France’s next revolution
The vote that could wreck the European Union
Why the French presidential election will have consequences far beyond its borders
Until now. This year’s presidential election, the most exciting in living memory, promises an upheaval. The Socialist and Republican parties, which have held power since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, could be eliminated in the first round of a presidential ballot on April 23rd.
French voters may face a choice between two insurgent candidates: Marine Le Pen, the charismatic leader of the National Front, and Emmanuel Macron, the upstart leader of a liberal movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), which he founded only last year.
Further fuelling voters’ anger is their anguish at the state of France. One poll last year found that French people are the most pessimistic on Earth, with 81% grumbling that the world is getting worse and only 3% saying that it is getting better. Much of that gloom is economic.
France’s economy has long been sluggish; its vast state, which absorbs 57% of GDP, has sapped the country’s vitality. A quarter of French youths are unemployed. Of those who have jobs, few can find permanent ones of the sort their parents enjoyed. In the face of high taxes and heavy regulation those with entrepreneurial vim have long headed abroad, often to London. But the malaise goes well beyond stagnant living standards. Repeated terrorist attacks have jangled nerves, forced citizens to live under a state of emergency and exposed deep cultural rifts in the country with Europe’s largest Muslim community.
Many of these problems have built up over decades, but neither the left nor the right has been able to get to grips with them. France’s last serious attempt at ambitious economic reform, an overhaul of pensions and social security, was in the mid-1990s under President Jacques Chirac.
It collapsed in the face of massive strikes. Since then, few have even tried. Nicolas Sarkozy talked a big game, but his reform agenda was felled by the financial crisis of 2007-08. Mr Hollande had a disastrous start, introducing a 75% top tax rate. He was then too unpopular to get much done. After decades of stasis, it is hardly surprising that French voters want to throw the bums out.
Mr Macron’s instincts are the opposite. He thinks that more openness would make France stronger.
He is staunchly pro-trade, pro-competition, pro-immigration and pro-EU. He embraces cultural change and technological disruption. He thinks the way to get more French people working is to reduce cumbersome labour protections, not add to them. Though he has long been short on precise policies (he was due to publish a manifesto as The Economist went to press), Mr Macron is pitching himself as the pro-globalisation revolutionary.
Look carefully, and neither insurgent is a convincing outsider. Ms Le Pen has spent her life in politics; her success has been to make a hitherto extremist party socially acceptable. Mr Macron was Mr Hollande’s economy minister. His liberalising programme will probably be less bold than that of the beleaguered Mr Fillon, who has promised to trim the state payroll by 500,000 workers and slash the labour code. Both revolutionaries would have difficulty enacting their agendas. Even if she were to prevail, Ms Le Pen’s party would not win a majority in the national assembly. Mr Macron barely has a party.
Vladimir Putin would love that. It is perhaps no coincidence that Ms Le Pen’s party has received a hefty loan from a Russian bank and Mr Macron’s organisation has suffered more than 4,000 hacking attacks.
With just over two months to go, it seems Ms Le Pen is unlikely to clinch the presidency. Polls show her winning the first round but losing the run-off. But in this extraordinary election, anything could happen. France has shaken the world before. It could do so again.