French voters took to the polls on April 23 for the first of two rounds of voting for the presidential election. Voters chose from a list including far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, Republican candidate François Fillon, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

This is the first time in French history neither candidate in the final round of the presidential election is from the main parties as Macron and Le Pen emerged victorious.

Emmanuel Macron, previous French minister for finance and the economy, has never held an elected office. He appeared on the election scene as an independent candidate with his movement En Marche! (In Motion!), disrupting the already divided Socialist Party. Socially left-wing and economically liberal, Macron is pro-EU, a significant point of difference to his opponent. All of the main candidates —  excluding Mélenchon —  current French President François Hollande and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, have endorsed Macron.

Macron will face far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) party. Le Pen has made an effort to make the party more palatable to the mainstream, but she remains staunchly anti-Europe, pro-Trump and has a hard line on immigration. Le Pen is part of a French political legacy — her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, known for being far more extreme, made it to the second round of the elections in 2002, where he was defeated in a landslide.

Macron and Le Pen will face each other in the second round for a run-off election on May 7th and the legislative elections for parliament will begin on June 11th.

Eleonora Pasotti is an associate professor in the politics department at UC Santa Cruz, where her research interests include comparative urban politics and European politics. With this field of research and as an EU citizen, she was able to help explain the dynamics in French politics and this election.

Julia Bertuzzi is a French exchange student from the suburbs of Paris. She attends Sciences Po, or Paris Institute of Political Studies, where she studies economics and political science. She is currently studying for her third quarter at UCSC. Relatively happy with the current state of the election, she gave insight to how she perceives the mood among voters.

*Answers have been shortened for brevity and clarity


Courtesy of Eleonora Pasotti
Courtesy of Eleonora Pasotti

Eleonora Pasotti, EU citizen, associate professor in the politics department with a focus in comparative urban and European politics

Can you explain the electoral system used in the French elections? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system?

The French system is similar to the U.S.’s system in its single member district approach. There are two big differences, though.

Number one, the French electoral system has two rounds, both for the presidential elections and the parliamentary elections. […] A plurality is not sufficient to win the seat. In the U.S., the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seats, whereas in France you need an actual majority. If the candidates win a majority in the first round, more than 50 percent, then they get the seat. Otherwise, and this is what happens usually, then you have to go to the second round. In the presidential election, the top two candidates go to the second round, so as we have just observed that is Macron and Le Pen.

The second big difference is that France is a semi-presidential system. That means you have a president but you also have a parliament with a prime minister. Most people think that this would lend more power to the legislature than a presidential system, however that is not true. […]The U.S.’s system has lots of checks and balances on the executive and so comparatively speaking, it is a relatively weak executive. We have observed this over and over again with the Obama administration, and now with the Trump administration, that do not have an easy time enacting the policies that they choose if the legislature is not on board. The situation is very different in France. The president has the power to call for legislative elections in France. […]

So to compare to the U.S., it would be a president who never faces a divided government. So that’s a major difference, much stronger executive. It is a similar outcome that is observed in the UK, which is why the UK executive is so much stronger than that of the U.S., but we never think that when we think of presidential systems. So people usually assign more power to the president here than they actually have, when we think in comparative terms.

It is shocking and unprecedented that Macron, who formed his party last year, is now in first place. But what is really puzzling, is what is going to happen in Parliament.

How does this election, if at all, differ from previous elections in terms of engagement? Are more young people engaging with politics now?

I haven’t seen data to that effect yet to comment specifically on youth turnout. What we know is that youth are tending to flock to extremes. So youth on the left went to Mélenchon. So that is, therefore, a place I am worried about turnout in the second round, as I do not see the youth flocking to Macron. On the other hand, the youth have also flocked on the right to Le Pen. In part, because it’s important to remember that youth unemployment in France is extremely high, so it’s not a surprise they flock to extremes. So overall I expect youth to be quite absent and especially the youth on the left; I expect them to stay home for the runoff.

Why, if at all, should UCSC students care about the presidential election in France?

The impact on NATO is something that would have an immediate effect on Americans and U.S. foreign policy. Especially with the aggressive foreign policy that Russia has been conducting in recent years, and we should not forget that Le Pen has had documented financial support from Russian sources for decades. Le Pen was one of the first parties in Europe to get funding from Russian sources. So there is a clear strategy for destabilizing the entire post-world order.

Of course, students are impacted if the EU were to end their ability to move and study around Europe. Of course, American students are not beneficiaries of the Schengen Agreement so they wouldn’t be directly affected for moving around for study exchanges. But from a geopolitical and international market perspective, the EU and U.S. trading relationship and NATO are the main infrastructure for defense, so from that point of view, Americans would be impacted in a very deep way.

They are observing systemic change, just like their parents observed the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Le Pen wins on the toes of Brexit and Trump, it’s going to be systemic change of historic and epic proportions, just like the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are witnessing history right now. [If Le Pen wins] it’s going to be a different world, fundamentally.

Courtesy of Julia Bertuzzi
Courtesy of Julia Bertuzzi

Julia Bertuzzi, French exchange student studying economics and political science at Sciences Po

How do you feel about the candidates that made it to the second round?

Strangely, I am pretty happy. I am confident because I don’t think that Marine Le Pen will win, but she could have if it was anyone else instead of Macron. All of the other candidates are really old and have been in the system for a long time and I feel people are really sick and tired of the same ideas.

Do you think the political environment will have changed by the time you get home?

I think it’s just going to be more tense. Unemployment hasn’t fallen and also with the terrorist attacks there is this tense environment.

Do you feel that this election has gotten more international attention than French politics would usually?

No, I think French politics usually attract a lot of foreign interest. But I think clearly the link between Brexit and Trump has been made — and correctly so. Also it goes with the global movement of the rise of the far right.

Should people here even be interested about the election?

I think they should care. The way I have read about the French election in American newspapers, they are trying to read what is happening in France through an American lens of American culture, which is sometimes a bit biased and can twist the reality. When people here hear that Le Pen wants to forbid headscarves, they are shocked. But our law already prohibits complete headscarves. And I have been [following] The New York Times, and it is saying interesting things, but it’s still through an American lens. It doesn’t need to replace [this perspective], but just add to it.

Maybe in France it will be publicized that one of the reasons for Trump [and why Clinton lost] is because Democrat voters didn’t go to the polls, so people will go vote.