Surpassing the Left/Right Divide: Macron and Le Pen

The French elections are fast approaching, with the first round of voting scheduled for 23 April. It has been a tense and much-discussed election, developing in the shadow of the British referendum to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s victory in the American elections. Like these events, the French election has been indicative of a growing malaise in the way modern politics is conceptualised. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen are currently leading in the polls. Despite some significant differences, the two candidates share interesting similarities. Both are characterised by their criticisms of establishment politics and their combination of typically conservative and liberal positions.

Emmanuel Macron is a former economic minister, now running on his own platform ‘En Marche!’ without the support of an established political party. Despite his ministerial work, he is largely an outsider to politics and has never run for election before. ‘En Marche!’ itself started originally as a polling group discussing problems in France and is now a flexible, volunteer-run campaign platform. He hopes a parliamentary majority of ‘En Marche!’ candidates will follow a presidential victory. Given his rhetoric of change he wants these candidates to be ‘newcomers from civil society.’

His campaign delicately balances between left and right, with former Chirac ministers and former Socialists working together, surpassing traditional political divisions. This has produced some tension within his campaign. Liberation, a leftist publication, has also criticised him for seeming to waver between stances, with contrasting statements on topics such as nuclear energy, marriage rights, and de-criminalisation of marijuana. This poses the difficult question of what unites Macron’s policy. The Telegraph describes him as a centrist yet also a ‘maverick outsider.’ He is pro-European but also wants to increase border security; he seeks a middle ground in dealing with the French economic system. He posed this as a neither left nor right, but rather modernising approach. On the other hand, it can be criticised for being tepid. Bloomberg’s article is titled ‘Macron Offers Something For Everyone in French Policy Plan’- an indication of the careful balance he is seeking to maintain.

Mélencron, Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Mélencron, Wikimedia Commons, © 2017, some rights reserved.

In contrast, Marine Le Pen is definitively not for everyone. Her party, the Front National, has traditionally been considered a far-right party. Under her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, it was widely regarded as anti-Semitic and racist; he once described the Holocaust’s gas chambers as ‘a detail of history.’ Marine Le Pen has moved it away from these racially charged stances, although it still retains a strong xenophobic and anti-foreigner stance. She has been taken to court on hate speech charges in 2015 for comparing Muslims praying in the street to the Nazi occupation.

However, she also positions herself as a candidate ‘for the people,’ couching this position in anti-globalist sentiments. She rails against the government’s ties with international finance, for example, and favours protectionism, a policy that was supported across the political spectrum until World War II. Similarly, she promises increased welfare spending and a lower retirement age, potentially putting her further left on economics than more ‘mainstream’ candidates such as Fillon.

The Front National has been gaining popularity in areas which were historically staunchly leftist. This is motivated by a complex of causes, including the ineffectuality of the traditional left and frustrations with economic stagnation that seems unaddressed. Le Pen’s focus on promoting workers’ welfare is much more appealing to disenfranchised workers than Macron’s policy of tax cuts; Macron generally appeals to a more internationalist population.

The divide between Macron and Le Pen, then, seems to rely less on traditional notions of left and right, and more on a tension between globalism versus nationalism. This echoes some of the early 20th century’s pull between, for example, the communist concept of the international vs. the fascist focus on the powerful, special nation-state.

This points to the difficulties of the left/right divide more broadly. It seems clear that people no longer have a strong conception of these divisions. Wikihow even has a page explaining ‘How to Tell Whether You’re Right Wing or Left Wing.’ The Atlantic has an article titled ‘The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus,’ and the New Statesman has one titled ‘The left/right divide is out-dated and unhelpful.’

Clearly, the French election is an example of this growing conceptual confusion. Macron and Le Pen both pose themselves as outsiders to the system with a platform of change. They also demonstrate the disconnect between social and economic positions. The Economist argues that the new political division is perhaps ‘open vs. closed,’ or essentially a tension between a highly globalised world and a nationally divided one. The French elections seem to reflect this: Marine Le Pen is for a closed world, Macron for an open one.

These stances are tied only loosely and unpredictably to traditional left/right concerns. The Economist, for example, associates free trade with traditionally progressive sentiments of diversity appreciation through ‘openness to foreigners.’ Marine Le Pen’s opposition to the free trade deal between the EU and Canada on the grounds of the power that it gives to multinational corporations seems to align with this. It is worth noting that ‘French left-wing lawmakers’ also opposed the trade deal, for extremely similar reasons.

It is thus obvious that traditional concerns about free trade and the role of government in economics no longer align neatly with concerns about social identity and diversity. The ‘open versus closed’ divide is one element of this. The French elections demonstrate the need for a move to new conceptions of political alignment.