BY J.J. MESSNER AND ALEXANDRA KAPITANSKAYA
There are probably few French elections in recent times that have captured quite this level of international attention, particularly in the Anglosphere. Certainly, the stakes are high, as two candidates with vastly different views on French identity, French values, and the role of France in the world square off against each other. Much of the attention is of course being driven by the electoral experiences of the United Kingdom and United States in 2016, wherein both countries – albeit in considerably different circumstances – took hard turns to the right, with campaigns driven by divisive rhetoric and populist platforms. As political turmoil continues in America, and as Britain faces potentially painful Brexit negotiations, the question on the minds of many observers is, ‘could it happen in France as well?’
It is important for such a question to be answered dispassionately, and to that end data can tell us an awful lot about the experiences of different countries. The Fund for Peace’s annual Fragile States Index (FSI) has been collecting data on social, economic, and political trends for 13 years, and is able to provide some insights as to the relative performance of countries in regard to risk and levels of stability.
The American and British electoral experiences in 2016 were obviously to very different ends – one was a leadership election, and another was for the continued future participation in an economic and political bloc. But the manner in which the campaigns played out – and the results that ensued – was eerily similar. Indeed, based on the FSI trends, the data demonstrated remarkably similar trends for both countries. Despite the prophecies of doom and gloom peddled in both campaigns, both countries were actually performing quite well on a number of social and economic indicators, suggesting that negativity was not completely justified. Nevertheless, both countries worsened considerably over the past five years on three key indicators that measure Group Grievance (or divisions within society), Factionalized Elites (or divisions within a country’s leadership), and Security Apparatus. In combination, the worsening of these indicators suggest a society and a political discourse critically divided, and both a cause and an effect of increasingly combative political rhetoric and brinksmanship. To put this in context, of the 178 countries that the FSI measures, only six countries worsened more than the United Kingdom and United States in the last five years for Group Grievance – and among those were Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Even despite the strong performance of both countries on most indicators, beneath that strong foundation destabilizing cracks had begun to appear.
So could France follow a similar route? Based on the FSI data, the answer is that it is unlikely. For the purposes of comparison, we compared France’s recent performance with another Western country that experienced a recent divisive election filled with divisive and xenophobic rhetoric – the Netherlands. Despite fears that the far right may gain ascendency in the Netherlands, the election results instead veered toward the mainstream parties and a hard turn towards the far right and populism was averted. Like the United Kingdom and United States, most of the Dutch and French indicators have been trending generally positively for the past decade. But on the key indicators which could be interpreted as having foreshadowed the American and British results, the story in France and the Netherlands is quite different. Though the Security Apparatus indicator is worsening in France (as a result of recent terrorist attacks), the other two key indicators – Factionalized Elites and Group Grievance – are tracking away from the Anglo-American trendlines. Indeed, though Group Grievance had gotten somewhat worse in both France and the Netherlands in recent years, it is not “spiking” in the way that the American and British trendlines have been. This could be interpreted to suggest that the divisive rhetoric in those two countries may not have the same level of impact on the political process as it has had in the Anglophone countries.
Following recent news out of France, one could be forgiven for thinking the data were wrong on both counts. Violent demonstrations have shaken cities and suburbs, anti-immigration rhetoric is common, 10% unemployment has engendered the rise of economic grievances, and France’s two major political parties have rarely been as profoundly internally divided. Their candidates, selected through open primaries by the right in November and the left in January, finished third and fifth on the national stage, respectively. The results of the first round of the battle for the presidency, held on April 23, made it clear that French voters want change, and quickly. In such an unstable climate, would divisive discourse not find fertile ground?
There are three key differentiators that will play a role in determining the outcome of the French election. On form alone, neither the U.S. election nor the Brexit referendum can reasonably be compared to the vote in France, where citizens initially chose among 11 options on the ballot, knowing all along that a second round would be held. In essence, this system of built-in safeguards within the electoral process allows for greater rationalization of political behavior – voters get a do-over, a vote of elimination after a vote of adherence, as well as a chance to be won over by arguments of unity against a common adversary.
This ideal of unity lies at the heart of the second differentiator, a distinctly French concept for which there is no real equivalent in either the United States or the United Kingdom – solidarité. Solidarité is a sense of belonging to a community in which all members are morally obligated to stand together for the common good. Activism in favor of economic protections for all is one manifestation of this ideal; activism in rejection of racism and xenophobia, ideologies considered to be dominant among the French far-right, is another. Driven by this ideal, in elections where candidates from far-right finalist Marine Le Pen’s Front National (FN) rose to prominence, those of the traditional left and right overcame bitter rivalry to launch bipartisan campaigns to repel them. Today, though not all top figures from major parties have explicitly endorsed centrist frontrunner Emmanuel Macron, they have all – left and right – called upon voters to reject the FN.
From this position stems the third differentiator of this election, one on which much of the discourse of the second-round campaign has been based: the understanding that within the French political system, the FN is not just another party, even if its candidate does receive 40% of the vote this weekend. Though now polling twice as high as her firebrand father was in 2002, Le Pen’s attempts to “de-demonize” herself have nevertheless struggled to make voters forget the discriminatory actions and revisionist discourse of her party.
France’s elites may be deeply factionalized, but they remain capable of assembling movements of unity based on common values. Social factions on the right and on the left may harbor deep grievances, but most remain attached above all to France’s republican ideals. It is thus not a matter of one camp battling another, but rather of the Republic standing as one.
Though the data reveals that France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States have experienced similar social, economic, and political challenges, the data equally demonstrates that the manifestations of these pressures are fundamentally different. As much as divisive rhetoric can gain a foothold in each of these countries, the nature and resilience of each system – both social and political – is more likely to predict the outcomes of those pressures than their mere presence alone. Equally, the rate of change of indicators like Group Grievance can potentially provide a greater shock where it spikes or increases steeply, whereas if it changes more gradually – even where it increases – a resilient system can sometimes adapt and compensate more readily. To that extent, one can realistically expect that the experiences of the United Kingdom and United States, though perhaps superficially similar to those of France, are unlikely to play out the same way in reality.