France: Goodbye Left, Goodbye Right

In the autumn of 2014, as he began his improbable push for a return to power, former president Nicolas Sarkozy declared, “The left-right division is threadbare like a three hundred-year-old rug.” The issue, Sarkozy explained, positioning himself as the standard-bearer of the political revolution to come, “is not whether you are a socialist or a liberal. Our political model has to be completely remade.”

Less than two months out from the election Sarkozy was positioning himself in 2014 to win, that vision appears to be coming true. Sarkozy, of course, is no longer part of it, having been rebuffed by voters in the Republican primary months ago. But both the polls and Predata’s digital campaign metrics suggest that a real turning point has been crossed in this election over the past week. For the first time in the Fifth Republic’s near-60 years, it now appears likely that neither of France’s main parties of the left and right will have a candidate in the second round of the presidential election. Politicians of the two mainstream parties have long talked of the need for a “rupture” to break France from its economic and social somnambulism. The rupture is coming, but it won’t, apparently, involve them.

François Fillon, the candidate of the traditional conservative right, is in free fall: the fake jobs scandal that emerged in late January is only getting worse, and if Fillon is not quite dead in the polls, the online public has certainly stopped paying attention to him. The candidates of the left, Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have now signaled that their efforts, already fairly half-hearted, to form a joint ticket to give the broad left a fighting chance of making it to the second round have failed. In the polls, both men appear stuck in the 10–15% range, and engagement with their campaigns online is now beginning to stall after a three-week period in which digital enthusiasm for the idea of a unity ticket on the left was at its frothiest.

Instead, momentum is with Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) and Emmanuel Macron, two candidates who don’t fit easily into the left-right binary. Macron will reveal his full policy platform on Thursday, though the early indications suggest he will offer up a feelgood mix of social progressivism and pro-Europe globalism with some stffer medicine on the economic front; already his opponents, in the delightfully macaronic French way of adapting English words to non-English usage, are dismissing his solutions as “Hollande relooké.” This is more than just a canned line; François Hollande remains deeply unpopular, even in the dignified obsolescence of his final days in power, and Macron, who served as Hollande’s economy minister before resigning to run for the presidency, will have to work hard to dispel the attacks — already well under way in the digital domain, but sure to intensify in the months ahead — that he’s nothing more than a drippy soft-left centrist in a snappy suit (un cochon lipstické, if you prefer).

Le Pen, meanwhile, despite regularly being pinned as a candidate of the far-right, is running on a platform that’s well to the right on matters of national security and immigration — the Front National’s bread and butter — but would do the French Communist Party of the 1970s proud on economic policy. Le Pen’s economic program combines the usual jeremiads against the European Union, the euro and global free trade with calls for “reindustrialization,” protectionism, expanded welfare protections, a system of national preference in employment, and the reduction of the retirement age to 60.

Having started off as a niche party devoted to questions of cultural identity and immigration, the FN, rightly reckoning that the path to electability involves mastery of more diverse terrain, has worked hard to build its credibility on economic matters in recent years. The very sober, technocratic-looking Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s party deputy, and Philippe Murer, her parliamentary assistant, are two of the FN’s most influential economic policy voices — and they’ve been a major force behind the party’s retro-left lurch on economic issues over the last five years, winning the internal ideological battle over Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who favors a more liberal, pro-market economic course. Both Philippot and Murer regularly figure among the top drivers of online interest in Le Pen’s digital campaign — and they both regularly hammer on economic issues on Twitter. The digital public, in short, is paying attention to what the FN has to say on the economy.

The polls and Predata’s digital campaign scores — as we showed two weeks ago — both indicate that the margin between Le Pen and Macron in an eventual second round runoff is tightening. Indeed the latest polls show that Le Pen’s likely share of the second round vote has grown by 5–7 percentage points over the last month to 42–45% — well ahead of the 18% her father received in the second round of the 2002 election. The line that Le Pen will automatically lose the runoff is looking increasingly lazy, and increasingly naive. ⏪