My American friends often ask if Donald Trump’s election has any repercussions for the French presidential election, the first round of which takes place on April 24. I’d normally be inclined to say no, because presidential elections remain mainly domestic matters, but the American model is gradually influencing French politics.
Thus, the main right-wing party, originally Gaullist and Christian Democrat, took the name “Republican” two years ago—a direct reference to the Republican Party of the United States. Its candidate, François Fillon, appeals at once to social conservatism and to a market economy, which is exactly the American synthesis that the French Republican Party intends to represent.
Another recent and significant borrowing from the American system is the use of primary elections to select party candidates. In France, as in the United States, primaries allow outsider candidates to crack the establishment hold over the nomination process, as happened in the United States with Trump. The French Republicans surprised themselves by choosing Fillon over more establishment candidates, such as Alain Juppé. Similarly, socialist militants nominated the relatively unknown Benoît Hamon, rather than their natural leader—in this case, Manuel Valls, the outgoing prime minister. Finally, the nationalist candidate, Marine Le Pen, coming from an old French tradition that favors turning inward and closing borders, is happy to identify herself with Trump.
We can see in this election a continuation of traditional French trepidation about America, but without its past excesses: the candidate of the extreme Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, derides American capitalism, but not with the Cold War vocabulary of the 1960s. The conservative candidate, Fillon, and the nationalist candidate, Le Pen, suggest a possible rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, but less from hostility toward the United States than, in the old Gaullist tradition, to restore France’s rightful place midway between the great powers. More generally, the candidates’ only mild anti-Americanism suggests that French intellectuals are stepping back from their typical hostility toward the United States, capitalism, and a consumer-oriented society. With the exception of Le Pen, French politicians are in the process of reconciling with an American-inflected globalized economy.
The election’s most surprising aspect, which no one could have foreseen three months ago, is the rise of the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. Traditionally in French politics, the Right confronts the Left and the center is squeezed, forced to join one side or the other. This time, the reverse is happening: Macron, who is neither socialist nor conservative, has emerged as a possible victor, having drawn prominent figures from the Left and Right to his side. His centrist En Marche—“On Our Way” is becoming France’s leading party by number of registered members. Macron’s charismatic personality and relative youth (at 39, he is about decade younger than the next-youngest competitor) have attracted many voters; many Frenchmen seek a renewal of the political class, which Macron promises. Suddenly, all the other candidates and their parties seem old, including Le Pen’s National Front. Macron’s inexperience doesn’t bother his supporters; on the contrary, many young people who ordinarily do not vote are drawn to him.
Another major lesson of this campaign, whatever its final result, is the collapse of the French Left. The Left is divided between two ferociously opposed candidates—the radical anti-capitalist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an heir of the Jacobin revolution and Communism, and Benoît Hamon, a social democrat with a libertarian side who has proposed legalizing marijuana. It’s clear that the French Left cannot renew itself along the lines of German, Swedish, or British social democracy. As for the National Front, one is tempted to say: nothing new here. French nationalism, with its anti-European, anti-immigration, and anti-capitalist views goes a long way back. Since it found a charismatic leader, initially Jean-Marie Le Pen and now his daughter Marine, nationalism has consistently attracted about a fourth of the electorate, but no more. In a majoritarian system like that of French democracy, the National Front is highly unlikely to win because, in the second, runoff round, it invariable provokes an alliance of all the others against it (in the name of “republican” values). Still, the National Front’s persistent, if limited, appeal demonstrates that a substantial portion of French are not comfortable with their nation being modern and open to the world.
The ultimate example of the Americanization of French politics in this cycle is the personalization of voting. Voters seem less attached to platforms, which are generally seen as window dressing, than to personalities. Who cares about Macron’s program, when he is 39 years old? Who cares that Mélenchon’s program is a fantasy, since he is a revolutionary? Why should it matter what Marine Le Pen proposes, as long as she stands firm against the Islamization of France? As for Fillon, who three months ago seemed sure to win, his agenda—the most developed among the candidates—has been forgotten since he and his wife were overcome by a financial scandal. It is unprecedented in French politics, incidentally, that the honesty of candidates be so scrupulously analyzed: in the past, the French concerned themselves little with corruption, because it was assumed that all politicians were more or less dishonest. Social media, with its open access and infatuation with connectedness, has doubtless contributed to placing corruption and the candidates’ wealth at the center of debate.
One big difference with the United States remains, however: the French are not yet ready to vote for a billionaire. Where Donald Trump flaunted his fortune, French candidates tend to make a virtue of their penury. Also, two lesser candidates in France are Trotskyites. That can happen only in France, not in the United States.
Photo by Jeff Mitchell/Getty Images