It’s unprecedented: In the course of a few months, French voters, the media and polls have knocked several of the biggest contenders out of the presidential race. First, it was Cécile Duflot, the main leader of the Greens, who was defeated in her party’s primary. Then came Nicolas Sarkozy, a former head of state, and Alain Juppé, a former prime minister who for months had been a heavy favorite — both eliminated in the primary for the right and center-right. After that it was the president of France himself, the Socialist François Hollande, whose unpopularity led him to renounce even running. Finally, out went Manuel Valls, until very recently France’s prime minister. He lost the left-wing primary.
And now, icing on the cake, François Fillon, who handily won the right-center primary in December, is in big trouble, and his standing is dropping in polls. Allegations that his wife and children were paid for phony government jobs have seriously called into question his integrity, he who claimed to embody moral values.
How should one interpret this incredible sequence of events?
One explanation is more observation than analysis: The French political system is in crisis, and its parties are ill-suited to meeting the expectations of society today, which has considerably changed over the past several decades. The French think their political elites are like soilless plants, far removed from the concerns of constituents, as well as helpless in the face of unemployment and job insecurity. French voters would like morality and politics to converge, and are sensitive to the misdeeds of politicians on both the left and the right.
Voters express their lack of trust in political actors by eliminating the ones they feel they’ve seen too much of; they hope that newcomers, supposedly anti-establishment, will be able to do better. This logic accounts for the success of three forms of populism: nationalist (represented by Marine Le Pen, of the Front National, who is prancing in the lead in the polls); far left (led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, even though he has been weakened by the victory of Benoît Hamon, whose ideas often hew close to his own, in the socialist primary); and extreme center, so to speak (with Emmanuel Macron, who claims he can overcome the left-right division).
The crisis in political representation is not specific to France. But here it has been heightened, or accelerated, by the presidency of Mr. Sarkozy and, even more so, that of Mr. Hollande: Both men constantly strove to fit the mold of France’s almost hyper-presidential system created by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Hence a second explanation for the madness of this presidential campaign: It signals an institutional crisis, and the exhaustion of a Constitution, tailor-made by General de Gaulle, that no longer suits the needs of the times.
The gap has appeared, this argument goes, because France’s most recent presidents have not been up to the job, and because the French don’t want to be ruled anymore in a way that can feel quasi-monarchical. In fact, several candidates in the current race have called for the establishment of a Sixth Republic, proposing that power not be concentrated solely in the hands of the head of state. But this explanation looks only at institutions, and so is reductionist.
A third account is suggested by the experiences of other countries. The Brexit vote in Great Britain and Donald Trump’s election in the United States appear to illustrate a global shift toward the political right, perhaps even of an authoritarian kind. In this view, France is just displaying the same tendency. True, the current government, though of the left, has adopted policies typical of the right, particularly tough security measures after the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, 2015. And these days many right-wing voters are leaning toward the extreme right or the so-called hard right — the latter being personified by Mr. Fillon, who is well liked, for example, among Catholics hostile to gay marriage.
A fourth explanation focuses on the lack of vision displayed by both the authorities and their opponents since the beginning of this century. Captive to current events, ensconced in the “presentism” denounced by the historian François Hartog, the entire political class has stopped proposing dreams, utopias or long-term projects. It has also cut itself off from intellectuals, except some reactionary thinkers, like Alain Finkielkraut, who are the French equivalent of American neo-cons.
All these explanations, and perhaps others, have some relevance. But the essential lies elsewhere. The main issue is that French society has been unable to regenerate the great debates and major conflicts that helped organize it during the postwar years, or the “Trente Glorieuses” (the Glorious Thirty), as the economist Jean Fourastié called them. At the time, France was deeply concerned with the Cold War, that major contest between the Soviet bloc and the capitalist countries. Its social life, meanwhile, was defined by the struggle opposing workers and their employers. In a word: France today is an orphan, bereft of the two conflicts that long drove its political life.
The current crisis will not be overcome until it is transformed with new, or renewed, debates and conflicts. Some contentious topics have begun to emerge: the separation of powers, tensions between the rule of law and individual freedoms, the notion of solidarity, nationhood and identity, Europe and the place of minorities, especially religious ones. Yet for now these issues, rather than serving as organizing principles for France’s political life, or its presidential campaign, seem only to be fracturing and confusing them.
Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist, is the head of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris and a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.