Why the French election is a marker of our post democratic world

Posted on June 23rd, 2017 by Aliénor Ballangé

Aliénor Ballangé considers what the French election says about post democracy

The 2017 French election was simply unprecedented in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. The first round saw both governmental parties, le Parti Socialiste and Les Republicains, eliminated from the race. The second round saw Marine Le Pen gain 33.9% of the vote, exceeding that achieved by her father Jean-Marie in 2002. The ultimate victor, of course, was Emmanuel Macron, François Hollande’s former Minister of Economy and Finance who became President of the Republic with a vote share of 66.1%. Macron achieved his victory as leader of a political movement (En Marche!) which appeared officially only twelve months ago. Three different explanations have been put forward to attempt to highlight these results.

The first possible explanation, favoured by political scientists, comes from the field of electoral sociology. Using data, these election specialists suggest that electoral choice can be explained by a number of sociological factors, such as age, gender, professional background, location and education level. Their research argues that, for example, a manual worker in Northern France is more likely to vote FN than a senior manager living in Paris, while a young businessman in Brittany will vote EM whereas a farmer living in deserted and de-industrialized central France will vote FN.

A second hypothesis considers the psychological dimensions of electoral choice. This approach examines voters as emotional entities whose political motivations are dictated by fear, anger, love or boredom. In this view, people vote according to instinctive and often unconscious feelings.

A third approach argues that individuals vote less in terms of values or emotions, and more according to the consequences that their choice could have on the redistribution of power.

I think these three approaches are not enough to account for the significant changes which democracy has undergone in the last twenty years. Rather than focus on the motives of political demand (e.g. the People) we need to examine down the political supply chain and deeper factors. Recent studies underline the importance of the post-democracy in contemporary representative democracies, which look at this longer supply chain.

As demonstrated in Colin Crouch’s founding work Post-Democracy (2004), democracy is becoming increasingly professionalized and is freeing itself from the demos which constituted and legitimised it. Democrats go on justifying their politics in the name of the people, but in practical terms act without it because the political situation and the world’s economy “is far too complicated to be everybody’s business”.

According to Ahmet Insel, who develops Colin Crouch’s analysis, this process could have two effects on contemporary politics On the one hand, post-democracy could be the logical outcome of governance, such as it has been experienced by the EU since 1990. On the other hand, the contemporary post democratic drift could explain the growing success of a number of paternalistic and populist regimes. In both cases democracy is neither anybody nor everybody’s business. It is either the ‘experts’ who are supposed to act in everybody’s general interest and find the best way leading to it, or of authoritarian leaders acting as censors and protectors.

This two-faced post-democratic drift is a good description of what loomed during the French election process. There was a complete collapse of the so-called government parties (PS and LR) to the advantage of parties and movements whose leaders played both a considerable and paradoxical part.

Whereas Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen largely represent the image of the charismatic leader holding forth to the “People of France”, Emmanuel Macron’s figure is far more ambiguous: as a representative of the business world and of a form of complex free liberalism but also as a personification of “neither right nor left”, Emmanuel Macron seems to fit perfectly into a faceless post democratic governance. Yet EM!’s high degree of personalisation and Emmanuel Macron’s somewhat monarchical campaign allowed him to give a personal touch to the governance process.

If one examines Marine Le Pen’s campaign one finds a number of what Ahmet Insel describes as ‘neo-caudillistic’ (or purely ‘populist’) shifts of democracy: a strong leader, economically protectionist and socially conservative, speaking to the people, denouncing the press, playing the People’s honesty against the partiality of the judicial power and calling upon the legend of the weak alienated by the powerful.

What makes the 2017 French election different is not the youth of the elected president or the wrath of its most disadvantaged citizens, but the success of two post democratic tendencies. By personifying post democratic governance, Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated how, through expertocracy, one can perfect the democratic constitutional state; while Marine Le Pen has shown how to use neo-caudillistic arguments in search of sovereign authority and unlimited power.


Aliénor Ballangé is a PhD student in political theory at Sciences Po, Paris.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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