Here's Why This Election Year in France Is Completely Unprecedented

Map showing the leading candidate after the first round of voting in France's 2012 presidential elections in the following territories: Metropolitan France, Overseas Departments and Territories and votes cast by French nationals living abroad. François Hollande –> pink Marine Le Pen –> grey Nicolas Sarkozy –> blue via BigonL on wkipedia CC-BY-30

France's looming elections, presidential and legislative, promise to be different. The presidential elections will take place on April 23 and May 7, followed closely by the legislative elections on June 11 and 18.

For the first time under France's current republican system of government, established in 1958, the outgoing president François Hollande has chosen not to seek re-election. However, there are three other reasons–both national and international–that give a particular note of uncertainty to this campaign.

1. Traditional parties have lost ground to new parties

In 2012, the traditional political parties in France, the Socialist Party and the Republican Party had secured first place finishes in every department in the first round of voting. Without a doubt, this will not be the case this year: the candidates in these parties are placing third or fourth in the latest polls, far behind Marine Le Pen, the candidate for the National Front and Emmanuel Macron, and the candidate for the En Marche [On The Move] movement.

François Fillon, the Republican candidate is mired with legal problems relating to his wife's fake job scandal. Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Party candidate, is now stalling at 16% of predicted votes in the polls after his victory in the left's primary elections.

This trend confirms a defiant attitude against politics as usual and a desire for meaningful change. Jean-Philippe Dubrulle is in charge of the opinion and strategy department at the Institut français d'opinion publique [French Institute of Public Opinion]. He explains why this election is different:

Aujourd'hui, on voit deux tendances assez contradictoires : D'un côté une baisse la participation (ou du moins un désintérêt) et d'un autre une plus grande richesse de l'offre politique. Le désintérêt était justifié par le fait que les gens avaient l'impression que personne ne représentaient leurs idées. C'était, le gros candidat de la gauche et le gros candidat de la droite et puis c'est tout.  Aujourd'hui l'offre est beaucoup pus variée avec des lignes très marquées à gauche, comme à droite ce qui fait qu'on aboutit à deux pôles extrêmement forts. Même si les français ont déjà une bonne idée des candidats qui seront en lice, l'offre n'est pas encore fixée. Tout peut se passer. On assiste clairement à un refus des candidats du passé. Est-ce que tout ça aboutira à un sursaut de mobilisation ou une baisse ? Il est trop tôt pour le dire.

Today, we are witnessing two quite contradictory trends: On the one hand, there is drop in participation (or at least a lack of interest) and on another hand there is more on offer on the political spectrum. Lacking interest was previously justified by the fact that people held the impression that no one represented their ideas. It was a case of a far-left candidate, a far-right candidate and that was all. Today there is much greater choice with pronounced divisions in the left and in the right. which has resulted in two extremely different camps. Even if French people have a good idea of the candidates who are battling it out, the battle is not yet won. Anything can happen. There is clearly a rejection of candidates of the past. Will all of this lead to a sharp increase in engagement or a drop? It is too early to call.

2. The attraction of rising populism in Western democracies

Trump's victory in the United States, Brexit in Great Britain, the extreme right in Hungary and a general rise of populist parties in Europe are the clearest signs that many countries are rejecting globalisation and are becoming increasingly insular. Olivier Costa, director of research at the CNRS and for Science Po University in Bordeaux explores the common cause for these trends in Western democracies further:

Les gens ont le sentiment que l’avenir est noir et que les vieilles recettes des partis établis ne fonctionnent pas. De ce fait, beaucoup ont la tentation de s’en remettre à des nouveaux venus sur la scène politique qui proposent de nouvelles solutions. Les ficelles sont souvent un peu grosses mais d’une certaine manière, les gens s’en fichent. Il y a ceux qui croient à ce que proposent ces nouveaux venus en se disant que ça n’a pas été essayé, et ceux qui sont dans une logique protestataire, de ras-le-bol par rapport aux partis établis. Aussi, ce succès est dû au fait que les partis traditionnels n’arrivent pas à proposer une alternative.

People feel that the future is bleak and that the old recipes of established parties are not working. Because of this, many are tempted to explore newcomers to the political scene who offer fresh solutions. Their tactics can often be a little dodgy but in some ways, people do not care. There are those who believe in what the newcomers are proposing, telling themselves that this has not yet been tried and those who are in a protesting mindset, who feel despondent in relation to the established parties. Also, this success is due to the fact that traditional parties are not offering any alternatives of their own.

3. The scandals that surround the candidates

After several weeks of scrutiny, none of the favourites has succeeded in breaking away from the pack. Marine Le Pen leads the polls but she is also encountering legal troubles, notably the investigation focusing on the fictitious employment of several European parliamentary assistants, the funding of her electoral campaign in the 2012 legislative and presidential elections in 2012 with Russian money and also the removal of her immunity with European Parliament due to ‘sharing violent images’. The threats of legal action weighed down on Fillon have been heavily dissected in the media as well as his forgotten promises to stand down if he were placed under investigation.

Fillon should implement his first promise ‘I will stand down as candidate if I am put under investigation’.

Emmanuel Macron remains an unknown entity and does not reap the rewards of the support nor the structure of a traditional political party. Benoît Hamon is struggling to gather forces on the left and has inherited the baggage left behind from the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic.

These factors combined mean that this election is one of the least certain in the last decades and that no matter who comes out on top, the task of governing a country that is increasingly divided will be a tough challenge to tackle.

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