Will it be Macron, Fillon or Le Pen? Cambridge scholars look ahead to the French election

by Peter Sloman

On Monday 13 March, In The Long Run held its first public event in Cambridge – a panel discussion on the forthcoming French presidential election. Dr Hugo Drochon, Dr Olivier Tonneau, and Dr Mélanie Lamotte examined the likely outcome of the contest and considered what an Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen presidency would mean for France and Europe. Hugo Drochon is a postdoctoral research fellow at CRASSH in Cambridge and the author of Nietsche’s Great Politics (Princeton, 2016), and has written on French politics for the New Statesman. Olivier Tonneau is a scholar of early modern French thought who teaches French at Homerton College; he is involved with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise and has written a comic-strip version of its programme. Mélanie Lamotte is a junior research fellow at Newnham College and is working on a book entitled Before Race Mattered: Ethnic Prejudice in the French Empire, c. 1635-1767. The event was chaired by Dr Dennis Grube of POLIS.

Hugo Drochon began the discussion by arguing that the success of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen reflects the disintegration of France’s old left-right divide. Both candidates stand outside the traditional socialist and Gaullist blocs, and both have an interest in realigning French political debate along a new axis – Le Pen rallying ‘patriotic’ opposition to globalization, Macron championing liberal ‘progress’ against the far right. Macron’s attempt to draw support from both flanks was already causing him difficulties, as he simultaneously criticized France’s ‘crimes against humanity’ in Algeria and complained that opponents of gay marriage had been ‘humiliated’. Drochon thought it likely that Macron would become president; the big political question was whether his En Marche movement would be strong enough to secure a majority – perhaps in conjunction with moderate socialist allies – at the National Assembly elections in June. Macron’s other big challenge in office would be to renegotiate the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact to create room for the higher government investment he had promised. President Hollande had made little progress on this front, but European policy-makers had been badly shaken by the rise of the populist right since 2012, and a Social Democrat victory in September’s German election might make Macron’s task a bit easier.

Olivier Tonneau agreed that the main story of the election so far was the crumbling of the socialist and Gaullist blocs which have dominated French politics since the 1980s. Tonneau was particularly impressed by the collapse of the moderate right, as conservative voters were attracted to the xenophobia of the Front National; to some extent, this pattern was being masked by the hard line which François Fillon had taken on social and cultural issues. At the same time, the centrist contingent in the Parti Socialiste was also crumbling as a result of disaffection with François Hollande’s policies. Tonneau argued that the regrouping of the center-left and center-right around Emmanuel Macron reflected the weakness of France’s centrist forces, not their strength. It also signalled a danger: whilst French voters had always swung from left to right, with the Front National a marginal third pole, a Macron victory would pit the centre against the Front National, making it the most likely alternative if he failed to resolve France’s economic and social issues. Tonneau thought such a failure was likely, given that Macron was effectively committed to the Hollande government’s policies, which had themselves failed. Tonneau nonetheless remained hopeful for the radical left which, he argued, had never been stronger. He thought left-wing voters were likely to consolidate their support behind either Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Benoît Hamon as the election neared, and also argued that the Front National’s inroads into the French working class tended to be exaggerated; the growth of alienation and abstention among the working class was a much bigger problem.

Mélanie Lamotte discussed Emmanuel Macron’s controversial comments about ‘crimes against humanity’ in Algeria in the light of her own research on colour prejudice in the early modern French empire. She pointed out that Macron’s real attitude towards colonialism is unclear, since he argued in 2016 that France’s presence in Algeria had contained elements of civilization as well as elements of barbarity. Lamotte also reflected on her own family background – her mother was descended from slaves in the French colony of Guadeloupe –and said she was proud that France was finally confronting the dark side of its past.

In discussion, Hugo Drochon argued that François Hollande’s personal unpopularity did not mean that a constituency no longer existed for his brand of social democratic politics. Tonneau disagreed with this, and pointed to the growing precarity which many workers experienced within the French labour market. Tonneau argued that disillusionment with the two main parties ran very deep.

Drochon pointed to the geopolitical implications of the French contest by pointing to Le Pen and Fillon’s mutual admiration for Vladimir Putin. Fillon sees the Russian president
as the defender of Christianity in eastern Europe, while there have been allegations that the Front National is financed by Russian loans; this may explain why Putin is so determined to disrupt Macron’s progress. Lively discussion continued over drinks afterwards. We hope to follow this roundtable up with similar events in Cambridge later in the year.


About the Author

Peter Sloman

Peter Sloman is Lecturer in British Politics at the University Cambridge and a fellow of Churchill College. He has written extensively on British liberalism and public policy, and is currently writing a book on the politics of guaranteed income.