The populist drift of the French election campaign

French presidential candidates are using populist distractions to avoid discussing actual policy plans.

French presidential election candidates (LtoR) Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a debate organised by French private TV channel TF1 in
French presidential election candidates Francois Fillon, Emmanuel Macron, Jean-Luc Melenchon, Marine Le Pen and Benoit Hamon, pose before a televised debate on March 20 [Patrick Kovarik/Reuters]

So far, the French electoral season has offered nothing more than a sorry display of politics. Instead of being presented with an educated debate on policy options and electoral programmes, the French population has been forced to watch its politicians wade around in the mud of legal troubles.

After weeks of French media obsessing about corruption scandals surrounding Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon, French voters finally got a glimpse of a comprehensive political exchange during the first presidential TV debate. Unfortunately after this single night of discussion between the five leading candidates over their visions for the country’s future, the campaign went back to the gutter the very next day.

On Thursday, yet another distraction occupied public attention, as the Republican candidate Francois Fillon accused President Francois Hollande of leading a covert operation from a “black cabinet” in the Elysee Palace to influence the judicial investigation against him.

This populist drift is a shame, as the coming weeks are important. France is at a crossroads and political decisions that have to be made by the next government will determine not only its future but severely affect the European Union and the balance of its alliances.

Communist-backed Jean Luc Melenchon is a stubborn revolutionary who wants to draw France close to Russia. Benoit Hamon, the socialist, is a young – almost naive – politician with idealistic dreams of providing a minimum income to everyone without demanding any work in return. Emmanuel Macron, the quintessential centrist, agrees with almost everyone. Francois Fillon, the pro-market republican, fancies himself as the gravedigger of public services and wants to slash civil service jobs to fill the pockets of the wealthy, starting with his own. Finally far-right Marine Le Pen barks out xenophobic arguments as soon as one mentions refugees or Islam and worships both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin while dreaming of a Frexit.

‘Inaudible hubbub’

Despite the sad show the candidates put up last week, expectations remain high. More than 10 million people watched the lengthy televised debate, knowing that the outcome of this election will have serious consequences and could mean the end of the European Union.

If the embezzlement practices under investigation morally disqualify the right-wing candidates, the voters deserve to hear the other alternatives to the Hollande administration, widely perceived as disappointing.

Unfortunately, as both Fillon and Le Pen try to escape corruption charges by claiming to be the scapegoats of both French and European justice, they have turned their economic and political programmes into an inaudible hubbub and taken attention away from the other candidates.

The strategies adopted by Fillon and Le Pen are blindingly obvious and do not hold water. Stealing a page of Donald Trump’s playbook, they hope that by pointing fingers at a made-up conspiracy, they will rally their supporters and turn the voters’ eyes away from the fact that they used family members or party representatives to funnel public money through fictitious employment. 

Hiding in plain sight

Yet what is more troublesome is that Fillon and Le Pen’s populist distraction strategies, by making sure that the media is solely focused on conspiracy claims, allow them to keep their dangerous propositions hidden from scrutiny.

By jamming media airwaves with false claims of conspiracy, both Le Pen and Fillon manage to avoid being held accountable for their proposals.


Whether in the field of foreign policy, economy or societal structure, what Fillon and Le Pen propose would raise eyebrows if voters were made aware.

In regards to economic policy, Le Pen wants to pull out of the eurozone, a decision that would immediately lead to a colossal monetary depreciation like the one the United Kingdom recently experienced. For France, the consequences of leaving the EU would be far more severe due to the current level of integration of the country into the union. In case of a Frexit, lower and middle classes would inevitably lose a sizeable share of their purchasing power.

Fillon, on the other hand, wants to slash 500,000 jobs in hospitals, schools and security forces, privatising most of these services, without mentioning that such a privatisation surge would make these services  unaffordable for the poor. He also wants a fiscal reform that would vastly benefit the top 1 percent, to which he belongs.

Regarding societal development, Fillon and Le Pen want to counteract liberal advances – same-sex marriage, secularism, social blending. Both candidates are heavily supported by traditional Catholic circles that would welcome a return to the times when individual differences and cultural mixing were frowned upon.

The Putin factor

Not surprisingly, both Fillon and Le Pen have long been cultivating close relationships with Putin.

Le Pen was in Moscow on Friday and Fillon has always been a regular presence at the Kremlin’s social gatherings. As a result, the foreign policy platform of both candidates seems to have been dictated by Moscow. Le Pen is saying there is nothing wrong with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Fillon, on the other hand, called for an intervention of the French army in favour of Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Iran.

These issues cannot be adequately explained to the public in debates that last a few mere hours. But by jamming media airwaves with false claims of conspiracy, both Le Pen and Fillon manage to avoid being held accountable for their proposals.

OPINION: Why the French elections will change the face of Europe

Fillon and Le Pen are both trying to gain support by attacking an unpopular president. If they can continue to implement this strategy successfully, one of them would be able to step in the Elysee Palace without their policy programme being challenged.

It already worked in Washington, but hopefully it will not work in Paris.

Remi Piet is a research associate on political economy and foreign policy at the Florida International University.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.