumbent President François Hollande decided not to seek re-election in view of his unpopularity.
The French Right primary used to be regarded as an early presidential election since its winner was considered having the best chances to be France’s next President. But since January François Fillon has been facing several allegations concerning fraud and conflict of interest, and he spent most of the campaign tangled in these affairs. Fillon nevertheless managed to keep a solid basis of faithful supporters allowing him to stay in the race and despite several defections the internal party disagreements did not lead to the emergence of a replacement candidacy.
Francois Fillon still manages to keep a solid basis of supporters despite several allegations. Source: European People's Party.
The winner of the French Left Primary, Benoît Hamon, struggled as well to secure support inside his own party. Several socialist leaders – including former Prime Minister Valls – decided to endorse Macron for being closer to their convictions and having better chances than Hamon. In addition, Hamon’s campaign strategy, focused on resurrecting the wide Left alliance that had governed the country from 1997 to 2002, has backfired. Hamon got the support of the Green party but failed to convince the Leftist party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
The latter is known for his oratory skills and ability to draw large crowds, and progressively attracted most of potential Hamon voters. In the final weeks of the campaign he enjoyed a more or less similar rise in the polls than during his candidacy in 2012. At this previous election, he actually ended several points below his predicted score due to a volatile electorate and a tactile voting in favour of Hollande who was seen as the best placed to defeat Sarkozy. But the 2017 election is wide open and the weakness of the socialist candidate prevents such moves.
An unpredictable final race with four candidates
On the eve of the first round of the presidential election, four candidates are polling around 20 percent – all within the margins of error: Marine Le Pen (Front National), Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!), François Fillon (Les Républicains), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France insoumise). The last weeks of the campaign have shown an erosion of the frontrunners Le Pen and Macron, a strong resilience of the former favourite Fillon and a sudden rise of Mélenchon.
The convergence of four curbs in the last weeks of the campaign has led to an unprecedented situation in which four candidates defending radically different positions are able to reach the second round face off.
Between one third and one quarter of the the electorate might abstain from voting
In addition to these very close scores, the still high level of undecided voters may lead to significant changes on the day of the vote. According to opinion polls[ii] around one third of voters who are sure they will cast a ballot could one week before the first round still change their mind on who to vote for.
As a matter of consequence, the turnout issue will play a determining role. This factor weighs as well into the balance of unpredictability. According to the same polls, between one third and one quarter of the electorate might abstain. If this proves to be true, the turnout could be at a similar low level than the one reached in 2002 when the extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly managed to qualify for the second round.
Fifteen years later, it would rather be the non-qualification of his daughter that would be surprising. Since mid-2013, Marine Le Pen has indeed constantly polled first or second, making it likely she will in turn reach the presidential election’s second round. But her chances to then win this face-to-face are very limited.[iii] Over the last years, she has invested a lot of effort in boosting the respectability of her party, but the ‘cordon sanitaire’ – the mainstream’s decision to unite against an extremist candidate – could prevent her from becoming President, provided it holds in spite of its increasing fragility. The same type of anti-extremist reaction applies to Mélenchon, although to a lesser extent in view of his previous belonging to the socialist party and former responsibilities as Minister.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon has formulated his own anti-extremist reactions. Source: Flickr / GUE-NGL Follow.
In the current context of high uncertainty and popularity of the two extremist leaders, the hypothesis of a second round in which the far-right and far-left candidate face each other, can no longer be excluded. The election of an extremist, populist and Eurosceptic leader at the top office in France would deeply question France’s EU commitment and might very well put the EU on hold for some years. Although this risk exists, this scenario is not the most likely one and several safeguards would in any case make “Frexit” plans (a French decision to leave the EU) very difficult. The very existence of this hypothesis is nevertheless a telling factor of the current crises affecting France.
France and its crises
The electoral campaign has been dominated by a negative tone and marked by the fraud cases involving two main candidates (Fillon and Le Pen). The mood of the French population is accordingly dominated by negative feelings (67%) with disappointment and disgust being the most used words to describe the electoral campaign (29% and 25% respectively).[iv] This campaign will further increase the already deep gap between French elites and citizens, and the defiance towards political parties.
The two primaries were a first sign of ‘rebellion’ of French voters, not only because of the ousting of the favourites and former main figures, but also due to the fact that the two winners, Hamon and Fillon, were to some extent ‘outsiders’ given that their surprise victory in the primaries relied on the support of only a handful of elected officials and leading figures from their parties. This political crisis might continue if neither of these two official candidates of the traditionally main governing parties (Parti socialiste and Les Républicains)[v] is able to qualify for the second round.
The traditional parties in France find themselves in deep crisis. The continuous decline of the two main parties (socialist party – PS, and conservative party – UMP/LR) is remarkable, as is the growing appeal of the Front national (FN), but even more striking is the comparably high level of people declaring having “no partisan preference”.
Despite a high number of candidates for the 2017 presidential election, i.e. 11, many French citizens do not agree with any of them and will make their choice by default or according to a “vote against” one or the other of the candidates. This phenomenon obviously fuels the voters’ uncertainty which might even lead to their abstention from voting.
If neither of the two candidates supported by the socialist and conservative parties manages to reach the second round, French politics will enter uncharted territories
One of the direct consequences of the decline of traditional and well-established parties is the difficulties the next President might have to achieve a majority in the National Assembly at the elections taking place one month after the presidential election. The one facing the least difficulties in this respect might be Fillon, thanks to the local electoral establishment of his political party. The others would have to hope that their victory in the presidential elections will give a sufficiently strong impetus to the candidates of their parties in the legislative elections, in order to urge voters to elect them. Contrary to the presidential elections, local ties and constituency presence play an important role in the legislative contest.
To date, legislative elections have always favoured traditional mainstream parties who can generally count on well-known, established candidates. In 2012, although Le Pen secured 17.9% of the vote in the presidential race, candidates supported by her in the legislative elections scored around 4% points less. In the end, due to the first-past-the-post electoral system and as a result of the ‘cordon sanitaire’ only two FN members were elected to the National Assembly.
A not unlikely scenario
The French political system is designed to boost the winner’s results in order to help the formation of clear majorities and preclude the risk of instability that characterised the previous French Republic. So far, the two traditional governing parties have been able to score on average 10% points more in the legislative elections as compared to the presidential one. But if neither of the two presidential candidates supported by the socialist and conservative parties manages to reach the second round, French politics will enter uncharted territories.
Such a scenario cannot be ruled out. The outcome of the legislative elections is supposed to mirror the results of the presidential contest, and to provide a governing majority to the newly-elected President.[vi] The semi-presidential system, inspired by De Gaulle, is meant to give the main leadership role to the President but simultaneously to place him/her under parliament’s control. What will happen if the President is not supported by a majority of representatives in the National Assembly?
Elections for the National Assembly have always favoured traditional mainstream parties who can generally count on well-known, established candidates
The ‘cohabitation scenario’, i.e. a configuration where the President does not enjoy the backing of a majority of members in the National Assembly and where he has to nominate a Prime Minister in agreement with parliament – has already occurred three times since 1958,[vii] but never at the beginning of a mandate. If this were to happen with a brand-new President, it could throw the regime into crisis due to the likely conflicting relationship between the President and Prime Minister, but also on account of the difficulties the President would face to implement the programme that got him/her elected. The vote for parliament will determine the ability of the freshly-elected President to govern the country and the composition of the majority could affect his/her policy preferences in one way or another. This majority is likely to moderate positions that so far strongly differentiate the presidential candidates, especially on EU-related issues.
A potential crossroad for French EU policy
Depending on the results, France could start advocating radically different options for the EU and its policies.
The two extremist candidates, Le Pen and Mélenchon, are both advocating a radical path based on a full renegotiation of the treaties, followed by a referendum on EU membership. Should one of them manage to be elected President, they will nevertheless have to overcome several hurdles before being able to fulfil these campaign promises. They would first have to get a majority in the legislative elections, then win the promised referendum on France’s EU membership (but so far, all surveys indicate that the French do not want to exit the EU and abandon the euro), and in case they nevertheless manage to pass all these obstacles, they would then have to negotiate the ‘Frexit’ (which would be much more complicated than the Brexit negotiations given the fact that France takes part in all EU policies).
Marine Le Pen is advocating a radical path based on a full renegotiation of treaties. Source: Flickr / European Parliament.
The EU did become a subject during the presidential campaign but foremost in a negative and critical way. Nine of the 11 candidates voted against the Maastricht treaty or the Constitutional treaty. Fillon voted against the Maastricht treaty and is inspired by De Gaulle’s vision of the European integration project, based on the idea of building the EU with full respect for France’s sovereignty and the French nation. The socialists are more open to supranational solutions but many voices inside the party – including Hamon – are very critical of the way the EU has developed and the economic policies it has adopted. In 2005, Hamon campaigned against the Constitutional treaty, as well as Mélenchon, who at that time was still a member of the socialist party. Mélenchon afterwards decided to leave the party and build a new party composed of former opponents to the Constitutional treaty.
Contrary to the others (but also to set himself apart from them), Macron during his campaign made the case for a more ambitious Europe and the European flag was waved in his meetings.
France’s attitude towards migrants will be different and dependent on who is elected President. The right-wing candidates, Fillon and Le Pen, both oppose the arrival of new refugees. Le Pen goes so far as to call for France to leave Schengen and to re-establish national borders while Fillon calls first for further reform of the Schengen system but does not rule out the possibility of re-establishing controls at national borders if external borders are not well protected.
In contrast, Macron, Hamon and Mélenchon have a much more open attitude towards migrants. During the Left primary, the socialist candidate took the view that France should have welcomed more refugees in order to live up to its values. Macron has also criticised France’s attitude during the refugee crisis and praised Angela Merkel’s open-door policy which “saved our collective dignity”.[viii] Despite the fact that Macron’s campaign is based on overcoming the left-right divide, he can be portrayed as socially progressive and liberal-minded on economic issues. He thus considers that welcoming refugees is a moral duty but also thinks that migrants are good for the economy.
Mélenchon’s positions on the migration/refugee issue have been quite surprising during this campaign as he decided to partly deviate from the traditional welcoming attitude of the far-left by calling to address the root causes of migrations.
On economic issues too, the left and right do not see eye to eye. Left-wing candidates demand more public spending and a regulated market, whereas right-wing candidates plead for budgetary discipline and a free market. The FN is nevertheless difficult to place because its economic programme is based on protectionism and national solutions but adds to the mix proposals that lean leftward (retirement at 60 with 40 years of contributions, 35-hour working week) as well as rightward (lower social contributions for small and medium-sized enterprises, corporate tax reduction). Such a “catch-all” manifesto is considered by most economists as unsustainable.[ix] Moreover, if Le Pen were to be elected, she promised to take France out of the Eurozone and reinstate a national currency, with potentially dramatic consequences for France and the EU. Several parallels exist with the economic programme of Mélenchon which also plans a very high level of spending (100 billion euro investment and 173 billion euro of public expenditures), wants to withdraw from the Stability and Growth Pact and end the independence of the European Central Bank.
As President, Macron would be expected to follow an economic path similar to the one he participated in to implement during Hollande’s presidency but he would probably endorse more liberal measures. On Europe, Macron wants more Eurozone integration and closer cooperation with Germany, while acknowledging that France first needs to become a credible partner through reforms and then request more investments from Germany. He would also commit France to respect the EU treaties and the 3% public deficit rule – a promise also made by Fillon.
Emmanuel Macron wants more Eurozone integration and a closer cooperation with Germany. Source: Flickr / European External Action Service.
In contrast, the socialist Hamon plans to request a moratorium on the 3% rule and even suggested France could ask for a renegotiation of its public debt.[x] If there is an issue on which the non-extremist French parties converge, it is the need to strengthen the Eurozone and further integrate economic and monetary policy. The presidential candidates however vary in the way they would go about achieving that. According to Fillon, for example, Euro member states would be in charge of this enhanced structure.
Also on trade policy Fillon belongs to a rather conservative and protectionist camp, emphasising the necessity to adopt new rules based on the principle of strict reciprocity and considering the negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) should be stopped and the safeguard clauses in the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) immediately activated, if necessary.
The French mistrust towards globalization and the current strong French protectionist tendencies led to the situation that almost all candidates oppose free-trade agreements such as the TTIP and the CETA. Consequently, the next French President is likely to adopt a much more protectionist policy on trade. The only exception would be if Macron is elected but his leeway could then be limited by the legislative majority.
On the sensitive topic of defence, many divergences and nuances exist. All main candidates have announced an increase in the defence budget but have expressed rather different ideas about how to spend it. Le Pen and Mélenchon want to exit NATO’s integrated command and focus on national defence. Even among those backing a common European defence, the tendency is to embrace a cautious approach, consisting of pooling military and industrial resources, creating a European fund to support interventions and requesting more efforts from Germany. Fillon has clearly rejected the idea of an integrated European defence and indicated he supported an ‘Alliance’ of European Defence based on structured and enhanced cooperation. Macron, in contrast, advocates a common European Defence and is in favour of the creation of a European Defence Fund to support investment.
The degree of openness of the country has emerged as the core issue in the French presidential elections. A victory for Le Pen or Mélenchon would isolate France with potential dramatic consequences for the country and the European Union. Macron, on the other hand, rejects inward-looking attitudes and would follow an opposite strategy on the European and international stage. These two completely opposite attitudes might however be balanced by the results of the June legislative elections. Among the candidates in position to win the presidential election Fillon certainly has the best chances to get a majority in the assembly to support his programme, but his capacity to preside would probably be overshadowed by the allegations he is facing and the crisis of confidence is difficult to overcome.
Despite the fears around the French presidential election, the immediate political risks should be limited but more fundamental crises affecting France (economic crisis, moral and confidence crisis, social crisis, regime crisis) are likely to remain and will have to be addressed seriously.
Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels.
[i] This article is an updated and substantially revised version of Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, ‘The upcoming French elections: the country’s openness at stake’, published in: J. Emmanouilidis, F. Fabbri et al., ‘The 2017 elections across Europe: facts, expectations and consequences’, Discussion paper, European Policy Centre, 2017, pp. 10-13.
[ii] See e.g.: Ipsos (12-13 April), BVA (12-14 April) http://www.youscribe.com/BookReader/Index/2825592?documentId=3057443, or Ifop (11-14 April) (last accessed 16/04/2017).
[iii] For some calculations on how she could nevertheless win, see e.g.: Michael Stothard, ‘Divisions in anti-Le Pen front open a narrow path to victory’, Financial Times, 10 March 2017, found at: (last accessed 16/04/2017).
[v] All presidents of the French Fifth Republic – except Valéry Giscard d’Estaing between 1974 and 1981 – belonged either to the French conservative party or the Socialist Party.
[vi] Legislative elections always take place the month after a new President is elected. If there have been new elections during the previous presidential mandate, then the National Assembly is dissolved in order to elect a new assembly.
[vii] It happened during each of the two mandates of François Mitterrand (from 1986 to 1988, with Jacques Chirac as Prime Minister, and from 1993 to 1995, with Edouard Balladur), as well as during the first mandate of Jacques Chirac (from 1997 to 2002, with Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister).
[ix] Gilles Ivaldi, ‘L’économie populiste “attrape-tout” de Marine Le Pen’, Le Monde, 17 February 2017.