The results of the first round of France’s 2017 presidential election have predictably been portrayed as embodying a struggle between “globalists” and “nationalists” that is replicated across the world. This division will be further underscored by the election’s second round, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, insofar as they are regarded as symbolizing this split.
But the deeper—and more troubling—reality is that France’s election illustrates the degree to which a nation once considered the epitome of European civilization has entered, like much of the rest of the West, a state of advanced decline and political paralysis.
Many observers have noted that Macron and Le Pen have sidelined, at least for the moment, the two parties that have dominated the Fifth Republic since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle saved France from the very real prospect of civil war. This development, however, shouldn’t distract us from the fact that no prominent politician seems able to set out an attractive and comprehensive plan for helping France reassume its place in the West, which it has been losing since its defeat by Prussia in the War of 1870.
Articulating such a vision would be hard enough at the best of times. But it’s become almost impossible, given the deep divisions now splintering French society. Whether it’s nationalists versus Europhiles, town versus country, unions versus business, elites versus non-elites, radical secularists versus practicing Catholics, old versus young, laicists versus Islamists, those with full-time fire-proof jobs versus those on temporary contracts, or Paris versus everyone else, the sheer scale of fragmentation indicated by the election results makes it hard to formulate concrete ideas capable of attracting more than 25 percent of the electorate.
As a result, French politicians face a choice. They can either focus on one or two topics guaranteed to attract fervent backing from particular segments of the French electorate, or speak in vague terms and make contradictory promises in order to reach majority support.
Thus, Le Pen zeroed in on France’s undeniable problem with Islam and terrorism. She also stressed her hostility to the highly unpopular EU. As a consequence (so say the exit polls), something like two-thirds of those voting for Le Pen did so because they enthusiastically support her views on these subjects. By contrast, Macron is simultaneously promising slightly more economic freedom and enhanced state-delivered welfare and employment security. He seeks to blur the contradiction by calling himself “post-ideological”—perhaps a way of saying that he has no core convictions. This may help explain why a large portion of Macron voters say they voted for the former economics minister of the highly unpopular François Hollande simply because he was not Le Pen, or the neo-Bolivarian left-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or the scandal-plagued conservative Catholic François Fillon.
Despite the fragmentation, some general trends were highlighted by the election’s first round. One is dissatisfaction with the establishment political parties. This year marks the first time since the beginning of the Fifth Republic that a Gaullist candidate did not reach the second round. Perhaps even more significant is the collapse of the Socialist Party, the electorally successful center-left and left alliance painstakingly assembled by the late François Mitterrand. The Socialists fielded Benoît Hamon, one of the most inept mainstream candidates in a very long time. The party that won the presidency just five years ago received barely 6 percent of the vote.
A second development worth noting: By my calculation, almost 50 percent of French voters supported parties, of the right or left, that are committed to hard or soft Euroskepticism. It’s unlikely that a majority of French voters will choose “Frexit” in the near future. They know just how much France’s stagnant and overregulated economy is propped up by its closeness to the more dynamic Germany. But Macron’s Europhilia shouldn’t blind us to the reality that one-half of the Paris-Berlin axis, which has been core to the European integration project (even more so in the wake of Brexit), is increasingly unenthusiastic about the European Union. In other words, whatever one thinks of supranational projects, views of European integration now constitute yet another deep fissure in the already fractured French body politic, which once was a driving force for integration.
It gives me no pleasure to be so pessimistic about France. Like many others in the Anglo-American world, I have long been fascinated by French history, love the language of Molière and Chateaubriand, admire the political thought of Montesquieu and Tocqueville, and treasure the example of great saints like Thérèse of Lisieux and Louis de Montfort. Great contemporary intellectuals such as Rémi Brague, Pierre Manent, and Philippe Bénéton are among the first points of reference for many of us as we seek to understand the thought of the ancient, medieval, and post-Enlightenment worlds.
To the extent, however, that France’s brokenness mirrors the social, political, and economic crumbling of the West, we should all be worried. Elections are about many things, and we should be wary of reading too much into them. Sometimes, however, they provide insight into the collective state of mind of societies. And what this election is telling us about France bodes ill for all of us.
Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute.