In 1958, as France reeled from the Algerian War, Charles de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, creating the role of an all-powerful president. On the eve of its 60th anniversary, the Fifth Republic is in crisis. Economic stagnation, terrorism, a revolt against globalisation and a hatred of elites have destabilised France. “Our country is ill,” said the former prime minister Alain Juppé in a speech in March. “Resistant to reforms that it knows are necessary, angry with its political elites but susceptible to demagogic promises, it is experiencing today a terrible crisis of confidence.” With both the far right and the far left surging, the incumbent Socialist president, François Hollande, did not dare to stand in this month’s election, perhaps the most important in France since the Second World War.
The 2017 election has been among the most tumultuous in France’s history. Neither of the two early front-runners – Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, running under the banner of the En Marche! movement (“Onward!”) – was drawn from the conventional governing parties. A third contender, the radical left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has similarly emerged from outside the political establishment. The greatest, perhaps sole, point of unity is a revulsion against the status quo.
Successive presidents have vowed to transform the country and have failed. Unemployment is at 10 per cent and among the youth the figure is an appalling 24 per cent. Horrific terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice have exacerbated fraught community relations. Mr Hollande, who cuts a tragicomic figure, has proved profoundly unequal to such challenges.
As voters prepare for the first round of the election, Marine Le Pen remains strong. The Front National leader has exploited jihadist attacks and France’s secularist tradition to demonise French Muslims. She has pledged to reduce immigration to a mere 10,000 per year and to seek EU withdrawal if Brussels does not accept her demands for the abandonment of the euro and the passport-free Schengen Area.
By also pledging to increase welfare spending and to reduce the retirement age to 60, she has attracted former Socialist and Communist voters aggrieved by years of economic decline. Though Ms Le Pen has sought to distance the Front National from its fascist and anti-Semitic roots (expelling her Holocaust-denying father from the party he once led), the mask routinely slips. On 9 April, she denied that the French state was responsible for the wartime round-up of more than 13,000 Jews at the Vel’ d’Hiv cycling track in Paris. That she remains a conceivable victor – and the most popular candidate among younger voters – is a mark of France’s malaise.
For liberals, Ms Le Pen’s rise – like the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election – is cause for dismay. But Mr Macron’s emergence has provided consolation. The former merchant banker and economy minister bypassed the established party structures by declining to seek the Socialist candidacy and founding his own movement. Aged 39, he is charismatic and confident. He is an unapologetic defender of globalisation, the EU, the eurozone and open borders and is determined to match the boldness and self-confidence of the populist right.
Although the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, has distinguished himself with proposals such as a 32-hour working week and a tax on robots, his association with Mr Hollande has marooned him. As a former member of the ancien régime, he may prove an inadequate representative of change.
The recent surge by the Communist-backed Mr Mélenchon reflects a desire for a still greater upheaval. His bold interventionism (including a 100 per cent top-rate income tax) and hard Euroscepticism appeal to the disenchanted. More than any other candidate, he stands for fundamental constitutional change through the establishment of a Sixth Republic and a significant reduction in the powers of the presidency.
Yet so open and unpredictable is the contest that even the mainstream centre-right candidate for the Républicains, François Fillon, under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds, has a chance of making the final round.
All of the candidates – even Mr Fillon, a socially conservative Thatcherite – can claim to represent change. Yet none appears capable of embodying what de Gaulle called “l’esprit de la nation”. Victory for Mr Macron, who is committed to liberal economic reform (a hazardous path) and to the EU establishment, risks fuelling yet more discontent.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble