The results of France’s presidential election earlier this month were astonishing, but not exactly a surprise. Long before the vote, it was clear something had changed. This winter, as the elections took shape, workers at the Pompidou Museum in Paris went on strike. To be sure, there is little news in a strike by public workers in France. But these workers held private contracts and had walked out in order to avoid becoming state employees! Had French politics been turned on its head? Given the results in May, it would seem that they have.
For all the unexpected twists and turns of the election, however, the prominent cast of characters was hardly unknown to the French public. On the left, despite his anti-system fervor, Jean-Luc Mélenchon was a career politician. His populist rival on the far right, Marine Le Pen, carries one of the most recognizable, and infamous, last names in French politics. François Fillon was certainly not an unknown quantity either, having served as prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007 to 2012. Even the surprise victor of the socialist primary, Benoît Hamon, had been a minister of education under François Hollande’s unpopular presidency and a leading figure of the party since his university days.
There was, however, one candidate few French voters had even heard of a mere three years earlier. Though he served briefly as economics minister under Hollande, Emmanuel Macron had no party and had never held elected office. How was a thirty-nine-year-old political novice, whose candidacy had been dismissed from its outset as unserious, able to upend such a strong field of well-known candidates—and with it the two-party system that has dominated French politics in the Fifth Republic since 1958? The answer no doubt lies, at least partially, in the issues that animated voters. Throughout the elections, the French seemed particularly sympathetic to the kind of populism that nourished Brexit and Trump’s victory in the United States. That sympathy reflected a desire to topple a system broadly viewed as captive to career politicians and entrenched political parties.
Indeed, the primaries focused attention on matters that candidates from those traditional parties seemed ill-equipped to manage. The probity of the “political class” became a recurring theme as former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s legal troubles with campaign finance and Alain Juppé’s previous conviction in a fake jobs scandal resulted in Fillon’s emergence as the incorruptible candidate. That did not last long. There was nothing technically illegal about Fillon hiring his wife as his parliamentary assistant, but as suspicion spread that she rarely performed any real work, his claims to integrity dissolved. Revelations that he had also hired his own children didn’t help, nor did his having accepted expensive bespoke business suits from a well-known lawyer and political consultant. Then there were his lucrative consulting contracts, which supplemented his salary as a former prime minister and member of parliament. Fillon was slow to recognize that there was more at stake in these revelations than a mere smear campaign in the press. As his calls for unprecedented cuts in public spending ran up against the lavish lifestyle he had sculpted for himself and his family over years of public service, his poll numbers slid badly.