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Underdogs complete sweep of French primaries, upending presidential race

models of thought

With Socialist Benoît Hamon's win Sunday, centrists have been shut out of the two major French parties' presidential run-ups. And far-right Marine Le Pen and former Socialist Emmanuel Macron could yet keep both parties out of the eventual runoff in May.

Benoît Hamon greets supporters after winning the Socialist party presidential nomination in Paris on Sunday. Mr. Hamon, rising from left-wing obscurity on a radical proposal to a pay all adults a monthly basic income, handily beat ex-Prime Minister Manuel Valls in a primary run-off vote Sunday.
Francois Mori/AP | Caption

Now that the main political parties in France have selected their candidates for president – with the ruling Socialists picking Benoît Hamon in their party primary Sunday – it should be run-of-the-mill from here in the closely watched election, right?

Think again.

The march to the French presidency has been one of the most unpredictable races that many French say they can remember.

The prospect that far-right leader Marine Le Pen could win has had the world on tenterhooks, as the anti-establishment sentiment that swept Donald Trump into power in the United States and is pushing Britain out of the European Union threatens to knock out the political elite here, too.

But she’s not the only force representing the riotous mood. Both mainstream parties dismissed their centrist contenders, choosing the more ideological underdog on both the right and left. There is even a chance neither will make it to Round 2 of the race expected this May.

Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at Cevipof (Center for Political Research) at Sciences Po in Paris, says the first word that comes to his mind when characterizing this season is “crazy.” “I have never seen such a volatile situation before, where you feel like everything is possible,” he says.

New left, new right

Is that necessarily all bad?

Starting with the Socialists, the victory of Mr. Hamon is striking for two reasons. In a normal cycle, it would have been President François Hollande representing his party. But amid the worst approval ratings in modern history, he became the first modern president not to seek reelection when he stepped out of the race in December. Since then, Manuel Valls, Mr. Hollande's former prime minister and a centrist with a reform-minded, law-and-order platform, was the favorite. Instead, and seemingly out of nowhere, the left-wing Hamon, on his platform for universal basic income and legalized marijuana, took the race with more than 58 percent of the vote.

In theory, he will face François Fillon on the right. The candidate for the Républicains also came out of nowhere. Pollsters predicted the right-wing primary would be a showdown between longtime face on the center-right, Alain Juppé, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Instead, Mr. Fillon, who is dubbed the “Margaret Thatcher” of French politics and on family issues sits much farther right than much of the French public, including Ms. Le Pen, surged ahead of both.

The drama didn’t end there. Last week a French newspaper published a damning report alleging Fillon's wife was paid €500,000 ($534,000) for essentially a phony job as his parliamentary aide, generating a preliminary judicial inquiry. If wrongdoing is found, he has promised he’ll step aside, throwing the race into chaos.

In the meantime, former Socialist Emmanuel Macron, a political newcomer who broke from the party to form his own, En Marche!, is creeping up in the polls as a free-market reformer to become a potential game-changer. Of course, Le Pen is right out front, and that has Europe bracing.

A weakened presidency?

Much of what is happening here is driven by an electorate that looks familiar across the West: one fed up with the same faces, the sense that the political elites are just in it for themselves, that there is no difference between left or right anymore. And some of the wild ride toward the presidency is driven by particularly French pressures that could ultimately reshape the Fifth Republic – perhaps not all for the worse.

When Hollande decided not to run, it shook the French and their sense of the “Gaullist presidency,” the strong role that French presidents since Charles de Gaulle have played.

Pressure started to mount under Mr. Sarkozy, reviled for a lifestyle that clashed with French notions of how a statesman should behave. Hollande, considered weak and ineffectual, was unable to rectify it.

“His utter failure to 'maintain' the status of the presidency actually puts the Fifth Republic in danger,” says John Gaffney, director of the Aston Center for Europe at Aston University in Britain who wrote a book on Hollande. “Now no one knows what to do, who to turn to, what to propose. … I don't think the French know what they themselves think or want. Because all want a strong leader but recognize the real dangers of a populist turn.”

The dynamics of the race is a wake-up for all leaders in the era: something is happening and no one knows where it will lead. Politicians can be dismissed as quickly as they are voted in (note Matteo Renzi’s promise to change Italy and subsequent resignation when his reform was defeated at the polls; David Cameron faced a similar fate after losing his Brexit gamble).

In France specifically, the Fifth Republic has functioned as a multiparty system with two major poles. This race clearly indicates that dynamic has shifted. Some believe major institutional change will follow.

A confused state of affairs? Perhaps. And yet, new space has opened up that could revitalize the French political scene. Mr. Cautrès says Hollande's decision not to run generated "a liberation of different energies."

“What is very positive is that after this election at least we will see some new faces in French politics,” he says, which could begin to address voter disillusionment, and is one of Le Pen’s strongest selling points. "We will see some major new things in French politics."