The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The French Presidential Elections and Europe

Wolfgang Muno

Wolfgang Muno

University of Rostock

Dr. Wolfgang Muno was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in March and April 2017. He is Chair of Comparative Politics at the University of Rostock. Previously, he was a Senior Lecturer at the University of Mainz (habilitation 2015), Acting Professor of International Relations and Comparative Political Systems at University of Landau, Acting Professor of International Relations at Zeppelin University, Friedrichshafen, and Acting Professor for Political Science at Willy Brandt School. He was Visiting Scholar at University of Ottawa, Canada; at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law SHUPL, Shanghai, China; at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires, Argentina; at Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, University of Texas at Austin, USA; and guest lecturer in India, Poland, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and Spain. In addition to his native German, Dr. Muno speaks English, French, and Spanish.

While at AICGS, Dr. Muno worked on a project entitled “Special relationship in flux: Brexit and the future of transatlantic relations.” In June 2016, a shockwave went through Europe: 52 percent of Britons voted in a referendum to leave the EU. The upcoming withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) has since been heavily discussed in Europe. Many studies discuss potential effects of Brexit for the UK as well as for the EU; however, there is much less analysis of what Brexit might mean for wider international relations, especially for the United States and transatlantic relations. The starting point of an analysis of potential effects is a perceived “special relationship” between the UK and the U.S. The main focus of the project is on U.S. perceptions, fears or hopes, or frames; how the United States views Brexit; and on scenarios that are discussed by U.S. foreign policy makers regarding Brexit, and future U.S.-UK, U.S.-EU, and U.S.-German relations.

From the perspective of European Integration, the French presidential election is a reload of Sergio Leone’s 1960s blockbuster movie “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” In the runoff, Emmanuel Macron, the “good guy” of Europe, the JFK of France, was facing xenophobic, anti-Islam, anti-elite, populist candidate Marine Le Pen, the “nasty woman” in French politics. The two front runners offered clear alternatives regarding European integration: on the one side stood the optimist, believing in European integration, openness, and the future, and on the other side there was the anxious and angry, the pessimist, fearing the future and wishing to return to a glorified past of the nation state and “La Grande Nation.” Macron’s outstanding positive stance toward Europe and his promise to renew and strengthen the European Union was in complete opposition to Le Pen’s pledge to hold a referendum on a French exit of the EU and the Euro.

The specter of a “Frexit” was haunting France. In the first round, four candidates were close and could theoretically advance to the second round (see Table 1). Aside from Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, there was scandal-ridden Francois Fillon of the conservative party Les Républicains, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing populist and self-declared plebeian tribune of La France Insoumise. Out of the four frontrunners, two of them, Macron and Mélenchon, broke free from traditional politics and chose instead to embody new political movements. Macron, former Minister of Economy from 2014 to 2016, founded the new party En Marche in April 2016 and resigned in August 2016 from his government position to run for president. Mélenchon ran a populist campaign on the platform of the newly founded “anti-establishment” left-wing movement La France Insoumise.

For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, the first round of the presidential election saw two non-traditional candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, advance to the second round. Neither the candidate of the Socialist Party Benoit Hamon, nor the candidate of the Republicans Francois Fillon was present in the run-off; an unprecedented situation in the Fifth Republic.  While Francois Fillon received a “respectable” 20 percent of the vote, the candidate of the governing party Le Parti Socialiste (PS), Benoît Hamon, received only 6.4 percent of the votes, a humiliating result for the governing party and the worst result the PS has ever received in elections.

Table 1: French Presidential Elections 2017

Emmanuel Macron (En Marche, EM) 24,0 %
Marine Le Pen (Front National, FN) 21,3 %
François Fillon (Les Républicains, LR) 20,0 %
Jean-Luc Mélenchon (La France Insoumise, FI) 19,6 %
Hamon (Parti Socialiste, PS) 6,4 %
Dupont-Aignan (DLF) 4,7 %
Others 4,0 %


While the May 7 presidential election erased the specter of an FN victory (Emmanuel Macron won in the second round of the run-off elections with 66.1 percent of the votes, whereas Marine Le Pen received 33.9 percent), the run-off nevertheless revealed some preoccupying tendencies. It is preoccupying that almost 50 percent of French voters (if we include Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s voters) voted for anti-system and anti-European forces. Compared to 2002, which saw Jean Marie Le Pen in the run-off against Jacques Chirac, the “cordon sanitaire” vis à vis le Front National started to break in 2017. As expected, Fillon and Hamon, as well as President Hollande, the Parti Socialiste and Les Répulicains, all openly and explicitly supported Macron in order to avoid Le Pen. However, the same was not true for two other candidates. The right-wing conservative and monarchist candidate Nicolas Dupont-Aignan decided, after some negotiations, to support Le Pen. Although he represents only a small conservative party, this move crossed a line, broke a taboo, and brought some sort of respectability and acceptance of the Front National, especially for conservative voters. Even more importantly, Jean Luc Mélenchon, the self-declared populist leader played the “ugly guy” and denied Macron official support against Le Pen, which indirectly strengthened Le Pen’s position. In Mélenchon’s view, Macron presents a neo-liberal and pro-European agenda while Marine Le Pen embodies the far right, the traditional enemy of the far left. None of these agendas he wanted to support. Yet, behind this “neither nor” strategy is a much more preoccupying tendency. Marine Le Pen and Jean Luc Mélenchon resemble each other more than they would probably like to admit. They are both anti-system, anti-elite, anti-Europe, and latent nationalistic for Mélenchon and outright nationalistic for Le Pen.

Mélenchon’s resistance to be part of the republican, anti-Le Pen coalition also had concrete repercussions on the run-off elections. The abstention rate was high as 25.44 percent of French voters did not participate. Additionally, many voters chose the so-called “Vote blanc,” which means handing in an empty envelope. In the first electoral round, only 2.57 percent of votes were “blanc,” but in the run-off this number rose to 11.47 percent. If these voters had voted for Macron, as they traditionally would have, Marine Le Pen’s vote share would only have been between 26 and 30 percent of the vote.

The challenges Macron will be facing are immense. The immediate challenge is the parliamentary election on June 11 (first round) and June 18 (run-off second round). Although the French president has considerable power in foreign policy and the right to appoint a prime minister, who is supported by a majority in Parliament, he needs a majority in the National Assembly to conduct his policies. It will be very difficult for him to achieve such a majority.  In the first round of parliamentary elections, candidates for the 577 seats need an absolute majority in the electoral district in order to be elected. In the second round, all candidates with at least 12.5 percent in the first round can run again and a relative majority is sufficient. Will Macron’s movement En marche manage to get this majority in Parliament? Given the fractured party system, this is anything but certain!

Without or even with a parliamentary majority, governing France might become a great challenge for the young president. On the one hand, he needs to improve competitiveness, decrease unemployment, and stabilize public finances. On the other hand, he has promised to fulfill social demands and improve the situation of workers. Additionally, he wants to reform the European Union, strengthen the euro zone, and deepen integration with a Eurozone Finance Minister and Eurobonds. These tasks are immense and success is far from guaranteed. But failure is not an option. If the “good guy” Macron fails, then the “bad lady” Marine Le Pen, or “the ugly tribune” Jean-Luc Mélenchon will be there in 2022.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.