In its long illustrious history France has undergone many a revolution and social reform, yet it has been quiet on all of those fronts for many years, it has stagnated somewhat both politically and economically. Not much has changed in France for decades, even when power has shifted from parties on the left to those on the right the country barely moves an inch in either direction.
Until now that is. The current political run off in France is exciting and mobilising a public that had become disenchanted with the political stagnation they saw all around. This is the most exciting political campaign in living history and promises inevitable upheaval and change.
The Socialist and Republican parties have held power between them in France since the founding of the Fifth Republic back in 1958. They were the status quo and the only choices for a gradually disillusioned people. Now though they could both find themselves eliminated in the first round of the presidential ballot on April 23rd.
Instead of the established parties we may get two insurgent candidates moving on to the second round. Marine Le Pen is the charismatic leader of the National Front and has tapped into the growing populist feeling spreading across France, and Emmanuel Macron is an upstart politician of the liberal movement En Marche! (On the Move!), which he founded just last year.
These two insurgencies into French politics are incredibly important, not just for France but for the wider world. It represents a growing global trend. That old divide between the left and the right is less important now than it ever has been before; indeed the focus of voters now seems to be between open and closed. The results in France could send ripples across the world and it could easily see the European Union revitalised or lying in pieces on the floor of Brussels.
This new French Revolution has been growing in the hearts of the public for years, simmering away in the hearts of the voters. The current President, François Hollande is so universally hated by the public that he is not even running for a second term. This should have left the door wide open for the established opposition party, The Republican party, to swoop in and steal the presidency with ease. Yet their hopes were dashed on 1st of March when its candidate, François Fillon, revealed that he was being formally investigated for paying his wife and children nearly €1m ($1.05m) of public money for jobs they allegedly never did. Mr Fillon may still officially be in the race but his chances of winning are now significantly damaged.
And it’s not just the political establishment that this revolution is aiming to change. The French economy has been stagnant for as long as its politics has been. A staggering 25% of the countries youth is unemployed, and those that are fortunate to have work cannot find well-paying jobs with the kind of security their parents took for granted. Faced with high taxation and heavy regulations the most entrepreneurial of the countries workforce are looking abroad to achieve their dreams, most commonly London.
Add into this volatile mix the repeated terrorist attacks France has suffered and you have a pent up nervous public that is forced to live under a constant state of emergency. It has also exposed huge cultural rifts in the country with the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Many of these problems have been growing over a number decades and yet neither of the established parties have been able to do anything to rectify any of them. France’s last serious attempt at real economic reform was in the mid-1990s under President Jacques Chirac, yet it collapsed in the face of extensive strikes. Mr Hollande himself attempted some reforms but started his term disastrously when he introduced a 75% top tax rate. Since then he has been far too unpopular to get anything worthwhile done.
Both Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron have been very successful in tapping into the publics frustrations. Yet they offer incredibly different diagnosis of the country’s problems and offer radically different solutions.
Ms Le Pen blames outside influences and is promising to protect the public with more barriers and even greater social welfare. She struggled at first to distance herself from her party’s anti-Semitic past but ultimately prevailed. Her biggest supporters are those who wish to withdraw France from the rest of the world. She dislikes globalisation and sees it as a threat to French jobs. She sees Islamists as creators of terror who are making France a dangerous place to live. To her the EU is “an anti-democratic monster” with too much control over her country. She has vowed to drastically cut the flow of immigrants, obstruct foreign trade, swap the euro for a freshly resurrected franc.
Mr Macron’s ideas meanwhile are the opposite. He preaches that more openness to the outside world is the best way to make France stronger. He is pro-trade, pro-immigration, and pro-EU. He believes the best way to more French people into jobs is to reduce the cumbersome labour protections, not increase them. He has been vague on his precise plans for a long time, however he is firmly selling himself as the pro-globalisation revolutionary.
There is one big problem that’s facing both candidates though. Were Ms Le Pen to prevail and become the new President her party would lack a majority in the national assembly, curbing her powers dramatically. Mr Macron on the other hand barely has a party to speak of.
Despite this both represent a drastic shift in France’s status quo. If Mr Macron won it would show that liberalism is still alive and well in Europe. A victory for Ms Le Pen meanwhile would make France more insular and poorer. If she were to go ahead and pull France out of the euro she would doom a union which, despite its flaws, has promoted peace and prosperity in Europe for six decades.
A certain Vladimir Putin would no doubt love to see that, perhaps it’s no coincidence then that Ms Le Pen has received a big loan from a Russian bank while Mr Macrons party has suffered numerous hacking attacks. As of this moment Ms Le Pen is unlikely to win the presidency, but France has shocked the world before with its revolutions, maybe, just maybe it will do so again.