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Stuck between Macron and Le Pen, France’s political system is disintegrating - The Telegraph.

The country is now faced with a choice of ‘populist’ candidates that repel or alarm a large proportion of the population.

Article by Professor Robert Tombs for the Telegraph - 9 April 2022.

Whatever the outcome of France’s presidential vote – and President Macron will probably be reelected – I fear it marks another stage in the dissolution of a political system. Of course, this could be beneficial: we are supposed to welcome change and renewal. It will certainly be interesting: France has often been a political laboratory for Europe, and its people are quite proud of this. But life in a laboratory is not comfortable.

The familiar political landmarks that democratic systems depend on have gone. It is astonishing that the candidates of what were until recently modern France’s two ruling parties, the Socialists and (under a variety of names) the Gaullists, have been reduced to insignificance, with their presidential candidates polling at under 10 per cent. Yet France’s previous president was a Socialist, François Hollande, and the Gaullist François Fillon would probably have beaten Macron in 2017 had he not been caught up in a corruption scandal.

Now these political pillars of the Fifth Republic system, parties that provided essential popular representation, have almost completely disintegrated. This election could be their coup de grace.

Now France is faced solely with alternatives that repel or alarm a large part of its people: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Even at the last election, Macron was the first choice of only a quarter of the electorate. Then he seemed an unobjectionable centrist. Now he is regarded with visceral dislike by a remarkable range of people. Le Pen represents a far-Right tradition that until recently most voters considered beyond the pale: reactionary, racist, and undemocratic. But it has increased its appeal, especially among the young.

Whoever becomes the next president will face a discontented and alienated country, and it is unclear how effective government can be possible. A President Le Pen would mean violence in the streets and political and economic crisis. Would she be capable of forming a credible government? Many of those voting for her are so discontented that they are willing to risk pulling the house down. But if he is re-elected Macron might also be faced with popular rebellion, and with a slim prospect of a parliamentary majority to support him.

France’s predicament is an extreme form of the political malady rife across the democratic world: rejection of conventional politics, reduced party loyalty and membership, low turnout in elections, unpredictable and volatile voting choices. This has given politicians standing in opposition to “mainstream politics” – or claiming that they were – an opportunity in several countries.

They are conventionally dismissed as “populists”. Le Pen of course is one of these. So is her far-Left equivalent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But Macron himself was the arch-populist, campaigning in 2017 against conventional politics, rejecting existing parties and creating his own movement drawn from civil society bodies and non-politicians. This respectable bourgeois populism has a label: “technopopulism”. It claims legitimacy from a superior ability to manage the system, in Macron’s case as would-be leader of a more powerful technocratic EU. His victory sounded the death knell of the old party system.

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Stuck between Macron and Le Pen - by Professor Robert Tombs for the Telegraph - 09.04.22
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Robert Tombs is professor emeritus of French history at the University of Cambridge

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