Three of the top four contenders in the French presidential election on Sunday come from outside the country’s two major political parties. The Socialists’ Benoît Hamon isn’t even in contention anymore while the Republicans’ François Fillon may not qualify for the runoff in May.
The frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, left the Socialist Party last year to start his own progressive movement.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen lead the far left and the far right, respectively, which have so far played a minor role in French politics.
Their popularity says more about voters’ disillusionment in the two-party system than it does about their own appeal.
Politico reports that political scientists point to long-term trends to explain the dramatic decline of the two parties, including the rise of identity politics and a sense among voters that both parties have failed to change France for the better.
Unemployment is high by European standards and has been for many years. Successive left- and right-wing governments have been unable to reform labor laws and licensing requirements that stifle entrepreneurship. Neither the Socialists nor the Republicans have a clear and simple answer to the complicated questions around immigration and integration.
Nor have the parties adapted to a shift in the political landscape. The themes that used to divide the electorate — the economy, the welfare state — have become less divisive. In their stead have come questions of belonging. Should France remain in the European Union or not? How many immigrants can the country absorb — and how?
As in other Western democracies, the pertinent political divide in France is no longer between the left and right but rather between what the Atlantic Sentinel has called “blue” and “red”.
Blue and red extremes
“Blue” voters are cosmopolitan, often college-educated, mostly urban and generally optimistic about the future.
“Red” voters are less worldly, live in small towns or the countryside and feel their country is changing in ways they do not understand or approve of.
Macron and Le Pen appeal to those extremes.
Richard Ferrand, a former Socialist Party lawmaker who now chairs Macron’s movement, En Marche!, says, “There are on one side reactionary, identity-focused neo-nationalists and on the other progressives who think Europe is necessary.”
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s niece and the darling of the National Front’s reactionary wing, has similarly described this election “a choice of civilizations”.
As The Guardian puts it, the choice is between a borderless business culture and a patriotic country that protects the way of life of its own workers; between free movement of people and the cultivation of French identity and French jobs; between Christianity and Islam; between globalism and France.
Research from Sciences Po and Cepremap, as reported in the Financial Times, bears this out. They found that the best predictor of support for the protectionist candidates Mélenchon and Le Pen is pessimism.
By contrast, French voters who are satisfied with their lives are most likely to back Macron.
The trend is particularly visible among older voters, where an optimistic outlook quickly reduces the likelihood of voting for the National Front.
Do not despair
The Financial Times argues that the effects of the blue-red divide are magnified in France, where both the communist left and the far right have deep roots.
But the newspaper also counsels against despair:
It has become so commonplace to bemoan France’s waning international influence and economic backsliding relative to Germany that its strengths — world-class companies, well-run public services and generally comfortable living standards — are either unnoticed or taken for granted.
Like the average Donald Trump voter in the United States or the average Freedom Party voter in the Netherlands, the average Mélenchon or Le Pen voter doesn’t have it so bad. The challenge for the center is to convince them to have more faith in the future.