Polarization can sometimes be a symptom of democratic erosion. A political climate that is sharply divided into two sides who are unable to compromise poses a major threat to a government founded on that ability to compromise. We are increasingly seeing more and more polarization in even well-established democracies: the US and several countries in Latin America, among others.
One such country is France. Starting in the 2017 presidential elections, many political scientists have described the French political climate as polarized. Increasing tensions between Macron, the current president, and Le Pen, leader of an extreme right party, have come to a head in light of the upcoming European Union elections. Le Pen’s party, the National Rally, is consistently over-represented in the EU due to their success in mobilizing party militants to vote France’s least attended election. The May 26th elections pit Macron’s pro-globalization party (LRM) against Le Pen’s openly anti-EU party. Build-up to the election is tense and the politics seem increasingly polarized: each side is staunchly against the other and there is little representation from the center. But is France really experiencing polarization? We can only answer this question within the context of the 2017 presidential elections.
Adrienne LeBas, an assistant professor at the American University, offers a helpful definition of polarization. Firstly, a polarized country experiences divisions that split the electorate into two sides . Globalization was the salient issue that divided the top two candidates: Macron’s platform was strongly pro-EU while Le Pen’s xenophobic platform centered on French nationalism. It did not however, draw a line between the right and left. Both the left and the right failed to reach a consensus on the issue, splintering France’s two most popular parties, the LR and the PS. The weakened left and right opened a large pathway in the center, and Macron and his new party swept in. LeBas, in her paper on polarization in Africa, writes that polarization creates strong (and usually balanced) sides divided by one single issue . These two sides hollow out the center and prevent any center candidate from winning. But Macron in the center won by a landslide (66% to Le Pen’s 34%). Not only were the sides unbalanced, they broke from France’s typical right-left political spectrum. A polarizing issue, according to LeBas, should re-orient the social and political life of citizens, and the 2017 presidential election certainly did that. But can we really call it polarization if a center candidate won by such a landslide?
Returning to the current European Union elections, we might concede that globalization reoriented political life to such an extent that Macron’s center is no longer center. The EU elections is a much more level playing field for Le Pen. In the last election in 2014, the National Front won the French majority with 25% of the votes. There is no center position between Macron and Le Pen. Macron himself paints the election as a desperate battle in which the survival of the EU is at stake. As the sides solidify and grow increasingly antagonistic, we should assess its threat.
LeBas defines two troubling signs of polarization, unbalanced sides and sides who place value on an indigenous identity . Le Pen’s nationalist platform is full of populist rhetoric supporting a homogenous French people under attack by refugees and immigrants. Le Pen poses a serious threat to French democracy, but is Macron any better? He perpetuates an “us vs. them” rhetoric that perpetuates the polarized split and impedes an honest engagement with the other side. Macron has already proven his ability to win supporters simply in opposition to Le Pen. Milan W. Svolik, a political science professor at Yale, studied the dangerous tendency of voters to tolerate undemocratic reform in order to back up an incumbent who shares their policy preferences . French presidents institutionally have an incredible amount of power and Macron has already proposed reforms that decrease the number of parliamentarians. If Macron continues to demonize his opponent and wield his executive power, France’s democracy may very well be in danger., ,  LeBas, Adrienne. 2018. “Can Polarization Be Positive? Conflict and Institutional Development in Africa.” American Behavioral Scientist 62(1): pp. 59-74.  Svolik, Milan. 2017. “When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents.” Working paper.