UCL European Institute


The Renewal of French Democracy: Why the Macron Phenomenon Should give us Hope

24 March 2017

Aline-Florence Manent argues that, in spite of claims to the contrary, democracy is alive and well in France in the run-up to the 2017 elections.


The 2017 presidential election in France will mark a moment of great historical import. We may be wrong, however, in our assessment of what makes this election particularly significant.

France, we are told ad nauseam, is the arena in which one of the final rounds in the global battle between populism and democracy will be fought. After the lukewarm results of the Dutch elections on 15 March 2017, liberals everywhere in the world seem on the edge of their seats, awaiting the final act of what resembles a Greek tragedy in three acts. After the Brexit and Trump debacles, however, no-one seems prepared to even dare believe in a happy-end anymore. But this is perhaps wherein lies the tragedy: that even the most desirable outcome, a Macron presidency, is already couched as, at best, an Hollandisme 2.0. That the future of liberal democracy in France seems to rest in the hands of a 39-year-old Wunderkind, we are told, is no grounds for optimism.

Our cynicism might in fact hasten the outcome that we are so afraid of: a Le Pen presidency. The Cassandras of populism might just turn this plausible scenario into a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if they continue to suggest that Emmanuel Macron's centrist platform is on par with the Front National's amalgam of right-wing nationalism and socialist promises to ameliorate the plight of French workers and lower middle classes. Such discourses only contribute to enhancing the credibility of the populists claims that only they provide bold, system-changing answers to contemporary challenges. If the election lies in the hands of a new class of voters, those who "no longer give a damn" it is the duty of commentators to reel them back in to politics. Our collective failure to do so might just convince them that the only sound course of action is to follow the British and American voters in using their ballot as a middle finger to deliver yet another "fuck you" to the establishment on 23 April.

We need to take a closer look at what is going on in France if we are to avoid such an outcome. There is something truly momentous happening at the center, within the political mainstream. It is this epic drama unfolding at the median that we ought to put in the spotlight if we are to avoid another Brexit-Trump post-electoral hangover. What is happening on the Hamon-Macron-Fillon spectrum deserves much greater analytical clarity and historical depth.

We are facing an unprecedented situation since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958: for the first time in history, neither of the traditional government parties-the Parti Socialiste (PS) and Les Républicains (LR)- is likely to make it to the second round of the presidential elections. There are several reasons that explain why this has happened. Perhaps the most crucial one is the use of primaries to determine the choice of presidential candidates in both the Republican and Socialist parties. Indeed, the primaries contributed to selecting candidates that were further away from the center than was customary in the Fifth Republic. But other factors also led to the marginalization of the traditional mainstream parties. A young and charismatic new leader, Emmanuel Macron, has managed to spur some much-needed life in an inchoate center. Old-school centrists like François Bayrou and prominent members of the political Left and Right have rallied behind Macron's call to 'get going' and joined his eponymous political movement, En Marche. François Fillon's (LR) entanglements in corruption scandals and Benoît Hamon's (PS) strategy to court the votes of the far Left have also helped Macron to emerge as the strongest candidate against the populist contenders for the post.

That the traditional parties of the Right and the Left have become marginalized in contemporary French politics is indisputable. The refulgence with which Macron has risen to the top is surely remarkable. Yet it is not at all clear that the Macron phenomenon is inherently at odds with the Fifth Republic. In 1962, the Général De Gaulle also campaigned outside of the traditional party apparatuses.  In fact, when De Gaulle drafted the Constitution of the Fifth Republic with his colleague Michel Debré, he conceived the office of the President as a way to elevate politics above mere party strife, towards the higher common good.

Macron's refusal to be stamped by either one of the labels of Left and Right should not be written off as a cynical ploy to triumph over the ashes of the mainstream parties. Macron is not "surfing the neither-left-nor-right wave." For one, this is not a strange fad. In fact, Macron's centrism is not without historical precedent either. Many theorists and practitioners of democracy, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, Michel Rocard, or even former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, proposed third-way models combining elements of political liberalism usually associated with "the Right" with ideals of egalitarianism, inclusivity, and solidarity that have historically been advocated for by "the Left."

At its core, then, Macron's centrist political platform is not that new. Yet it is successful because the categories of Left and Right, intellectually and practically, are no longer doing the work they are supposed to. These labels have become inadequate shorthands to capture the real nature of political antagonisms today. By holding on to them in their current form we are unable to correctly diagnose the problems at stake and address them effectively. The decisive questions under democratic scrutiny no longer correspond to a binary antagonism between liberal capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. These elections, therefore, might provide a long-overdue articulation of liberal social democracy in France.

Why continue lamenting the world as we knew it when it has proven incapable of delivering the results we had hoped for? The Socialist and Republican parties crystallize bygone ideological cleavages. Their decay, however, is not necessarily indicative of the supposed existential crisis of liberal democracy. In fact, we should find hope in that it was at all possible to shatter ossified political entities within the institutional framework of the Fifth Republic.

This is what is truly extraordinary in the 2017 elections.

Democracy, in France, is not on the wane.

  • Aline-Florence Manent is a Junior Research Fellow at the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies. She will be speaking on the topic in April as part of UCL's analysis of the 2017 French elections.
  • This article was originally posted on openDemocracy and is reposted with permission. 

Image of the French National Assembly (C) Alex Guibord (CC BY-ND 2.0).