French election: how the vote came to be so split

Emmanuel Macron was the winner of the first round of the French presidental election. Eric Feferberg/AFP

Four numbers illustrate just how divided France now is: 24, 21, 20, 20. They’re the percentage of votes obtained by the four top finishers (Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon respectively), in the first round of the 2017 French presidential election, held on April 23. Eliminated were the two major political parties that have alternated running the country since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – together, the left-wing Socialist Party and right-wing Les Republicains gathered just 26% of the votes cast.

Three of the four top candidates that stand out in this unprecedented contest have never been in power, and the political party of top vote-getter Emmanuel Macron didn’t even exist a year ago.

This new, puzzle-like dispersion of voter support isn’t good news for the governability of the country, as the emergence of a legislative majority in June is anything but certain. In a situation where the balance of power is so close, the future president won’t necessarily find a sufficient number of districts where his or her candidates can prevail.

Four key criteria

The first round of the presidential election shows a split of the electorate, and thus France itself, around several key issues. Research at Sciences Po Paris enables us to identify the attitudes and values through which the French have restructured their political identity and via which we see the emergence of new political movements.

In the run-up to the vote, it was often said that the endless cycle of scandals – from François Fillon’s alleged misuse of public funds to Marine Le Pen’s EU “assistants” – masked substantive debate. While the judicial affairs took up a lot of space in the media, voters understood what was at stake and what was important to them.

Here are four key criteria voters were using to judge the candidates.

  • Economic liberalism. Supporters of the free market (with or without state regulation) against those who advocate an egalitarian interventionism by the government.

  • Cultural liberalism. The defence of individual emancipation with mutual respect and tolerance against those who demand the respect of rules and values that are collectively defined and imposed on individuals.

  • Euroscepticism (which can go as far as europhobia). It welcomes all those with a nationalist discourse and who criticise the European Union to the point of considering leaving it.

  • Ethnocentrism. Those who accept the diverse reality of a globalised world and a multicultural and open society face off against defenders of a national identity and its historical roots – with the implicit willingness to exclude those who are not of the nation – all the while denouncing the supposed misdeeds of cultural globalisation.

The combinations of these four criteria explain the contemporary electoral landscape in France. The following table indicates with a plus sign when a candidate holds a divisive position and with a minus sign when they’re against it. Some candidates are ambiguous about certain positions, or are obliged to deal with a split electorate, as is the case of the FN in the north and the south.

Author provided

Where the four main candidates stand

Emmanuel Macron is clearly on the side of a certain economic liberalism. Still, he sees the state as being able to intervene when required and also to help victims of international economic competition. He is also on the side of cultural liberalism, and has defended women’s rights, reproductive rights and gay marriage. Moreover, the individual emancipation of everyone is one of his recurring themes, including removing the limitations to entrepreneurial spirit.

He is not a eurosceptic. On the contrary, his defence of anchoring France within the European Union was one of the markers of his campaign. He was one of the few candidates who made EU flags available to his supporters at campaign meetings. Compare this to Marine Le Pen, who demanded that the TV station TF1 remove a blue EU banner from the studio before her appearance. Emmanuel Macron also supports an open society, so much so that Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused him of being a supporter of globalism.

Marine Le Pen, on the evening of the first round, April 23, 2017. Alain Jocard/AFP

Marine Le Pen and the Front National are directly identified with a rejection of the European Union as it was conceived and currently functions, and Le Pen goes so far as to advocate an exit from the EU and the euro. This position guarantees her a solid electoral base, but also limits her because it displeases many conservative and elderly voters. The defence of ethnocentrism has long been the backbone of the FN’s appeal, and the candidate even returned to these fundamentals when she started to slip in the polls. The work of Nonna Mayer clearly shows that hostility to immigrants and Islam are the leading characteristics of FN support among voters who feel that French identity and culture are in danger.

In terms of cultural or economic liberalism, the FN’s position is ambivalent, as its supporters and those it targets have divergent viewpoints. Blue- and white-collar workers are in favour of strong social protection, while farmers, small business owners, craftsmen and retirees are generally against the growth of the state, trade unions, and “fiscalism”, to use the expression of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father. As for “moral” questions, the party’s supporters include those rooted in traditional Catholicism as well as many who are not religious. But overall, Le Pen’s emphasis on more order (this is indeed the central message of her first-round election poster) and authority place her on the side of rejecting cultural liberalism.

François Fillon, the candidate for Les Républicans. Lionel Bonaventure/AFP

François Fillon was the strongest advocate of pure economic liberalism. He proposed radical measures to “free the economy”, and cited Margaret Thatcher as his model. These promises might well have impeded him from winning the working-class, right-wing vote that Nicolas Sarkozy captured in 2007. The display of his personal Christian convictions and the support of the movement Common Sense (which organises street protests against same-sex marriage) clearly moved the candidate of Les Républicains toward a cultural conservatism. This stance certainly allowed Fillon – on the brink of being evicted completely after “Penelopegate” and other scandals – to keep himself in the race, but it limited support by conservative voters who are culturally liberal.

As for Europe, Fillon adopted a middle position. He chastised his opponents who claimed that leaving the EU or dropping the euro would be beneficial, but also was highly critical on some constraints related to the EU. The same can be said of ethnocentrism: Fillon gradually adopted positions held by former president Nicolas Sarkozy on national identity, French citizenship, and the struggle against fundamentalism (especially Muslim), while posing as a defender of order and security.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has not yet recommended to his supporters how they should vote in the second round. Bertrand Guay/AFP

Jean-Luc Mélenchon has chosen a unique combination of positions across the four divisions. While, like Emmanuel Macron, he has historical links to the Socialist Party, he nevertheless shares with Macron only two out of the four boxes: for cultural liberalism and against national ethnocentrism.

On the other hand, he’s a resolute opponent of economic liberalism and a robust supporter of government intervention to improve the living conditions of those who are less well off. And, of course, his positions on Europe put him squarely with the eurosceptics, even europhobes, since his “Plan B” provides room for a possible break from the EU.

Across the divide?

When we visualise France’s new four-way political split, it’s easier to understand when activists, elected representatives or citizens say they hesitate for this or that reason, why they find that candidates can say things they support, yet hold other positions they reject. And in this way, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Socialist Party standard-bearer Benoît Hamon deny Emmanuel Macron the right to say he’s from the left, even if a good part of Macron’s electorate is the same as Hollande’s in 2012. And this rejection of economic liberalism is a marker of the left-wing identity Mélenchon and Hamon used to build their electoral bases.

In a sense, Hamon didn’t hesitate to call on his supporters to support Macron in the second round because he shares three boxes with him, while Jean-Luc Mélenchon only two. François Fillon shares just one square with Macron, while Marine Le Pen takes opposite positions from him on three-and-a-half issues out of four.

Because of such cleavages, is France condemned to fall into a kind of enduring political paralysis? Emmanuel Macron has adopted a position of conciliator, but many see their positions as non-negotiable. The question that will become acute in the coming political years – starting with the June legislative campaign and the resulting coalitions – is the ability of both sides to recognise rivals as possible partners, seeing more what is shared than what separates.


Translated from the French by Leighton Walter Kille.

This article was originally published in French