French elections mirror a growing trend away from traditional politics

France is at the forefront of a global movement away from traditional politics and towards individuals free from party ties, writes John Lloyd.

French elections mirror a growing trend away from traditional politics

The political party is dying and independents now rule among voters around the globe. France has emerged as the leader of this movement, and the first confirmation of its depth and likely permanence has come with the French vote in the first round of their presidential election.

We know something is serious when a comic takes it up as a cause. Earlier this week the comedian-pundit John Oliver told his viewers that the election of National Front candidate Marine Le Pen would destroy Europe.

Yet of the three leading candidates, Le Pen is the most traditional.

Compared to her two main challengers, Jean-Luc Melenchon and Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen is still “rooted” in a party with a history and tradition. The National Front was founded in 1972 and dominated by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who soon became its leader. It was an heir to the less radical Poujadisme movement of the 1950s, which united small traders and farmers against the forces of modernity.

The elder Le Pen made the party overtly racist and especially anti- Semitic. His daughter has dropped much of the anti-Semitism in favour of strong opposition to Muslim immigration, and still stronger attacks on globalisation and the European Union, seen as the major factors in a betrayal of the working and lower middle classes.

Her opponents present themselves as self-made men and, less convincingly, outsiders. Melenchon has been a politician for decades: a Trotskyist, he joined the Socialist Party, was briefly a junior minister, then found it too tame and went back to the far left.

In the 2012 presidential election he received 11% of the vote. He now receives between 17 and 20% in the polls, putting him in third place, and rising.

Melenchon’s movement, France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France), was created last year. He wants a €100bn economic stimulus plan, a 35-hour work week and a high earner tax of 90%.

He’s sceptical of the European Union (though not entirely against it) and wants to bring the European Central Bank under political control. Some of his economic programme is close to Le Pen’s: His popularity, and hers, reflects the continuing support for a strong, interventionist state whose job is to advance social justice.

Yet Melenchon now rejects the tags of “far left” or even “left” in favour of being called a populist.

Macron has a greater claim to outsider status, at least in politics. His programme is vague, but in most ways the opposite of Melenchon’s and Le Pen’s. He welcomes globalisation and claims the French can benefit from it. He supports immigration for the same reason and wants the French to understand, rather than be suspicious of, Muslim citizens.

He chooses policies from the left and right, seeing the old division —which originated in the French Revolution — as no longer valid. His division is between those who want France to be closed — Melenchon and Le Pen — or open: Him.

Macron’s popularity, especially among the young middle class, is worrying his opponents. It’s also drawing attention from Moscow, which is being accused of taking an active, propagandist part in the election.

The Russians, who have flirted with Le Pen, now appear to prefer François Fillon, the candidate for the Republican Party. He is friendly towards Russia, seeing it as an ally rather than an opponent. He had been the favourite to win, but a scandal of payments to his family for allegedly fictitious work is now being investigated, and has relegated him to fourth place in most polls.

This is an election which means more to the future of Europe than any other this year, regardless of who wins. Macron will try to take France deeper into a globalised world, hoping he can overcome deep distrust on the left and right.

Melenchon and Le Pen will play into that distrust, by seeking distance from the EU and protection for workers, small business owners and companies in trouble.

The “self-made men” candidates represent a new sort of politics — as did US President Donald Trump, in a very different vein. They stand for an individual pledge and programme, not those that come from a party.

Parties asked the people to trust them because they were created by activist groups to further their social and economic interests. The new individual candidates ask people to trust them because they are not of a party, will not further party interests but devote themselves to the public, unencumbered.

  • John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics and Journalism in an Age of Terror, published this month by IB Tauris. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and founder of FT Magazine.

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