Last week’s presidential election in France saw Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen advance to a run-off, with neither candidate achieving the 50% majority needed to win decisively.
Incumbent Macron received 27.8% of the vote, about a million and a half votes ahead going into the runoff. In 2017, Macron won the runoff with a thirty-point lead over Le Pen; however, polls this year have predicted a tighter final result. Early projections as votes came in on Sunday showed Macron winning with about 58% of the vote. Like other elected populists such as Donald Trump, Le Pen rode a wave of dissatisfaction this electoral season, but ultimately lost to a French multiparty system lacking the polarization we see in the United States.
A main reason behind Le Pen’s growing popularity is a common precursor to populism in a democracy: dissatisfaction with the political establishment. As Sheri Berman states in her essay for Foreign Policy, the inability of establishment actors to respond to crises within their states leads to a rise in populism. This cause and effect is clear in France. Soon after his election in 2017, Macron introduced changes to the wealth tax that left many wealthy people paying less than before. A subsequent “green tax” on fuel sparked the “yellow vest” protests, organized by working and middle class people who expressed dissatisfaction with the political establishment. Media attention amplified protesters’ calls for a higher minimum wage, new National Assembly elections, and even Macron’s resignation. Although Macron was eventually able to quell the protests, their impact on French politics remains. One French political scientist said the protests “put France’s invisible and inaudible working classes back at the heart of public debate.” Recent inflation and high energy prices due to Russia’s war on Ukraine have only exacerbated the working class’s concerns. Soon after the first round of elections this year, a study found that Le Pen is the favored candidate for 44% of those who describe themselves as part of the Yellow Vest Movement.
Despite Le Pen’s popularity, she was unable to ride the wave all the way to the presidency as Donald Trump did in 2016, because France is a political environment less vulnerable to populism. Unlike the United States, France has a multiparty system, which means that any elected government must be willing to form a coalition in order to achieve majority control. Even a populist like Le Pen must be prepared to make concessions. There is also a greater incentive for candidates to appeal to moderate voters. With more than two parties to choose from, voters also have a higher chance of feeling represented by a party and overall dissatisfaction may be lower. Therefore, there are likely to be fewer people tempted by an anti-establishment, populist candidate.
Partisan polarization is also not as prevalent in a multi-party system. The yellow vest protesters expressed dissatisfaction with Macron, but not necessarily with his party as a whole. Instead, they called for new National Assembly elections across the board, signaling frustration with the entire establishment as opposed to with just one party. McCoy, Rahman and Somer define polarization as a process that increasingly leads people to perceive politics as an “us versus them” situation, which can provide an opportunity for populism. Svolik adds that party polarization can lead people to prioritize partisan interests over democratic ones. He calls polarization a “structural opportunity” for would-be authoritarians. The multiparty system thus acts as a safeguard against populists who could exploit partisan interests in their efforts to undermine democracy.
Macron’s victory in France makes him the country’s first two-term president in nearly two decades and prevents Le Pen’s xenophobic and nationalist policies from prevailing. However, his popularity over the next five years will depend on his ability to woo the working class as well as the strength of France’s multiparty system. Increasing polarization and economic dissatisfaction could very well bring the threat of populism back to France’s democracy before the next election.