A political outsider is going to become the next president of France. It’s merely a question of which outsider: Emmanuel Macron, the pragmatic centrist who has never held elected office, or Marine le Pen, the “France first” candidate of the far-right.
Polls show Macron well ahead, and likely to capture roughly 60 percent of the vote when voters fill out their ballots this Sunday. But even in defeat, Le Pen’s results may prove historic, likely the best showing ever for her National Front party, with its mix of pro-worker and anti-immigrant views.
Whoever wins will carry the burden of high expectation. Two-thirds of French voters say their country is on the wrong path, according to a recent poll from Suffolk University. And while that widespread dissatisfaction helped clear the way for these two relatively-inexperienced candidates, it also gives a sense of the daunting task ahead.
Who is Macron?
When Macron announced his candidacy, few expected him to be among the front-runners. But over time his independent movement has won converts with its hopeful bent and pragmatic approach.
At just 39, Macron would be the youngest president in French history, but quick success has been a hallmark of his life, from his school days to his time as an investment banker and economic minister (not to mention the unusual courtship that eventually convinced his high school teacher to divorce her husband and marry him instead.)
Ideologically, Macron takes a “best of both worlds” approach, combining traditionally leftist values like diversity and a sturdy social safety net with a more center-right commitment to business flexibility and limited economic deregulation. He wants France to remain a key player in the European Union, and he would maintain the open border policy that allows EU citizens to travel freely into France.
Who is le Pen?
She is a different kind of politician from Macron: ardent and populist rather than centrist and technocratic. Her father was one of the founders of the National Front and its longtime leader, though in his days it was known as a redoubt for racism, including holocaust denial. Marine has worked hard to distance herself from that legacy, including booting her dad from the party in 2015.
Le Pen’s platform blends anti-immigrant policies with pro-french-worker economic changes, includes things like: ending free trade deals, taxing companies who hire foreign workers, reducing income taxes on working-class households, and holding a referendum on whether to leave the EU (“Frexit”).
Note that there’s nothing subtle about Le Pen’s anti-immigrant messaging. During the campaign, she warned that Macron would continue the “multicultural drift” that is “sinking” France, adding that his election would mean the further advance of “Islamism.”
Who is going to win?
And while it’s true that recent years have seen a number of surprise campaign finishes — think Brexit or the election of Donald Trump — those were close races with last-minutes twists. This is something else entirely.
Macron isn’t ahead by a few points; he’s up by 15-20. Add in the fact that there’s little time left for a James-Comey-like, game-changing event, and his move to the presidential palace looks all but assured.
One reason for Macron’s strength is that he’s been able to position himself as the “anyone-but-Le-Pen” candidate, earning endorsements from the mainstream Socialist and Republican party leaders. French politicians have a tradition of joining forces to beat back threats from the National Front. During regional elections in 2015, for instance, a number of Socialist candidates strategically dropped out in order to shore up support for the center-right and to forge a unified opposition to Le Pen.
But there is one wrinkle this time, which creates a slight risk for Macron. A popular far-left figure, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has refused to endorse Macron. And according to the Suffolk poll, a significant number of Melenchon supporters remain uncommitted — many of them threatening to cast a blank ballot. Their ranks are probably not large enough to swing the election, but they could certainly make things closer than expected.
How much can the winner really accomplish?
French presidents aren’t actually that powerful. Like US presidents, they have some sway over foreign policy but are limited in their ability to shape and pass legislation. That responsibility falls, instead, to parliament, which is led by a prime minister.
So in some ways, this weekend’s election is just preliminary. What really matters, in terms of bringing change to French politics, are the parliamentary elections scheduled for June.
And for outsider candidates like these, gaining a parliamentary majority is a particularly steep challenge. Macron’s “En Marche! (On the Move!)” party is brand new, and currently has zero seats in France’s main parliamentary body, the National Assembly. Le Pen’s National Front party has two seats— and it has never controlled more than 35 out of a total of nearly 600 spots in the National Assembly.
The best hope, for either candidate, may be something less than unified control. Even if “En Marche!” does make big gains, Macron will likely need support from other centrist parties in order to advance his agenda (if Le Pen wins, she would need a supportive alliance of hard-right and center-right members.)
Otherwise, expectations for the new President may quickly turn to disenchantment, with once-enthusiastic voters forced to watch as their candidate is sidelined by uncompromising opposition from parliament.