French Election The ‘Ancien Régime’ Is Disintegrating

Decades of mass unemployment and uncertainty have left French voters with a distaste for their political class. The French presidential candidates are trying to ride the anti-establishment wave.
François Fillon (pictured), like other old-guard politicians, is part of an establishment many in France view as out of touch. (Photo: AP/Francois Mori)

From the far left to the far right, France’s remaining presidential candidates are all self-styled renegades claiming they will sweep aside the status quo. Even conservative Republican candidate François Fillon, a political veteran with nearly 40 years’ experience under his belt, describes his critics as forces “of the system, which is fighting back at me.”

Their strategies show they understand their audience. The French have had quite enough of the old guard. Some 80 percent of the population views the political establishment as corrupt and out of touch. The candidates know the best way to stop a movement in the past has been to co-opt it and that’s what these purported outsiders are trying to do. Still, their prospects for success are shaky.

French society is demoralized after three decades of mass unemployment. Increasing numbers of French workers are also precariously self-employed thanks to the digital revolution and new company recruitment practices. The official statistics estimate place their numbers at around 3 million, but research firm McKinsey alarmingly claims 13 million is more realistic.

The French are feeling uncertain. The dispute with the U.S. transport app Uber is perhaps the most emblematic example of the uncertainty. Uber drivers have been demonstrating for weeks now against the taxi competitor’s working conditions, which they say are unacceptable. People who see their work situation as precarious have no more faith in the political system – and are more prepared to make a radical departure.

With the left victorious, the beaten reform social democrats are either in retreat or are backing the social liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron.

The new landscape is fraying the fabric of the traditional parties. Splits between modernizers and reactionaries, critics and supporters of globalization, friends and foes have become so pronounced that the parties are nothing more than a brittle shell.

With the victory of left-wing rebel Benoît Hamon for the presidential nomination, the Socialists were the first to make their position clear. Former prime minister Manuel Valls, who lost the PS nomination to Hamon, has long referred to “irreconcilable differences” in the party, saying that finding a compromise between the warring ideological factions was no longer possible.

With the left victorious, the beaten reformists in the PS are either in retreat or are backing the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron’s opponents have denounced his lack of experience, saying his has never stood for political office. In the current climate, they could not have paid him a better compliment. That is exactly what millions of French voters are looking for: someone who is not compromised by decades of loyal service and party politics.

The Republican Party is still united. Unlike the PS, they still stand a chance of victory. But here too, it is difficult to bridge the gap between liberals and protectionists, between those who want to reverse the European integration process – including some who want cooperation with the Front National – and classical pro-Europeans. If François Fillon is unable to extricate himself convincingly from the scandal surrounding the supposedly fake employment of his wife as a parliamentary assistant and falls behind in the race for the presidency, it will also be an acid test for the Republicans.

Mr. Fillon has already made more concessions to his rightwing, which is obsessed with national sovereignty, than seems reasonable.

Mr. Fillon has already made more concessions to his right-wing, which is obsessed with national sovereignty, than seems reasonable. He wants to effectively end the independence of the European Central Bank, to put the brakes on Brussels’ reviled dedication to reducing state deficits and pooling E.U. debt. His essentially call into question fundamental decisions made in recent decades.

Even the right-wing populists, and long-time party of choice for protest voters, the Front National, is dealing with a deep rift. The majority wants to pursue a protectionist course reminiscent of German National Socialism or Italian fascism, while a minority favors a liberal economy with a dash of racism.

Political upheaval of a kind only experienced every 50 or 100 years is imminent in France.  Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic with its clear commitment to Europe and the West has held for 58 years. It has now itself become an “ancien régime.” Some candidates, including right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, are calling openly for a new republic: one that is independent of the European Union and the United States and reaches out instead to Russia. A victory by Ms. Le Pen is improbable, but not impossible. It would end the European post-war order.

In contrast, Mr. Macron and Mr. Fillon have restricted themselves to criticizing the system – not calling it fundamentally into question. They may be able to deal with all the change in a controlled way. One is a beacon of hope without political experience: a fast learner with a centrist, pro-European program. The other is tried and tested, but himself part of the “ancien régime” and politically damaged goods.  It is unclear which direction France will take. It is only clear that the pace of history has picked up.


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