French presidential elections are a useful barometer for understanding France’s domestic position. Historically, France turns inward in moments of crisis, and after a period of chaos emerges unified and stronger. France is currently at the beginning of an inward turn. The country’s strategic position is weak, its economy is stagnant, and its society is divided. The surge of support for the National Front is a symptom of that division and not a cause of instability. National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen does not have to win the election to affect French politics; she already has. But her chances are also better than most give her credit for. Her performance in the election will provide a glimpse into how France will attempt to face its demons.
- France has become the third most powerful country in Europe, but it is weaker than Germany.
- France’s economy is in stagnation, and this has created domestic backlash.
- Le Pen’s National Front is trying to capture the Brexit/Donald Trump magic and is succeeding in assembling a unique coalition of voters whom the establishment has failed.
- The old question of what it means to be French is once again relevant.
- The country has become introspective but will emerge from this phase more powerful and assertive in Europe.
Presidential elections in France are fast approaching. The first round of voting happens on April 23, and the top two contenders will then face off in a runoff on May 7. Most of the world is obsessed with how well Le Pen and the National Front will perform, either because they despise or admire her. There is also a healthy level of interest in various scandals bedeviling other top candidates.
It is important to begin with two caveats. First, elections cannot be predicted with high confidence. Anyone who claims otherwise may as well be trying to convince you that they have, at long last, discovered the secret to transmuting lead into gold. Second, election results are signposts and not inflection points. They tell you where you are, but they don’t change the direction you’re heading toward. Elections rarely alter a country’s geopolitical constraints and imperatives. New executives enter office with high ambitions and soaring rhetoric, and they quickly find that they have entered a crucible of impossible demands and limited room to maneuver.
A National Front presidential campaign worker sells items during an event on March 15, 2017 in Saint-Raphael, southern France. BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images
However, sometimes they can help us examine how a forecast is going to develop and, in the short term, how a country will behave because of the pressures or opportunities it is facing. Viewed this way, examining what is at stake in France’s elections is very useful. It gives a window into France’s difficult and weakening strategic position, in a context where Europe-wide reordering of relationships is taking place. It also demonstrates that France is at an internal crossroads once more. A familiar question, which has at various moments dominated political discourse in France since 1789, has been reinvigorated: What does it mean to be French?
Historically, at moments of geopolitical challenge, France has turned inward to answer that question and has emerged as more united and relevant on the world stage. However, in the past, these moments of domestic instability were in large measure the result of growth or military defeat. Today, it is the result of stagnation. Even so, France is at a pivotal moment in its history. France’s days as a global power are over, but the country is still a regional power. France’s inward focus does not mean it is about to collapse. It means France can no longer hide from its strategic and economic problems. That, in turn, means a more unified France will eventually emerge to combat these problems.
A Weakening Strategic Position
France has a rich history of leaders who understood geopolitics and acted accordingly, including Cardinal Richelieu, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle. All would view France’s current strategic position in Europe and the world with some trepidation. France’s primary concerns must always be its relationship with Germany. Since 1945, France and Germany have been joined at the hip in most military and economic affairs. For much of this time, France was the more powerful of the two. Today, however, France and Germany are drifting apart, and Germany is far more powerful economically. The only thing holding back Germany from becoming superior militarily is its own unwillingness to invest in defense spending. France cannot base its national strategy on German whims.
Geopolitical Futures has written much in recent weeks arguing that NATO’s current struggles are partly due to the absence of a common enemy that once united the alliance. The Soviet Union fell in 1991, and the mission was accomplished. The question now is whether NATO can develop a new common mission or will become another international bureaucracy. From a strategic point of view, the European Union faces much the same question. France helped create the seed that eventually became the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, in 1951. Its twofold purpose was to unite Western Europe against the Soviet Union and prevent war between France and Germany. In 1957, the European Economic Community took its place.
France did not engage in these deals without concern for the potential loss of French sovereignty. De Gaulle, elected first president of the Fifth Republic in 1958, pursued a strategy of maximizing France’s foreign policy independence. To this end, de Gaulle insisted on preventing these institutions from drastically weakening French sovereignty over economic matters. He also insisted on the development of a French nuclear arsenal. De Gaulle knew France could not aspire to be as powerful as the U.S. or Soviet Union. So maximizing French power became tied to developing a European force of some weight that could balance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, with France at the helm. As Stanley Hoffmann once wrote of de Gaulle, “The nationalist of German dismemberment of 1945 became the solemn celebrant of Franco-German reconciliation and collaboration.”
The EU’s fragmentation means the fragmentation of the cage that France had hoped to use to constrain Germany from repeating history. In some sense, the cage still holds. The German economy is dependent on exports, and while Germany has stayed off economic crisis by boosting exports to China and the U.S., the EU market is still by far the most important destination for German goods. Germany needs the EU, but whether the EU still needs Germany is less clear. Greece has been on the verge of leaving the EU for years, and another round of melodrama is gearing up. More significantly, Italy’s EU position also is becoming uncertain, and the EU would not survive an Italian exit. France and Eastern European countries like Poland openly ignore EU directives – France on budget deficits, Poland on migrants.
France is still a significant world power. It has the sixth largest economy in the world in terms of GDP and a highly capable military force. Still, the gap between France and the United States is extremely large. France is not even the most powerful country in Europe. But the main issue for France is that it has become the junior figure in its strategic partnership with Germany. According to the latest World Bank figures from 2015, Germany’s GDP is over 25 percent larger than France’s. Even if the economic crisis GPF forecasts for Germany comes to fruition, Germany will still have a significantly larger economy than France. Germany also has roughly 15 million more people than France. Berlin is able to wield more influence in the EU. When negotiations between Brussels and Greece stall over austerity requirements, everyone knows that the austerity directives are being issued from Berlin, not Paris.
France also must contend with the threat posed by radical Islamists, who have made France one of their prime targets. France does not have the military force necessary to stop the conflicts raging in the Middle East, which help inspire such attacks. For all of France’s military power, it is dependent on the United States to deal with terrorism and other problems. At the strategic level, France is in a precarious situation. France has become dependent on relationships more than relationships are dependent on France. And the current balance is unstable because the role Germany means to play as the first among equals in Europe is ambiguous at best, especially with Germany preoccupied with domestic political and economic concerns.
France’s Stalled Economy
Another layer of French weakness exists beneath the international level. This weakness is the French economy. Unemployment in France is close to its highest level in 35 years. The most recent data from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) showed that as of the third quarter in 2016, the country’s unemployment rate was 10 percent. Just under half of those unemployed have been out of work and looking for new jobs for over a year. By far the highest unemployment rates – more than 25 percent – are among people under 24. By comparison, the Federal Statistical Office in Germany reported that the unemployment rate in January 2017 was at its lowest since 1980, at 3.8 percent.
Furthermore, unemployment is worse in two geographic areas: the south and the northeast. This is the norm in southern France, which shares high unemployment rates and other similarities with other southern European countries. But the rise of unemployment in the northeast is telling because it was one of the main centers of French industrial production. France still gets about 30 percent of its GDP from exports, but the value of French exports has declined for three consecutive years. This is in danger of becoming an old story, but it is no less true: Many of the voters for parties and candidates that were once thought to be outside the mainstream, such as Le Pen and the National Front, are disgruntled, working-class people who have seen their jobs disappear or their potential for advancement dry up. From the perspective of some of the northeastern French regions, this is all happening as Germany enjoys relative prosperity within view across the border.
The deeper problem for the French economy, however, is not unemployment. Unemployment is just a symptom of stagnant GDP growth. The last figures available from 2016 showed that the French economy grew by 0.2 percent in the third quarter, after shrinking by 0.1 percent in the second quarter. Net foreign trade has been one of the main factors keeping French GDP growth down, though structural issues in the French economy also preclude major changes that could address the problem. This is another point at which the gap between German and French interests is widening. France wants an expansionary budget policy, while Germany remains committed to austerity. France has thus far ignored EU budget deficit rules and will continue to do so, but its spending has so far not been enough to make a significant difference in stimulating economic growth. As long as the French economy remains mired in malaise, France will remain internally divided and externally weak.
The 2017 Election
With this preamble, it is now possible to dive into analysis of the current election cycle, the star of which is Marine Le Pen. The consensus these days around the French election is that Le Pen will win the most votes in the first round, but whomever she faces in the runoff will soundly defeat her. But the consensus also was that Brexit was never going to happen and Donald Trump had no chance at becoming president. Keeping in mind that it is impossible to predict elections, and that polls around major votes have been wrong more than they have been right in the past year, a fair amount of caution in attempting to declare a winner is prudent. Moreover, determining whether Le Pen will win is not as important as examining the coalition of voters developing around both her personality and her chastened version of the National Front.
Reading the Tea Leaves of the Polls
The latest poll released by Ipsos for research firm CEVIPOF and French daily Le Monde suggests Le Pen is in a better position than most currently give her credit for. Le Pen has remained in first position for round one of voting at roughly 27 percent. Beneath her, the challengers are trading support back and forth. Conservative candidate François Fillon has been beset by a scandal in which he reportedly paid his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros to fill fake jobs that did not involve them performing any duties. He currently polls at 19.5 percent, though that figure does not account for the preliminary charges filed against him on March 14 related to the embezzlement scandal. Emmanuel Macron, who was the minister of economy for two years under President François Hollande, is currently in second place, polling at 23 percent, though his support has taken a slight dip in recent weeks. Macron is also seen as an outsider, having left the Hollande government to start his own party. Macron is pro-EU and a self-described progressive, and what he lacks in experience, he makes up by being thought of as an unorthodox candidate without ties to the current establishment’s failures.
The first thing to note is that the two favorites for the first round of voting are anti-establishment candidates – Le Pen and Macron. Furthermore, Le Pen is more certain to advance to the second round than Macron is at this point. Their policies don’t matter as much as their distance from the current establishment, which is seen as having failed. The second thing to note is that, at least according to the polls, a large number of French voters have not yet made up their minds. In early March, only 53 percent of voters said they were sure who they were going to vote for. Of all the candidates, Le Pen has the most commitment among her supporters. Seventy-six percent of her supporters say they will definitely vote for her. Sixty-two percent of Fillon’s supporters are committed to voting for him, and only 42 percent of Macron’s supporters are certain they will cast a ballot for him. But there is a ways to go before the finish line.
Polls are questionable sources of evidence these days, but taking them with a grain of salt does not mean they should be ignored completely. Digging deeper into the polling data reveals two more important observations. The first has to do with the second round of voting. Ipsos conducted polls for a potential Le Pen-Macron race and a potential Fillon-Le Pen race. According to these results, Macron is a clear favorite in a runoff with Le Pen, by a margin of 62 to 38 percent. Furthermore, in the second round of voting, 77 percent of Macron’s supporters are sure they will vote for him, while 79 percent of Le Pen’s supporters are committed to voting for her. That still leaves a sizable pool of people who could swing in the other direction, but much less than in the first round of voting.
Fillon’s margin against Le Pen is much smaller – 55 percent to 45 percent. (It is worth pointing out that some of the most trusted Brexit polls showed a similar breakdown in favor of the “remain” campaign.) Here too, there is a high degree of confidence in each candidate among their supporters – 79 percent for Fillon and 80 percent for Le Pen.
On the surface, these numbers do not make intuitive sense. Macron is running a campaign diametrically opposed to Le Pen’s. One would expect that if Le Pen was the only candidate representing the right in the second round, most conservative voters would cast a ballot for her, and not for the upstart Macron. Meanwhile, the Fillon-Le Pen poll is much closer than might be expected – Fillon presumably could steal some votes from Le Pen and would have the support of many on the left for whom Le Pen is considered beyond the pale. Therefore, these results indicate that either Fillon’s star has fallen quite far, Le Pen is even less popular than people believe or the polling methodology is flawed.
A Coalition of Dissatisfied Voters
This is what the polls say, but to understand the emerging coalition of voters that is dissatisfied with the status quo and attracted to Le Pen and the National Front, it is useful to examine the results of 2015 French regional elections. Two key statistics, one expected and one unexpected, should be kept in mind when analyzing this data. In the first round, 43 percent of voters described as “workers” voted for the National Front, 11 percent higher than any other party. This makes sense and is in line with results from the 2012 presidential election. The map below shows that the National Front’s highest level of support in 2012 was in areas where unemployment is highest and workers have the most to lose. The level of support for the National Front in southern France is to be expected, but what should pop out of the graphic is the party’s strong support in the northeast in 2012, which will at least stay the same and may even increase slightly in the upcoming election.
The 2015 results also reveal that, unlike in Britain and the United States, the nationalist movement represented by Le Pen’s National Front is attracting a large percent of young voters. This is partly due to apathy among voters aged 18-24; according to Ipsos only 35 percent of people 18-24 voted in 2015. But of those who voted, 35 percent backed the National Front, which was higher than the total for any other party, and higher than the average for any other age group. The reason both young voters and working-class voters are drawn to the National Front is that those are the two segments of French society most affected by France’s stagnant growth and economic malaise. Young people don’t have jobs, and the working class are losing their jobs. Moreover, the chorus of opposition against the National Front has focused on painting Le Pen as a disaster, rather than offering solutions to France’s problems.
The reality is that even if Le Pen loses, it plays into her hands, because the winning candidate will not have a strong mandate to make structural changes to the French economy, and the National Front will have even more ammunition in the next election cycle to play the role of outsider and anti-establishment party, increasing its odds of success. It should also be noted that the National Front has not shifted political discourse to the right, as Brexit and Trump did in Britain and the United States. The National Front under Le Pen’s leadership has become more moderate and has attempted to dispose of some of its more unsavory positions in order to tack closer to the center and appeal to new voters. If the current polling numbers hold, it will not be enough to vault Le Pen into the presidency, but the normalization of the National Front in French politics is already well underway, and unless Le Pen unexpectedly flames out in the first round of voting, her party will not disappear. The issues it is speaking to will remain. No easy solutions exist for the problems National Front voters face, and its constituents believe that the National Front is the only party listening.
A victory for Le Pen is unlikely this year, but it also is eminently possible. Either way, the National Front is not going anywhere. The pressure is on the French establishment to find solutions to France’s internal and external problems in such a way that makes French citizens feel that they do not need to turn to figures like Le Pen and Macron to be heard.
What Does It Mean to be French?
Lurking behind all of this is an old question: What does it mean to be French? This question always surfaces when France is under pressure both abroad and economically at home. The immediate cause of the French Revolution was a financial crisis precipitated by the monarchy being unable to pay its debts and a period of exceptionally poor harvests. The French borrowed to pay for war, then borrowed to pay the debt it had incurred, and eventually the Crown attempted to raise funds by taxing the clergy and the aristocracy. Historians have sorted through the other intervening steps at great length, but for the purpose of this piece it is important to understand that the aristocracy’s revolt led to a larger revolution that eventually resulted in the birth of the French nation, the rise of Napoleon, and war.
In this sense, the French Revolution was not unique in French history. In the 1870s, the loss of the Franco-Prussian War and the attendant costs created a nationalist backlash most famously embodied by the Dreyfus Affair but also by xenophobia against Italian and Belgian immigrants. In the 1970s, the Algerian War and the realization that France’s economy had become dependent on the European Economic Community gave rise to the National Front. The country had ceded some economic independence despite de Gaulle’s attempts to maximize French independence and power. This is what makes the current situation different than the early 1990s. It is accompanied by serious economic malaise and a degradation of France’s power in Europe.
In a 1992 referendum, only 51 percent of French voters supported the Maastricht Treaty, which formally led to the creation of the European Union and paved the way for the adoption of a common currency. At the time, however, France’s position on the Continent was strong. The Soviet Union had recently fallen, and Germany faced the hard task of integrating East Germany into its economy. France’s position was strengthened with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the country maintained a high degree of influence in Europe and in its relationship with Germany. The National Front was around in 1992 and played a role in the political discourse at the time, but the party’s first leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, never stood a serious chance of ascending to the presidency. A unified front emerged against Le Pen, presenting him as beyond the pale. This view was confirmed in 2002 when Jacques Chirac trounced Le Pen by a record margin in the second round.
It is tempting to say that the current debate over what it means to be French is simply a return of the same question that already ran its course in French politics. Inherent within this question is a fundamental tension within French nationalism that is unique to France. To do this concept justice would require more space than this Deep Dive allows, but a crude simplification still makes the point. One aspect of French nationalism is that it views itself as a universal program. This is best embodied by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This nationalism views French ideas about “liberté, égalité, fraternité” as equally important to what it means to be French as speaking French and living on French soil. In this sense, anyone who adopts these principles can be French, and anyone who becomes a French citizen is the heir to these principles.
This was the birth of French nationalism. It was based on the idea that the nation was of paramount importance and was defined by class and a set of ideas (which were themselves debated) about how society ought to be structured. But ideas were not enough to hold the people together. All of the various factions in the French Revolution believed they were unifying the nation, but each faction had to exclude certain groups from the nation in order to define the whole. This exclusion is the second fundamental aspect of French nationalism. Originally, the excluded group was the privileged classes – the Third Estate (people outside of the clergy and nobility) deemed itself “the nation” and decided that others should not be considered part of the nation. In various contexts, this has morphed far beyond the original exclusion of the aristocracy and has been used to exclude immigrants to France, who were rejected or scrutinized because they were seen as incapable of accepting the political and cultural dimensions of what it is to be French. At times, this has been expressed in a connection between the French and the land itself or, in terms more often used by the National Front, on the basis of the French family.
Currently, the major issue confronting French nationalism is the status of not just Muslim immigrants but Muslims living in France in general. The question that the National Front is posing is whether Muslims can truly be assimilated as full members of the French state. This tension is at the very heart of France’s political project. France has the largest Muslim population in terms of percentage in Western Europe. A Pew Research Center survey from 2010 estimated that 7.5 percent of France – approximately 4.7 million people – was Muslim. (Analysis of INSEE numbers on immigrants into France suggests that number may be significantly lower than the reality.) The reason one must go to Pew for this data is that France does not report it on principle. All French citizens are French, and therefore France does not deem it within the spirit of the French nation-state to report data based on ethnicity or religion because it is irrelevant. This sums up France’s internal contradiction: a concern that Muslims will not fully integrate, but a categorical refusal to count Muslim citizens as anything other than French citizens.
Integrating the Muslim population into French society in a full way – in the French way – is the biggest practical problem France has faced in over half a century. It also should be noted that since the revolution, France has had Five Republics. The Third Republic, which survived for 70 years, was the longest. The current Fifth Republic has lasted 59 years. Political cycles are not happenstance in geopolitics; generations come and go, and tend to bring with them old challenges in new ways. This does not mean that France is on the cusp of a Sixth Republic necessarily, but it does mean that the world in which the Fifth Republic was founded and flourished is not the same world France inhabits today. The country faces fundamental questions about its future, made all the more potent by the need for a strong France to manage the current challenges the French nation-state faces.
The results of elections in April and May will help predict certain short-term dynamics in French internal politics and foreign policy. But the bigger issue will remain, regardless of who wins the election. France has seen its strategic position weaken both in Europe and in the world, and its prospects for reversing this situation in the future are uncertain at best. France also faces a stagnant economy, which undermines the European Union and has delegitimized the establishment at home.
When France faces such challenges, it usually turns inward, because internal unity is needed to expend the political capital necessary to change the status quo. France has more options than most at a geopolitical level, as it possesses significant economic and military resources. But France must have a sense of itself before it can attempt to improve its position on the Continent and in the world. That inward turn is currently underway, and the results of the upcoming election will be an indicator of how France is developing domestically. It is a process that will likely take years, and the country that emerges will still not be a global power – but it will be a more significant player in Europe than France is currently, no matter how raucous or subdued the internal debate shapes out to be.