The phantom campaign

It has become commonplace to describe France’s 2017 presidential campaign as the most confusing and unpredictable in recent history. With just over one month to go, the campaign feels as though it has barely started. There is no central theme around which the debates are structured. Nor is there a clear rivalry between a right-wing and a left-wing candidate. Instead, a set of five major candidates (from left to right: Mélenchon, Hamon, Macron, Fillon and Le Pen) maintains significant uncertainty over the election’s outcome, even though two of these, Macron and Le Pen, are currently favourites to qualify for the second round of voting, which Macron would presumably win.

This situation is of course linked to Fillon’s unexpected judicial problems, which have almost exclusively dominated media coverage in recent weeks, limiting other candidates’ media exposure and their ability to discuss policy issues. It has also been encouraged by the absence of a clear leader on the left in the wake of François Hollande’s controversial term and of his decision not to run for re-election.

Yet the unprecedented prospect that the candidates of the two parties that have dominated French politics for the past 50 years could both fail to qualify for the second round is not simply an accident. It reflects a more structural shift: the disintegration of the political system that has presided over France’s 5th Republic since the 1960s.

Thanks to a winner-takes-all voting system and the pre-eminence of the presidential election, this system has been characterised by a clear right-left dichotomy, each side dominated by a large party, with little or no room for coalitions across the divide.

It is these dominant parties, the Socialist Party and The Républicains, which stand to be the biggest victims of the realignment.

The Socialist Party is clearly facing the most immediate threat. An increasing number of Socialist voters and party officials are supporting Macron’s independent candidacy instead of Hamon’s, the party’s official candidate, who won the primary on a platform highly critical of Hollande.

A prolongation of the internal divisions that plagued and weakened Hollande’s presidency, the Hamon-Macron rivalry reflects a deep rift on the left that had already come to the fore around the 2005 referendum on the EU Constitution: that between a centrist, social-liberal wing and a more radical one critical of neo-liberal globalisation.

This split will almost certainly lead to a formal divorce after the election because it is hard to imagine that Macron, whether he wins or not, will not try to turn his En Marche! movement into some sort of permanent political structure. This will encourage more centrist Socialist MPs to break with party loyalty, while the remainder may seek a more structural alliance with the radical left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, further pulling the two sides of the French left apart.

Until a few weeks ago, the right-wing Républicains seemed in a much better place following a successful primary whose winner, former Prime Minister Fillon, looked set to win the presidency in a landslide. But Fillon’s judicial troubles and his subsequent dip in the polls have exacerbated the Republicain’s own internal divisions, which have become apparent in the porosity of Fillon’s electorate with Macron’s on the one hand, and Le Pen’s on the other.

Contrary to Hamon, Fillon has so far managed to keep most MPs and party officials from fleeing to the other camps. But failing to qualify for the second round would leave the Républicains dramatically weakened and could allow others to claim the leadership. The risk of a right-wing split between a Macron-friendly and a Le Pen-friendly pole would become a very real possibility.

The erosion of traditional political structures is of course not unique to France. Its causes are both homegrown – weak economic performance or the exasperation with political elites perceived as self-serving – and pan-European, in particular the growing backlash against globalisation and European integration.

It has largely contributed to the Front National rise the status of a major political force, thanks to an electoral strategy that, long before Brexit and Trump, focused on building a coalition of right-wing nationalists and disillusioned left-wing working class voters united by a common hatred for the EU, globalisation and immigration. This trend has also laid the ground for the PS’s current split, thus strongly benefiting Macron’s “beyond left and right” pitch, and it could potentially threaten the centre-right Républicains further down the line.

What may be more specific to France is how this realignment will affect political institutions. As political commentators such as former MEP Jean-Louis Bourlanges point out, the new open-closed divide does not supersede the old left-right divide, it adds to it. This leads to the emergence of a new ideological landscape marked by at least three distinct poles: a Keynesian, internationalist but EU-critical left; a liberal, pro-market, pro-EU centre; and a conservative, nationalist, anti-EU right.

However these poles end up crystallising in terms of party structures, they are likely to bring about changes to France’s system of democracy by majority. If all are to have some representation in parliament, then some sort of proportionality will have to be introduced. The debate around proportional representation, which has been around for years, is bound to gain new momentum.

This would, in turn, call for new types of coalitions to produce parliamentary majorities. In brief, France could tilt towards a more parliamentary regime, eating away at the extensive powers enjoyed by the presidency and the government.

It is hard to see such institutional changes introduced immediately, but the 2017 parliamentary elections could nonetheless be a watershed moment. Following one month after the presidential vote, parliamentary elections have, since 2000, been turned into mere rubber-stamping exercises, thus delivering comfortable majorities for the newly elected president.

This year though the next president, be it Macron, Le Pen or even Fillon, could fall short of obtaining an outright majority.

That would only speed up the tectonic shifts already underway. What will happen after next month’s presidential election may well end up being more important than the election itself.