France Holds Its Breath

Can Marine Le Pen be kept from the French presidency?

Marianne Magnin explains the role French liberals have chosen to play in least predictable presidential election for many years.


Unlike the UK, France is regulated by a constitution, which stands above treaties, laws and regulations. Since 1789, France has gone through five republics, two monarchies, two empires and one dictatorship. More than 200 years of trials, coups and failures have shaped the current 5th constitution. The fifth republic is an unusual hybrid parliamentary and presidential regime.

Established as a classic parliamentary regime back in 1958, De Gaulle, informed by the governmental instability of the past then pushed for a strong presidential system through the 1962 referendum. This regime dictates that the president is directly elected via the so-called universal suffrage, and that there is a strong separation of powers in favour of the president insofar as he/she appoints on his/her own terms the prime minister, can directly consult the people and has the authority to dissolve the lower chamber amongst other powers.

The President resides at Élysée Palace and the prime minister at the Matignon Palace, both legacies of France pre-revolutionary times.

Like in the UK, there are two chambers to pass legislation and scrutinise policies and the government’s actions: the National Assembly, equivalent to the House of Commons, and the Senate, equivalent to the House of Lords, though there are no life peers.

The 348 senators are appointed by the ‘Grands Électeurs’ (mostly regional and mayoral delegates), with half the house renewed every three years for six years.

The president and assembly are elected every five years, back to back. There has only been one occasion when the president dissolved the assembly before its term and lost his majority: Chirac did so in 1997 and had to appoint socialist Lionel Jospin as his prime minister – a period known as cohabitation.

The 577 deputies (equivalent to MPs) are directly elected according to the majority vote with no proportionality. However there are two rounds, whereby unless a candidate gathers more than 25% of the registered votes, the candidates having obtained 12.5 % (usually two candidates, but three or four are possible) reach the second round.

A further difference with the UK system is that French citizens residing abroad are represented by 11 deputies. The UK is part of the third constituency Northern Europe, which also covers the Republic of Ireland, Nordic countries, Denmark and the Baltic states. 2017 will be the second time French residents in the UK can vote to elect their parliamentary representative.

The next general elections are taking place from end of April to mid June 2017. The parties landscape is more fragmented than in the UK. The number of presidential candidates was respectively 16, 12 and 10 in 2002, 2007 and 2012 whilst the 2017 list is not finalised.

The partisan spectrum between PS and LR has historically been pro-Europe. There are some nuances however as to the level, speed and nature of integration.

Due to the lack of proportionality echoing the UK context, the executive and parliamentary powers have so far been monopolised by the main left (PS) and right parties (LR) with some regular alternation. Semi-proportionality was introduced to local and European elections, but not to the two flagship presidential and parliamentary elections. This blocked situation, in addition to the electoral map contouring in a similarly unrepresentative way, unmet promises and scandals tainting the political establishment, has led to the increasing disenchantment of citizens towards their political institutions.


This distrust translates into absenteeism, sanctioning votes (against the outgoing representative) and, even more concerning for democracy, into extremist votes. The later symptom explains the steady growth of Front National and far left figureheads such as Mélanchon, whereby the vote is no longer part of a rational choice informing the democratic game but instead driven by the wish to oust the system at all price.

It is a recent trend for French parties to organise open primaries for the presidential elections. A hard lesson was learnt back in 2002 when a fragmented left led by Lionel Jospin did not reach the second round, leaving Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen to fight it.


Chirac may have won with a banana republic score (82%), but only because of the ‘front républicain’ reflex,when a vast majority of voters decided to protect the Republic from the far right despite their possible personal leanings towards left. The PS organised its first primary five years ago. This term, LR and EELV have followed the same path.

The two large parties PS and LR have seen a radicalisation of the primary votes. MoDem, always protecting its independence (at the cost of many less elected mandates) did not partake in LR primaries, but very early on expressed its support and campaigned in favour of Alain Juppé for the LR nomination, seen as the best candidate to rally the nation around the need for reforms. MoDem leader François Bayrou said that if Juppé were to win the LR primaries, he would renounce his candidacy and support Juppé. MoDem was later joined by UDI in supporting Juppé. MoDem announced end of February that the party was entering into an alliance with a new political force, En Marche.

No primaries were organised by the Front National, with their undisputed leader Marine Le Pen solidly anchored as the legitimate candidate despite three legal cases against her name.

The results of the primaries revealed that voters want a big change in their lives, they want big change for France.

All parties promise to shake up France. There is no doubt that this air of revolt against the status quo and a growing political disenfranchisement translates into a volatile and emotionally charged campaign.

While the French electorate shows an inclination towards extremes (the FN is leading the polls with 26% of voters intending to support Le Pen), they also want new faces.

The epitome of a new entrant is Emmanuel Macron, who claims not to belong to either left or right, and is of a liberal centrist stripe. Macron used to be Hollande’s minister of economy until he resigned in August 2016 and later announced that he would run for the presidency. His movement En Marche (EM) was launched in April 2016, aggregating curious, disappointed and hopeful alike voters. It is no coincidence if the book published by Macron to present himself and the outline of his vision is called ‘Révolution’. His rallies are better attended than those of the LR and PS.

A second unfamiliar face is Benoît Hamon, who emerged as the winner of the PS primaries at the expense of Hollande (who did not even dare to compete, with a dissatisfaction rate as high as 80% in February 2017) and Valls.

Two major events have recently changed the French political landscape. It would appear that the old ways of political practices are no longer de rigueur. Opinions get disrupted as fast as it takes to tweet.

The first hit LR at full strength with ‘Penelopegate’. A famous French investigation-based journal, Le Canard Enchaîné, released some highly disruptive information about Fillon, questioning the reality of the work delivered by his wife Penelope and two of his children, who were employed by him out of his MP allowance as his parliamentary assistants for nearly €1m. It is not illegal for MPs to employ family members. The journal’s challenge was twofold: the reality of the work carried out and the level of remuneration two to three times the average emolument. The probe continues apace. Typical of France, but for how long, the candidate is denying any wrongdoing, blaming a ‘constitutional coup’ and clinging to his position in a strategy designed to consolidate hard-core supporters. As of 19 February, 65% of French voters were against Fillon’s candidacy. Despite expected to be indicted mid March, Fillon has announced that he is placing his faith in people’s vote to judge him. The latest polls show 20% in favour of Fillon.

The second suspense broke loose on 22 February: would Bayrou run or not and if not, which other candidate would MoDem support while protecting social-liberalism?


This was a critical point bearing in mind how close three Le Pen’s main challengers (Fillon, Macron, Hamon) were in mid-February, all within 15-20% of intended vote in the first run-off round. Bayrou offered an alliance with Macron on four conditions: breaking the bipartisan rotation between the PS and LR, transparency and ethics in political practices, proportionality reform and proper remuneration of workers.

MoDem’s votes - as modest as they might be - seem to have tipped the balance in favour of Macron (24.5%), now seen as the most likely opponent to Le Pen (26%) in the second round.

The final question was to know if the PS could build an alliance before the first round: Hamon did manage to reach an agreement with Jodot (greens coalition), but not with Mélanchon (far-left populist), thus showing his inability to rally in time around him and bring back under the PS umbrella those voters seduced by extremes.

The landscape might get a bit clearer, but never has it been so uncertain so close to French general polling days.

Will Macron’s bubble burst under the need for him to be more specific about his programme and therefore antagonise some of his far-reaching supporters? Will his team of mostly inexperienced volunteers be equipped for transforming expressions of interest into hard votes?

Will Le Pen make a faux-pas and lose her grip? Will the EU Parliament be able to challenge her immunity in the context of the on-going probes?

Ultimately, in the likely scenario of Le Pen getting through the second round, will voters replicate 2002’s republican vote and kick out Marine Le Pen as they did with her father Jean-Marie?

What will be the absentee rate, which might be the real threat to the democratic exercise?

These elections will be a major test for democracy and its buffers, a test for France’s political and societal heritage of liberty, equality and fraternity built over the last 220 years. A test for Europe, who will either be equipped to reform itself around France-Germany heavy-weight pair, or implode.

1 March 2017


Marianne MAGNIN is Mouvement Démocrate’s candidate for next French parliamentary elections for the Northern Europe constituency and a member of Westminster & City of London Liberal Democrats (Executive Committee).




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