For the first time in the history of the last three French republics, the two front-runners in the presidential election deny belonging to the right or the left, or even the center, of the political spectrum.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, widely known as a far-right party, has tried to rid it of its founder — her own father, Jean-Marie Le Pen — for being too extreme. Ms. Le Pen, who according to current polls will win the first round of the election on April 23, faults the outgoing Socialist president, François Hollande, for turning his back on the weak and the underprivileged — in other words, for abandoning the left’s ideals of social solidarity. In his time Mr. Le Pen instead faulted François Mitterrand, the first Socialist to be elected under the Fifth Republic in 1981, for his vile and “harmful” leftism.
During the last candidates’ debate on April 4, the words Ms. Le Pen used the most would never have passed her father’s lips: “the unemployed,” “the downtrodden,” “poverty,” “the have-nots”; all the product of “capitalism” and “libéralisme” (meaning, in the French sense, the pro-market economic theory rather than the political doctrine promoting individual rights). One curious result was that candidates from the left, even the far left, wound up sounding like they were on the same wavelength as she was when they castigated bankers and multinational companies.
Ms. Le Pen’s main opponent, Emmanuel Macron — who is forecast to make it past the first round of voting with her and then win the second — has tirelessly repeated that even though he has a social bent, he is principally a progressive and a pragmatist, and favors globalization and finance. A young graduate of the prestigious national school of administration known as l’ENA — as well as a former investment banker and an adviser to Mr. Hollande, who made him economics minister — Mr. Macron says he doesn’t belong to the traditional political spectrum either. He refuses to be called left-wing, much less socialist, but balks just as much at being labeled right-wing. Campaign posters for his party, En Marche! (Onward!), tout the slogan “France must be a chance for all.”
Some, like the former education minister François Bayrou, take this rhetoric to signal the center’s return to the political scene, but Mr. Macron rejects this notion as well. He prefers to cast himself as advocating the renewal of the political class — which also happens to be one of the Front National’s favorite leitmotifs. But unlike Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Macron is a convinced Europeanist. He believes in the euro. He doesn’t consider immigration to be a calamity. He doesn’t think French identity is in danger, that Islamization threatens French culture or that technology can’t be trusted.
Instead of embodying the traditional left-right polarity, the two leading candidates of this election embody a polarity between populism and liberalism, broadly understood.
Populism shouldn’t be confused with demagoguery, which is a natural tendency in representative democracies, a temptation to seduce voters rather than convince them. Nor is populism about being in touch with the people. Rather, it is the claim to speak in the people’s place, in their name, and convey an undeniable shared truth on their behalf. In particular, populism claims to express the emotion of a people that feels beleaguered, diminished and lost. Its discourse is nostalgic for past power and wedded to a frantic defense of identity.
Whereas anti-Semitism in the 1930s stemmed from anxieties about the disintegration of biological identity, Islamophobia in this century is about the fear that cultural identity is disintegrating. And the struggle against Islamization transcends the left-right divide by appearing to target both the putative successors of the Saracens, who for centuries waged war against Christian Europe (a view that resonates with voters on the right), and Islam itself, which seems to call into question modern scientific knowledge, gender equality, democracy and freedom of expression (a view that resonates with voters on the left).
These voters forget their own concrete interests, which might be opposed, in favor of the shared feeling that their culture is under siege. When Ms. Le Pen talks about the poor or the outcast, workers, farmers or small businesses, her target audience is a single people battered by globalization, the European Union, the euro, immigration and Islamization.
This fear of a cultural catastrophe dates back about a generation: After years of decolonization, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 provided Old Europe with more searing proof that it had lost its imperial power. But the populism that feeds on this malaise seems to have culminated with the current presidential election.
Mr. Macron’s En Marche! is the first political organization of any scale to oppose this fearful vision, but it does so in ways that also bypass the traditional left-right divide. Instead of invoking nostalgia for the past or trying to comfort an anxious people, Mr. Macron tries to present a positive view of the future, along the way restoring to the word “libéralisme” its original meaning, with its broad endorsement of individual liberties.
In the early 1980s, playing on the French national motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” people would say that the right’s priority was liberty while the left’s was equality. Libéralisme, still widely understood only in economic terms, had grown more and more objectionable, on both the left and the right, especially when it came with the prefix “neo.” “Le néo-liberalisme” had become the antithesis of French values, the very image of social injustice and the ruthlessness of the marketplace.
In fact, the right was rather liberal in its economics and reactionary on societal questions like morality and sexuality, whereas the left was liberal on societal issues and statist on economic and social matters.
Mr. Macron has broken away from this polarity, offering a version of liberalism that applies down the line, from societal matters to economics.
Ms. Le Pen, too, has moved away from the dichotomy, but in her case by being a reactionary on societal issues and a statist on economic and social questions.
And so the two leading candidates offer antagonistic views of globalization, Europe and laïcité, France’s staunch form of secularism. The Le Pen view of laïcité, for example, is defensive, favoring French culture over foreign religions. For Mr. Macron, laïcité is a liberal value that promotes individual freedom of religion.
France isn’t unique in this respect. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is another case in point. Though she is a product of the center-right Christian-Democrat tradition, on societal issues like immigration she hews close to Social-Democrat positions typically considered left-wing. A new ideological debate thus seems to be redefining political discourse in France and elsewhere in the West: between populist movements that are culturally and economically protectionist, and liberals who are open to Europe and globalization. Soon enough the left and the right will be all but vestiges of an already bygone 20th century.
Raphaël Liogier is a professor at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence and the Collège International de Philosophie in Paris, and the author of La guerre des civilisations n’aura pas lieu. Coexistence et violence au XXIème siècle. This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.