Macron and Le Pen: Two Nonconformists in Discord

The second ballot this May, will almost definitely see Marine Le Pen securing one of the two contestable positions. First-round opinion polling in February shows Le Pen, head of France’s far-right National Front (FN) party leading the race with approximately ¼ of the voting intent[1], thus far. Her promise to hold a “Frexit” referendum[2], her uncompromising stance on immigration (accompanied by a vow to reduce it by 80% to 10,000 people annually)[3], and her pledge to cease access to basic healthcare provisions and education for illegal immigrants[4], in addition to her frequent blurred association of immigration with Islamic fundamentalism[5], has turned the presidential election into a puzzling contest amongst her contenders over who is best equipped to defeat her.

Back in 2002, it was the same fear over the dominance of what were perceived as ultra-nationalist convictions that led to the devastating defeat of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, at the hands of conservative Jacques Chirac in the then presidential election. Since inheriting the party leadership in 2011 (a change which entailed the expulsion of her father over his characterization of the Holocaust as a “detail” of history[6]) Marine Le Pen has palliated the FN’s anti-Semitism and xenophobia and has instead, advanced a strategy aimed at attracting the support of members of the working class who feel deserted by the left and overwhelmed by the effects of deindustrialization[7].

In a western world witnessing the sweeping advent of populism, as was embodied by the result of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the French elections have assumed a portentous significance, generating implications not only for the future of France, but for that of Europe as a whole.

In more than one respect, the 2017 French presidential elections are, if not unprecedented, certainly cumulatively distinct: two of the five current presidential candidates have broken away from their former party affiliations to found their own parties within one or two years prior to the elections-in essence, in anticipation of the elections. The right is moving to the centre, while the centre is moving to the right[8], President François Hollande is not running for a second term in office, and François Bayrou, President of MoDem (the Democratic Movement) has resisted seeking a bid for the fourth time, and is instead, allying himself[9] with Emmanuel Macron, the centrist independent and former Socialist economy minister under Hollande- a notable shift for a candidate who has run in three separate elections in a manner very notably opposed to the politics of the Socialist Party.  

Trailing closely behind Marine Le Pen in second place, with an estimated 24% vote acquisition at present[10], Emmanuel Macron is perceived as a nonconformist. Disappointed with the manner in which the incumbent government was handling the nation’s chronic unemployment and surfacing terrorist threats, Macron resigned as economy minister in August 2016 and decided to establish his own party, “En Marche” (“On the Move”), shortly thereafter. His nonconformist reputation is not undeserving: he used to officially belong to the leftist Socialist Party, but is now running as part of his own centrist party, which deviates from traditional centrism by being pro-business on economics but staunchly leftist on social issues, and is himself a self-proclaimed man “of the left”, all the while being open to policy suggestions from the right[11].

Emmanuel Macron has garnered almost as much public interest as Marine Le Pen. Their simultaneous advent has changed the nature of the central political divide in France. That change has come about as the result of two effects, the cumulative impact of which renders both the rightful title of nonconformist: firstly, they constitute two leading anti-establishment candidates from opposite sides of the French political spectrum. Le Pen is anti-establishment by challenging globalization (and vociferously so): she is appealing to voters who are tired of conventional politics (viewing them as corrupt, stagnant and conducive to the perpetuation of inequality and insecurity), and she has vowed to shield workers and farmers from the calamities of open trade[12]. Macron is appealing to many of the same niches of voters: to the workers afflicted by globalization, to health care providers and educators who alert to the need for reforms in both domains, but also to entrepreneurs who encourage fewer administrative barriers and enhanced resource provision[13]. Each candidate has a fundamentally contradictory vision of the world from the other: Macron is a champion of globalization and Le Pen of nationalization. 

What is unprecedented however, (and potentially most pivotal to the outcome of the presidential elections) is the agreement between them on the precise nature of what that political divide is: openness (to social values and trade) versus protectionism (coupled with a conservative value agenda). As Le Pen herself declares: “There is no rightwing and no leftwing any more. There is only those who support globalisation and patriots[14].” This accordance amid discordance stands in stark opposition to the agendas of the remaining potential presidential candidates who are either more in line with the current status quo under President Hollande (as is embodied by François Fillon on the centre-right) or are seen as too idealistic (as is embodied by Benoit Hamon on the left). The verdict on that divide between openness and protectionism will also be unprecedented if the electoral outcome sees a victorious Le Pen dangerously steering France away from its post-isolationist path of globalization.