With Emmanuel Macron’s 2022 electoral victory over Marine Le Pen, it might be tempting to view the current iteration of Fifth Republic politics as a continuation of the status quo of French democracy successfully resisting populistic sentiments. The reality, however, is far more nuanced.
It is fundamental to recognize that the current chapter of Fifth Republic politics begins with the construction of La Republique En Marche, prior to the 2017 presidential election, from a coalition base of disaffected center-left and center-right voters. En Marche usurped the establishment centrist parties, the Socialists and Republicans – the latter of whom represented the contemporary incarnation of the center-right Gaullist politics – who had dominated Fifth Republic politics. Such political positioning was emblematic of a seismic shift in Fifth Republic politics as it enabled a singular party, and, in particular its founder and leader, Emmanuel Macron, to fully embody the center of French politics. That Macron positioned himself as the consummate political outsider1 – untainted by the scandals which consumed the Sarkozy and Hollande administrations2 and engulfed the presidential bid of the Republican, Francois Fillion3, furthered his image as a politician deserving of the people’s faith. All the while, the once dominant Socialists and Republicans saw their combined vote share in presidential primaries plumet from greater than 50% in 2012 to under 30% in 20173 and finally to 6.53% in 20224. En Marche, while not initiating their collapse, hastened it by providing a viable centrist alternative.
In 2017, Macron juxtaposed the then unfiltered Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally, enroute to a landslide two-thirds electoral victory5. A 2022 rematch, while once again resulting in a historic victory for Macron, also represents the opening of a door to illiberal populism in the Fifth Republic – one left ajar by the relative electoral strategies of Macron and Le Pen.
To understand the opening of the door, it is necessary to first return to the precipitous demise of the Republicans and Socialists as this demise represents the potential origins for increased populist support in France. In situations where voters care about their respective distances from ideological positions of candidates, more so than about winning the majority, the Hotelling-Downs model, with Ideological Candidates, would suggest that the devolution of the center from two formerly dominant parties to a singular party could feasibly result in greater support for extremist candidates on both the far-right and far-left as individual voters prioritize the ideological position of the candidate, in efforts to maximize their political utility. This is arguably the case in the primary round of the French elections as historical trends have indicated a proclivity, amongst the French population, to vote their ideological conscience in the primary round before voting strategically, or, more recently, abstaining, in the run-off election6. As such, the simultaneous rise, and relative consolidation of the establishment centrist vote, in En Marche and demise of the Republicans and Socialists, has arguably increased the extremist vote in recent French elections, as voters in the primary round vote might find themselves ideological further from the centrist establishment and thus more likely to support far-left or far-right populists as they vote their ideological conscience in efforts to maximize their political utility.
On its own, such an increase in the populist vote would present a less daunting challenge to French democracy as, without the legitimacy yielded by establishment, far left and right politics are likely to remain at the fringes of the political conversation. With the consolidation of the establishment centrist vote, and with no viable challenger on the Left, preceding Jean-Luc Melancon’s remarkable performance in the 2022 primary7, however, Marcon and En Marche engaged in a political shift rightwards. Such action fundamentally changes the calculus regarding the challenges in an increased populist vote.
Macron’s strategic rhetorical swing rightwards takes on the appearance of a legitimate political strategy – to enlarge his political base and draw supporters away in order to combat a vocal far-right, spearheaded by Le Pen. The co-option of certain National Rally positions politically served such aims, as did accusations, directed towards the far-right, of being softer on crime and immigration than En Marche7. In promoting such issues and policies, however, Macron and En Marche legitimized the positions of the far-right National Rally, with the hopes that they might be able to control the outcomes. This is akin to the fallacious notion, which possesses establishment politicians who attempt to welcome challengers, with an authoritarian streak, into politics with the hope that they can control them and the outcomes that arise for future political gain8. The legitimization that Macron, and En Marche, offered to the National Rally, via this co-option serves to also burnish the overall image of the National Rally, bringing even those ideas which are not legitimized by En Marche into the popular discourse by association. As such, this rhetorical rightward swing by Macron and En Marche, for their own political gain, has resulted in an abdication of duty by serving members of the political elite to repudiate anti liberal democratic ideologies, even at a political cost to themselves; a duty which is essential to the protection of democracy from illiberal ideologies and populistic sentiment. This reality is reflected in the outcome of the most recent presidential election as Marine Le Pen increased her vote share in the run-off from 34% in 2017 to 41.5% in 2022; a record fraction of available votes for the French far-right9.
Macron and En Marche’s rightward swing, legitimizing the fringes of French politics, is not the only factor in weakening French democracy. Significantly, Le Pen’s simultaneous sanitization of her image7, increasing her appeal and political viability, and focus on the economic exclusion of aspects of French society, analogous to the industrial rust belt of the United States6,7, endangers democracy. Le Pen’s argument to these voters, across French villages, that the establishment has utterly failed to appropriately perform its duty to protect their livelihoods, focusing instead on the economic gain of the elite as opposed to the citizens6,7, is an attempt to influence her political base’s view of the economic bargain between themselves and their government thereby creating an anti-establishment sentiment which can be mobilized to maximize electoral gains10. That Le Pen has coupled such rhetoric with historically unchecked populistic positions7 only furthers the dangers of such an electoral strategy, as does her image sanitization7, which reduces barriers to increased support from the citizenry as social acceptability of support increases. As significant discontent, on the part of citizens, with high levels of economic inequality, leads to demands against a status quo10, it is rational to conclude that the creation this political atmosphere, of perceived high levels of economic inequality begets an environment of hostility to the establishment and, by virtue of its association with the establishment, democracy itself. And as democracy can be understood to depend partially on a democratic culture11, it can therefore be concluded that discontent with the establishment by some of its citizens, can disenchant them from democracy itself. Such rhetoric can lead to a decline in the resilience of a democratic culture, thereby weakening a fundamental criterion that underpins democratic strength. This danger is furthered not only by Le Pen’s own attempts to sanitize her image, but also by the rightward swing of En Marche. The confluence of these factors results in greater overall legitimacy of Marine Le Pen’s candidacy, and, more significantly, the ideological positions she espouses, which unless actively checked, will outlive her political viability.
French democracy is then might best understood to be at a crossroads. 2022 was not a second consecutive vociferous referendum against the illiberalistic populism espoused by Le Pen, but rather, given the relative political movements of Macron and Le Pen, was a weaker resistance to such notions. The cumulative effect of the electoral strategies of both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen have legitimized illiberal, populistic positions, leading to a surge in the popularity of far-right and far-left candidates that culminated in their receiving a cumulative 58% of the available vote share in the 2022 primary4. Where the Fifth Republic politics proceeds from here thus depends on a willingness of the establishment to, even at a political cost to themselves, attempt to engage with the disenchanted voters who supported Le Pen, and other candidates with populistic streaks, without legitimizing the positions of such candidates.
Sources: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/04/11/french-election-macron-le-pen-politics/  https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/france-is-still-standing-after-the-first-round-of-presidential-elections  https://www.vox.com/world/2017/4/25/15409924/french-election-charts  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60799845  https://www.statista.com/statistics/887844/french-presidential-election-results/  https://open.spotify.com/episode/34K6mr0YGqJE32hgNM32ho?si=w7kAq1O6Rs6mL_6vgnE9dg  https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/13/world/europe/france-far-right-national-rally-le-pen-macron.html  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin, 2018.  https://apnews.com/article/2022-french-election-voting-results-f5b549e3b99930ee05bed17a9d3870b6  Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006.  Waldner, David, and Ellen Lust. “Unwelcome Change: Coming to Terms with Democratic Backsliding.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 21, no. 1, May 2018, pp. 93–113, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-050517-114628.