The results of the 2022 French presidential election have left many wondering where the future of French political life will lead. While incumbent Emmanual Macron was reelected, far-right populist candidate Marine Le Pen managed to secure 41.4% of the vote. Typically, french voters abide by an unspoken policy of cordon sanitaire – the idea that voters will abstain from electing a far-right politician to lead the Fifth Republic (Ioness, 2022). Marine Le Pen’s ability to garner such a large proportion of the French vote is a warning sign of the normalization of extreme populism in France. Populist leaders are greatly defined by being anti-pluralist. Pluralism is the belief that members of a society are free and equal despite their diversities, and is necessary within a functioning democracy (Müller, 2016). Anti-pluralists and populists alike claim sole leadership of the people, pitting the opposition against the people as an illegitimate source of leadership. Denying opposition groups the ability to coexist in the same political sphere goes against the core tennents of democracy. Le Pen’s platform during the presidential election followed classic anti-pluralist rhetoric, framing the runoff as “Macron versus the people.” The election of Le Pen or a fellow populist would signify the failure of French democracy. In order to evade the threat of populist leadership, France must make the decision to commit to political reform.
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected president without any party affiliation. Both of the major parties had previously imploded as a consequence of their own internal problems, enabling Macron’s “En Marche” to successfully enter the party system. Within a democracy, the control of power typically moves between two political camps. In multiparty parliamentary systems, differing parties form coalitions to ensure greater electorate representation. However, the nature of the French direct presidental system operates under a winner-takes-all scenario, resulting in underrepresentation within the government.
Based on France’s history of regime changes and democratic collapse, a lack of political reform may very well result in the future election of a populist leader. According to a French poll, 45% of Macron’s voters only did so to oppose Le Pen. The poll also showed that much like Macron’s voters, those who voted for Le Pen did so to oppose Macron. France’s current winner-takes-all system forces a large and diverse constituency to choose between the lesser of two evils, rather than which candidate best represents constituent values. By establishing presidential rule over ideological beliefs, the French presidential system permits the rise of dangerous nationalists ideals.
Underrepresentation in the French government is also a concerning factor within the legislature. Currently, the National Assembly operates under a two-round constituency voting system. Candidates must receive 12.5% of the total electorate to reach the second ballot. As a result, representation in the legislature is often skewed. An underrepresented constituency leads voters to feel disenfranchised, ultimately resulting in voter apathy (Taub, 2022). Democratic legislative bodies require compromise to successfully function under partial proportional representation. Without compromise, underrepresentation will become a problem that occurs cyclically in French elections. The French will continue to vote for a candidate just to ensure the loss of the other rather than for a candidate they actually want. This can result in enacted policies that the general population does not necessarily agree with, which can result in extra-parliamentary conflict when the only elected candidates are that of extreme policy.
Factors of broken electoral systems, voter apathy, and a lack of viable candidates alternative to Macron on the left threatened to put Marine Le Pen in power. The potential for a future populist leader in France is viable if the french do not make serious changes in their electoral systems. Commitment to political reform by increasing proportional representation in the government is necessary to promoting pluralism and rejecting populism.