French President Emmanuel Macron is going to face off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen on Sunday in France’s second round presidential election. While supporters of the Incumbent are fighting hard to retain the 55 vs 45 percent polling lead, the race is close enough that any last ditch efforts could overturn the election results. Then again, does France’s political system really change that much if either Macron or Le Pen wins?
Emmanuel Macron (centrist) is a member of the En Marche party, who won the 2017 second round French presidential election against then also Marine Le Pen, a populist-nationalist who is a member of the National Front party. Le Pen has been campaigning on the ideals of nationalism and populism, and has railed against a “globalist oligarchy” she said had hurt French businesses and an “elite” she accused of destroying rural life. For the most part, Le Pen represents the defining characteristics of populism: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. She argues against elites and the current political and economic system that create civil inequalities, creating an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ mentality that is in conjunction with the division between morally pure “people” and immoral opponents that she advocates in her line against immigrants and minorities. Further, she represents anti-pluralism by opposing Macron’s policies and sees her party as the true representation of the French’s patriots– indicating the Macron’s administration as being predominantly geared towards the elites and thus an enemy to the commonly good “people” . In all, Le Pen represents a populist figure coming into power.
The connotation of populism bears such a strong remark for democratic backsliding that the mere image of Le Pen as a populist is enough for her opposition to paints her as a threat to democracy. In specific, “Macron has sought to remind people that Le Pen and her proposals would divide the French. He has criticized her plan to ban Muslim women from wearing headscarves in public, putting her on the defensive” (White). The Incumbent has also gotten support from the leaders of Germany, Spain, and Portugal, who claims Le Pen as an “extreme-right candidate who openly lines up with those who are attacking our liberty and our democracy“. Historically speaking, this negative image of populism has been fortified by past accounts of fellow populists like Hugo Chavez, Donald Trump, and Viktor Orban who all had gotten power and proceeded to erode democratic institutions. Thus, the fear is real in France for democratic backsliding, and Macron has been relying on said fear to fuel his presidential campaign. Yet, isn’t Macron somewhat of a populist too? While he certainly is not anti-elitist, the anti-elitism is not a necessary condition to populism. He is also against the traditional party system, but it is just that he masks his intentions in a manner is acceptable to the common voters. Like Le Pen, he is anti-pluralist in that he continually criticizes her as the enemy of the people, insinuating that he is one true representative who carries the will of the people in mind, against the held “populist” opposition who would erode democracy and punish minorities. Yet, Macron himself has been taking steps towards democratic backsliding too.
In 2017, Macron campaigned for the freedom of assembly, and while the presidency has been successful in restoring the authority of the French presidency on the international and domestic level, Macron has slid off the progressive agendas and moved towards more radical policy measures that present a threat of democratic backsliding. Macron has also taken steps to limit the freedom of speech and expression, increasingly weaponizing the law to crackdown on dissidents. Since 2018, people of France have taken to the streets to protest against rising economic and social inequalities that have been engineered by Macron’s elitist policies that favor businesses and the rich (cutting taxes for employers, reforming the labor code to make it easier to lay off workers and slashing the wealth tax). There have also been protests against government inaction against the climate crisis and reform of the pension system- both of which were also met with harsh crackdown. Peaceful protesters have been fined, prosecuted, or injured by rubber bullets and tear gas.
Back to the argument of populism, Macron has argued against Le Pen on the basis that populist governance poses a threat to democracy because it entails mass clientelism which favor the party of the Incumbent. But then again, what does this change? Under Macron, policies will favor the elites; under Le Pen, policies will favor the common people. Regardless of who wins the French presidential seat, the political system in France remains the same. The continual battle between the elites and the common people will surely persist – the only thing that will now change is which side of the divide gets the advantage. Thus, the problem here is not whether Macron remains the Incumbent, or Le Pen wins; the problem is polarization.
Polarization has caused a strengthening of partisan identity that has been further enhanced by France’s underlying socio-economic cleavages that have hardened under the Macron presidency. As long as polarization remains strong, policies will be directed under the lens of partisanship. This is the real threat to democracy because it breeds a zero-sum perception that makes people increasingly hostile to any person that represents a political affiliation contrary to them. Polarization is not always bad, but when it takes the form of pernicious polarization which is based on affective ties, that is when it opens the door to democratic backsliding. As it is currently in France where divisions are seen across geographic, socioeconomic, and political affiliation, polarization has taken a tremendous and dangerous toll on the conditions and prospects of France’s democracy. Evidently, you see both Macron and Le Pen advocating for policies that either support one side or the other. Polarization strengthens partisan identity in a way that creates an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ mentality similar to populism, that in turns becomes the basis of animosity and distrust. Thus, this eliminates the chance for cooperation as tolerance becomes hard to achieve due to mutual distrust. Consequently, this results in political gridlock and extending radical policy measures that strongly support one side over the other. In all, the current political system in France is unlikely to change much as long as pernicious polarization persists. Regardless of who wins the election, partisan identity has become such a strong factor that future policies bear the possible mark of democratic backsliding. Thus, the question of concern for this Sunday is not who would win the election, but rather which side of the partisan divide will get the better advantage and which side will be on the receiving end of oppressive policy measures.