Assessing the French Presidential Elections: Five Minutes with Charlotte Cavaille

The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs recently sat down with Georgetown University Assistant Professor Charlotte Cavaille to discuss the current state of France’s presidential campaign, and how it compares to the U.S. 2016 campaign.

GJIA: How do you see the French presidential election playing out in the coming weeks? What are the major forces shaping the election right now?

CC: This election is so different that it’s hard to use past ones to predict how this one will go. Why is it different? Because the establishment parties have disintegrated: the Socialist Party, formerly headed by Francois Hollande, is weak and fragmented. The leftist party rallied around Hamon, who garnered little support. Fillon, the candidate on the established right, was hurt by a scandal during which he used campaign money for his own benefit. Therefore, we cannot assign votes to traditional political parties, because the party voters have traditionally voted for are too weak or wracked by scandal.

The big force on the right comes from a large increase in votes for the Front National, the far-right party, since the recession. Since the 1980s, the Front National has been hitting a “glass ceiling” of votes and was unable to build a national base. Since the recession however, the Front National has seen its share of votes go up, especially in local and regional elections. On the other side you have Macron. No one really understands this phenomenon: are people rallying around him to stop Le Pen? Do they like his policies? It’s unclear.

GJIA: Could you make a comparison between the French and U.S. elections? Is Macron like Hillary and Le Pen like Trump? Or are those comparisons too far-fetched?

CC: Le Pen and Trump are most similar in that their electorate generally comes from the suburban and rural areas, have little education. You therefore see a similar split in the United States between urbanites and rural voters. There is also a cultural phenomenon underlying both electorates: a dislike and distrust for cosmopolitan, urbanite culture. Both electorates also both distrust political elites. Moreover, the United States and France are coming at an end of a political cycle—Hillary represented the politics of the 1990s and early 2000s, while the French cycle started by Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s has lasted until now. These are the same symptoms of the same “disease”: a crumbling political establishment. Another similarity comes from Le Pen and Trump’s economic platforms. Trump promised during his campaign to maintain the social safety net and refused to cut benefits, and Le Pen has campaigned on a similar populist economic platform.

GJIA: Has Macron been more or less effective than Hillary was in dealing with a populist threat?

CC: I’m not sure he is doing better than Hillary. He is targeting an electorate that would never vote for him anyways, so he is trying to pull in the anti-Le Pen voters. He is therefore benefitting from a vague centrist coalition that has formed around him due to a distrust of the establishment parties. He, like Hillary, is opposing Le Pen’s national-chauvinistic economic policies. He has a positive view of immigration, vouches for free trade and open borders, and values EU membership highly. After making an off-hand comment about how colonialism had some positive aspects, he emphasized how it was a “crime against humanity,” a clear attempt to pull in bleeding-heart liberals. This is similar to Hillary’s espousal of the Black Lives Matter movement to pull in further-left voters. However, he doesn’t have a clear platform, and his stances puzzle many French. At least Hillary had a solid platform and a governing legacy, but the only initiative associated with Macron is the deregulation of the labor market. This is effective in addressing concerns of unemployment, but in general, his plans are vague.

GJIA: In the United States, populist rhetoric is directed mainly towards Mexico, while in France the anti-immigrant discourse centers on Muslims. What are the main differences between French voters and U.S. voters in dealing with immigrants?

CC: First, there is a difference in immigration patterns between the United States and France. Since 1975, there has been a very slow trickle of immigration into France. France’s problem is less one of illegal immigration and more a cultural and societal problem. This is because second generation Muslims, born in France, have turned to Islam in a wave of religious awakening. This has led to a cultural discomfort among other French citizens.

GJIA: How has Le Pen been addressing this problem? Is her rhetoric different from Trump’s?

CC: She has changed her discourse compared to her dad. She has stopped using the phrase Français de souche, roughly meaning “French to the roots” to refer to “true French” citizens. She has instead focused on the concept of laicite, or secularism, to attack Muslim groups, claiming their practices are somehow “anti-French.” Trump is different in this regard: he does not attack Mexicans from a cultural or religious standpoint, but rather emphasizes the criminal aspect of illegal immigration. Le Pen has also integrated her anti-immigrant rhetoric with her welfare-chauvinist economic platform. She wants immigrants to pay for their children’s’ education and wants to delay access for several years to new immigrants.

GJIA: Is there a religious component to Le Pen’s rhetoric concerning Islam?

CC: Not exactly. She focuses more on the economic wrongs of immigration, and how Muslim communities are taking advantage of France’s welfare state. This is closely tied to France’s recession and recent economic woes. She is touching upon voters’ economic concerns over unemployment and national debt, which is the most sensitive aspect for many voters.

GJIA: Finally, what are the future implications of a Macron or Le Pen victory?

CC: First of all, I think Le Pen is unlikely to win, because she either needs an extremely low turnout for the other side or needs to triple her share of votes to gain a majority. If she does win, she won’t have a party to help her in the Parliament. France’s government has two main heads: the Presidency and the Parliament. She may win the presidency, but the French Parliament will coalesce against her. I am sure that the mainstream parties on both sides will band together to stop her. This means that she will need to use referenda to govern—for example referenda on EU membership and trade negotiations. This will result in further instability and likely domestic division as she seeks to mobilize popular support rather than parliamentary support for her initiatives.

As for Macron, I cannot definitively tell you what he will do. It is fascinating how he seems to be friendly to all parties, so it is hard to say if he will align left or right. It will more likely be politics as usual. I am sure that political deals are being struck behind the scenes. They will emerge once he is elected, so we will have to wait and see exactly what he has in mind for France.

Charlotte Cavaillé is a research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Toulouse and an Assistant Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Cavaillé received a PhD in Government and Social Policy from Harvard University in November 2014. She studies comparative politics and the political economy of advanced capitalist countries drawing heavily from the political behavior literature developed by students of American politics.