French Elections: The Elusive Debate
AP Photo/Francois Mori
French Elections: The Elusive Debate
AP Photo/Francois Mori

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil is the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations' Paris office. The views expressed here are the author's own.

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This French election was expected to be like none before. After the Brexit camp's victory in last year's British referendum to leave the European Union, and Donald Trump’s ascendance to the American presidency, the pressure had grown on France. The country’s presidential election, whose outcome will be known on May 7, seemed bound to be the third major edition of the fight brought by populists on the West’s liberal democracies.

But right now, the reason why this campaign is unprecedented is quite different. Alain Juppe, who for months appeared to be the election favorite, failed to win the primary within his own party. Then president Francois Hollande stunned all by declining a run for re-election. In turn, his prime minister, Manuel Valls, lost his own camp’s primary.

Yet the victors have failed to seize the opportunity. On the left, Benoit Hamon is slowly gaining ground, but remains a fourth choice in the polls. On the right, Francois Fillon was quickly embroiled in a nepotism scandal, to the point that the future of his candidacy has been questioned even in his own camp in recent weeks. Indeed, the Fillon case has largely overshadowed the political debate since the beginning of the year.

Others have managed to take advantage of this situation. It should come as no surprise that they are political outsiders -- or at the very least, they cast themselves as such. Emmanuel Macron has made assets of his handicaps -- the centrist leader of En Marche! is rather inexperienced and isn’t backed by a major political party. Macron now seems bound to reach the second round; so does Marine Le Pen. In spite of her own judicial liabilities, Le Pen capitalizes strongly on the harsh criticisms against the political establishment initiated by her father decades ago, even more so after her efforts to turn her extreme-right platform into a serious-looking alternative rather than a fringe program.

Such a roller-coaster plotline has so far prevented any serious debate from really unfolding. The two candidates leading in the polls appear to embody the ideological argument unfolding in French politics at the moment. But the alternative has been only rarely discussed. The confrontation between the populist and the reasonable, between the rage from the voters’ hearts and the caution from their minds, has yet to take place. And yet, the election will eventually deliver a pick.

A dangerous scene

This is a very dangerous situation: The political atmosphere in France is turning sour. It is moving candidates well beyond the difficulty, prevalent since 1981, of winning consecutive national elections. Polls suggest that disappointment, disgust, and anger increasingly characterise the public perception of politics. A growing number of voters believe their ideas aren’t well represented, and they distrust elected officials and political parties. In this context, one can only worry about the election’s outcome.

As a French citizen often travelling abroad, I frequently find myself having to explain the many reasons why a victory by Le Pen is far from certain -- an option quite a number of my interlocutors seem to consider a mechanical consequence of Brexit and of Trump’s win. It bears repeating that the Front National’s best electoral showing -- 7 million votes in the second round of the 2015 regional elections -- is less than half of the more than 18 million votes that won the two previous presidential elections. Moving from 30 percent of the votes cast to winning more than 50 percent is quite a formidable challenge.

But when back home, I have also found myself having to insist on why it still is a possibility. If polls are to be believed, the vote has never been so volatile. The turnout could reach a new low -- when the presidential election usually mobilizes up to 80 percent  of French voters up to 80 — diminishing the number of votes the winner will have to round up. And the absence of a complete and careful debate leaves the final result highly dependent on chance.

The election also presents experts and analysts with a number of challenges that will linger long past election day. The absence of a serious and thorough national debate less than two months removed from the vote will make the next government's work even more difficult, irrespective of the final election outcome.

First, a victory by either Macron or Le Pen will immediately open more questions: Will the new president be able to find a majority at the subsequent legislative elections in June? If not, then with whom will they establish a coalition, and how might that coalition push a cohesive agenda? Or will they rather be forced to “cohabit” with a prime minister from a different majority?

Second, and maybe more important, even with a legislative majority, it is totally possible that the victor of the election benefits only from a limited mandate by the public in support of their platform.

The stakes in this election -- for the state of French democracy, for the needed reforms of its economy and its society, and for the future of the European Union -- deserve a more thorough debate. Time is running out.