Skip to main content

A High-Stakes Election in France Could Empower an ‘Axis’ of Populism

Low turnout could work in the far-right’s favor, but the second round could prevent a win.

By Massoud Hayoun


Marine Le Pen delivers a speech on April 17th, 2017, in Paris, France. (Photo: Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images)

France will vote Sunday in a presidential election that could usher in what has been described by high-profile members of France’s far-right as an “axis” of populist powers.

But there’s a safeguard in the French system that opponents of the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, say may prevent her win in the hotly contested vote: France uses the two-round election system; if no candidate receives more than half the vote in Sunday’s election — which is unlikely—there will be a runoff vote on May 7th.

In the complex world of French politics, the saying goes, “in the first round you choose, in the second round you eliminate,” explains Karim Emile Bitar, director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques, a Paris-based international relations think tank.

“In the second round, you vote for the lesser evil — basically the one you feel is the lesser evil,” Bitar says.

This may act as a built-in barrier against a Le Pen win and, more broadly, another major world power swept up by nationalist populism. Many polls have shown popular center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron neck-and-neck with Le Pen. Those polls indicate that both will pass onto the second round, where Le Pen is ultimately predicted to fall. But Le Pen’s opponents are skeptical, if only because polls failed to predict Donald Trump’s win in the United States.

To be sure, there are several trends working in Le Pen’s favor. French media has warned of unprecedented levels of abstention among voters disillusioned with the system. More than 30 percent plan not to vote, according to poll data from IFOP-Fiducial published by French magazine Paris Match. IFOP data published by French newspaper Le Monde showed that a whopping 52 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 25 — a group hit especially hard by high levels of unemployment — would abstain, with the majority of those who would vote choosing the National Front candidate.

“There is a real concern about low voter turnout that will skew the election one direction or another.”

“There is a real concern about low voter turnout that will skew the election one direction or another,” says Cécile Alduy, a professor at Stanford University and author of a book on French political rhetoric, Ce Qu’ils Disent Vraiment, Les Politiques Pris aux Mots. Alduy spoke to Pacific Standard from France.

“The real issue is differential turnout: Some candidates, specifically Marine Le Pen and François Fillon, can count on a very mobilized, loyal base, which is expected to turn out [to] vote, while other candidates have apparently a more volatile base of supporters, not yet as strongly convinced of their choice or that they will actually vote,” Alduy adds. “This is why opinion polls are to be assessed with great caution.”

Fillon is another presidential candidate whose campaign — like Le Pen’s — has been marred by allegations of misappropriated funds. And while Fillon is seen as relatively center-right, Le Pen’s discourse on immigrants appears to have dragged the entire political spectrum toward more staunch conservatism; Fillon has echoed much of Le Pen’s stance on immigration in an attempt to tap into her base, Bitar says.

“Fillon is also flirting with some of these themes that are more usually associated with the extreme right,” he says.

“Marine Le Pen is trying to depict this election as a fundamental election for what she calls ‘French civilization.’ She would like us to believe that French civilization itself is in danger, and that if she is not elected, France is going to become a multicultural society with more immigration and a more visible presence of Islam,” Bitar continues.

Like Le Pen, Fillon is “also using the Islam argument — making Islam a scarecrow,” Bitar says. “He wrote a book called Beating Islamic Totalitarianism. He is also popular with the conservative Catholics who demonstrated in the streets [against gay marriage].”

Recent events have hammered home just how high-stakes this election may be.

In January, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a high-profile member of the country’s far-right National Front and niece of presidential candidate Marine Le Pen tweeted: “‘Imaginez un axe Trump-Marine-Poutine pour combattre le terrorisme islamiste !’ #Voeux2017.” The tweet’s translation: “Imagine a Trump-Marine-Putin axis to combat Islamist terrorism!’ #2017Wishes.”

Since then, Marine Le Pen — whose platform is premised mainly on her opposition to European Union membership and her feverish anti-immigration politic that targets mostly French Muslims — has questioned the French government’s role in the Holocaust. She also stood unequivocally by police amid allegations that they raped and handicapped a young man of color. And she paid a high-profile visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin amid allegations that Moscow tampered in the U.S. and other international votes.