Strategy debates of candidates for French presidential election 2017

How are political movements positioned? How do they react to changes in the society and with which topics do they position themselves where in the political debate?
In this overview of political strategy debates of political parties in selected European and non-European countries, the authors strive to present political analyses not in text form, but graphically and pointedly. We hope this product contributes to a constructive discussion.

Overview of the first and second round of the presidential election 2017

Second round: Strategic Situation of Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen

All-time low for the established parties

The results of the 2017 presidential election delivered a blow to the political establishment. Two political parties have dominated French politics under the 5th Republic: The Republicans (LR) (and its Gaullist predecessors), and the Socialist Party (PS). In the first round of the 2017 presidential election, the combined score of their two candidates – François Fillon (20 per cent) and Benoît Hamon (6.3 per cent) – reached a record low of 26.3% of the votes. By comparison, their combined scores were 66 per cent of the vote in 2007 and 55.8 per cent in 2012. In particular, Hamon has lost more than 20 points compared to François Hollande in the first round of the 2012 presidential election.

One of the reasons for the shrinking electoral support for traditional parties is the emergence of new political movements – “En Marche!” and “La France Insoumise” – around the figures of Emmanuel Macron at the centre of the political spectrum, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left of the PS. Hamon, who is a representative of the left-wing faction of the PS, could neither prevent social-liberal voters from drifting toward the more liberal Macron, nor compete with Mélenchon. The latter started his campaign months earlier and managed to successfully ‘own’ issues such as wealth redistribution and ecological transition, that is, both old and new left issues.

The parliamentary elections in June will be crucial

Despite a disappointing campaign, Marine Le Pen has qualified (21.3 per cent) for the second round of the Presidential election. This result confirms the positive electoral dynamic that Le Pen has initiated since she took leadership of the National Front in 2011: she has received 1.2 million votes more than in the 2012 presidential election. It is unlikely that she will win on May 7th, she is currently polling at 37-38 per cent; however, her challenge is to perform as well as possible in order to continue gaining legitimacy in the perspective of the June parliamentary election and for the 2022 presidential election.

The emergence of “En Marche!” and “La France Insoumise”, and the results of the first round are an earthquake for French politics and in particular for the left as Macron scored 23.8 per cent and Mélenchon 19 per cent. While the presidency now seems to be in Macron’s hands, since he has received the backing of the main candidates eliminated in the first round, except for Mélenchon, all eyes will soon look toward the parliamentary elections that will take place in June. The two-round runoff voting system is detrimental to new political actors, whether centrist or radical: the centrist François Bayrou in 2007 and the radical-right Marine Le Pen in 2012 both scored around 18% in the presidential election in April but then, in the June elections, their parties (Modem and the FN) only obtained three and two seats in the parliament respectively.

However, the crisis in the Socialist Party and the improbable emergence of a centrist majority in the June elections will reshuffle the cards for the recomposition of the French left. Whether it will be to the left with “La France Insoumise” or to the centre with “En Marche!”, is yet to be seen.

First round: Strategic Situation of the main candidates

The campaign of outsiders

The campaign for the 2017 French presidential election is extraordinary in many regards. First of all, for the first time under the French 5th Republic the incumbent President, the socialist François Hollande, did not run for a second mandate.

Then, both main political parties - Les Républicains (LR) and the Parti Socialiste (PS) – organized open-primaries that took place in November 2016 for the former and in January 2017 for the latter. For Les Républicains, it was even the first time ever in the history of the French right that a political party organized primary elections. The PS already organized primaries in 2006 and 2011. Both these primaries resulted in the dismissal of figures that had exercised power in the past (Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy within LR and Manuel Valls within the PS), and in the victory of outsider candidates, François Fillon for LR and Benoît Hamon for the PS, who campaigned by appealing to core values of their political families, polarized their position by rejecting more consensual centrist positions.

In parallel to this primary process, Emmanuel Macron, who was unknown to the public three years ago, has emerged as a serious contender to the Presidential office. Minister of the Economy from 2014 to 2016, Macron has resigned from the government in order to launch his political movement “En Marche !” – with a centrist and liberal political line – and could, at the age of 39, become the youngest President France ever had. Paradoxically in the wake of these political shifts, the two radical candidates, Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left, appear as landmarks of the French political landscape as they were both already running for the presidency in 2012.

The polarization of the political offer

Turning to the political positions of the candidates, three observations can be made. First, only 2 out of the 11 candidates in this election are located on the economically liberal side of the political landscape, namely Macron and Fillon. This prevalence of government interventionism in the economic realm remains a specificity of French politics. Second, we discern a strong polarization of the main candidates along the two dimensions of the political landscape (a socio-economic one and a cultural one). Fillon and Mélanchon are at the two extremes of the socio-economic dimension, while Hamon and Le Pen are almost at the two extremes of the cultural dimension. Each of these four candidates occupies a specific and distinct position in the political landscape, offering voters strong policy alternatives. This polarization of candidates’ political positions, and in particular the polarization of the candidates of the two mainstream parties (Hamon and Fillon), leaves a large space for a moderate candidate. Macron attempts to embody this political offer. At first sight, his position is quite distant from the other main candidates, but a closer look shows that he is close to Hamon on the cultural dimension and close to Fillon on the economic dimension. This positioning makes him appeal to broad section of voters across the French political landscape, which results in his favourable performance in the polls.

Campaign dynamics

In theory, such polarized and diverse political alternatives should have led to an enthusiastic debate during the campaign and to a heightened interest from French voters. Despite this polarization, every survey suggests that turnout may be the lowest ever in a Presidential election, even lower than in the 1st round of the 2002 election when the leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, qualified for the second round eliminating the socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. The political disinterest that surveys are recording is probably due to the numerous scandals that have marked this campaign. Since late January, first Fillon and then Le Pen have been regularly associated with embezzlement scandals, involving them directly or indirectly through their political party. Like a soap opera, the so-called “Fillon Gate” made the media headlines for about two months and has strongly dramatized the campaign, with his opponents calling for him to withdrawn from the race and his supporters blaming the media, the judges and even the President of the Republic for a political manhunt.

In the absence of a clear political debate, campaign dynamics and candidate images may have increasing weight in the decision-making process of undecided voters: three weeks before the first round about 40 per cent of voters remain undecided. So far, polls have measured very different dynamics for the five main candidates. Le Pen consistently scores 22-25 per cent of the vote without any fluctuation for months. Fillon who was leading the polls early 2017, has lost almost 10 percentage-points since the scandals have unfolded and now polls around 18-20 per cent. Benefiting from Fillon’s decline and from the support of the centrist politician - François Bayrou - Macron caught up with Le Pen and also polls at about 22-25 per cent at present. On the left, Hamon polled above 15 per cent after his primary victory in January but has now slided below 10 per cent, as he was unable to impose himself as the leader of a fragmented left. The weak campaign of Hamon strongly benefits the far left candidate Mélenchon who has experienced a boost in polls from 10% to 18-20 per cent in the past two months.

What this overall picture of the 2017 French Presidential race shows is that volatility and indecision are at a record-high level, and the on-going dynamics suggest that the outcome of this election may be uncertain until the very last moment.

Individual Overview

Strategic Situation of Benoît Hamon (Parti Socialiste)

Under the François Holland presidency, the Socialist Party has mostly been divided into two factions: a majoritarian social-liberal faction that has supported the economic policies of the government, and a minority “left-leaning rebellious” faction that has regularly opposed economic structural reforms and has even threatened the government with a motion of no-confidence. The positions of these two factions mostly differ with regard to the deregulation of the labour market and the reduction of public deficits. In relation to the last point, the factions also disagree on the management of the Eurozone public deficit crisis, with the latter faction being more critical and advocating more public investment and more social policies at the European level. Benoît Hamon belongs to this faction. He was a member of the government from 2012 to 2014, when he resigned with several other officials precisely because of his disagreement with the economic policies pursued at the time (Emmanuel Macron entered the government following the reshuffle due to the resignation of Hamon and other ministers).

The victory of Hamon in the primary organized by the Socialist Party and its allies in January 2017 marks an ideological reorientation of the party line. Hamon has intensively campaigned during the primary on the implementation of an universal basic income, for an ecological transition, in favour of labour protection, for a robot tax, for the abrogation of the labour law passed under Manuel Valls’ government, and for the creation of a humanitarian visa for refugees. The major points of his manifesto did not aim to stretch out his hand toward the social-liberal socialists but rather to re-orientate the party toward a more left and ecological direction. As a result of this ideological shift, and after the making of a deal for the parliamentary election, the Green candidate Yannick Jadot withdrew his candidacy and became one of the spoke-persons of Hamon’s campaign. However, this burgeoning alliance lead an increasing number of socialist MPs to move their support from Hamon’s to Macron’s candidacy. The most notable one has been of Manuel Valls, former Prime Minister and opponent of Hamon in the second round of the primary. During the primary debate, Valls had declared that he would support Hamon should the latter win the primary.

Following his victory in the socialist primary, Hamon was polling ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Nowadays, the scores in the polls are reversed: Mélenchon is polling at 18% while Hamon has nearly dropped below the 10% line. This reversal of dynamics is due to strong similarities in the manifestos of the two left candidates (ecological transition, labour protection, progressive values and a call for a 6th Republic), but also due to the fact that Hamon has refused to personalize his campaign while the dynamic of the presidential election under the French 5th Republic almost inevitably requires to do so.

Strategic Situation of François Fillon (Les Républicains)

Except for the short period 1986-88, the state-centred Gaullist heritage of the French conservative party (RPR in the 1990s, UMP in the 2000s, and Les Républicains nowadays) never allowed the party to fully assume economic liberalism. Even when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected President in 2007 on a rather economically liberal platform, the 2008 financial crisis forced him to embrace state interventionism. Therefore, the victory of Fillon in the right primary of November 2016 serves as an ideological clarification for the French conservatives. Fillon’s manifesto is a synthesis between tough structural economic reforms, that he has himself qualified as “radical”, and social and cultural conservatism, embracing tough positions on law and order issues, advocacy of traditional values – he has publicly acknowledged his Christian faith – and tougher fight against Islamic terrorism.

Among his most cited structural reforms, there are proposals to cut 10% of all public sector jobs (about 500.000 jobs), to increase pension age, to deregulate the labour market, and to implement large tax cuts in favour of businesses. During his primary campaign, he was also advocating for welfare retrenchment but his opponents claimed that he was attempting to privatize the French social welfare which made him withdraw these measures from his presidential manifesto. In addition to these political criticisms, his campaign was heavily perturbed by the scandals surrounding him and his wife (they are currently being indicted for embezzlement and misappropriation of company assets) from late January onwards. Not only did the scandals weaken the support for his party and its supporters toward his candidacy (numerous members of his campaign staff resigned), but they have also prevented him from campaigning on the issues he owns, i.e. cutting public spending and tough structural reforms. His “austerity” stance has become inaudible because of the gap between his rhetoric and the scandals in which he is tied that involve public money. Hence, in a context in which he can hardly campaign in favour of his policy proposals, Fillon went back to the conservative basics: freedom of enterprise, tax cuts for companies, law and order issues, and authority of the State nationally and internationally. In addition, Fillon is opposed to further European integration and advocates for a European Union focused on national governments rather than on supranational institutions.

Strategic Situation of Marine Le Pen (Front National)

The main challenge for Marine Le Pen during the 2017 Presidential campaign has been to soften the image of the FN and its policies in order to be perceived as a credible government party. Nevertheless, the core policy measures of the FN have not changed and are still at the centre of Le Pen’s manifesto.

First of all, her manifesto is strongly economically protectionist. She rejects free-trade deals, advocates for an exit from the Eurozone and of the European Union (to be approved through a referendum), for a tax on importations and for the end of the EU and labour migration. Second, her anti-immigration stance is expressed through her desire to reduce legal immigration to “a positive balance of 10.000 persons” and to tax companies who hire foreigners, but also through her welfare chauvinist policies: legal immigrants would need to pay social taxes for two years before being able to access social welfare to the same extent that French citizens do. Lastly, the “defence of the Republic” has become one of the cornerstones of the “new FN”. According to Le Pen, French Republican values need to be protected from Islamic fundamentalism. The defence of the Republic is also present in her economic positions as she advocates for the protection of public services such as mailing offices in rural areas or police units in urban areas.

This overall strategy also aims at portraying the FN as a “patriotic Gaullist party”. Recent declarations by high-level party members and by Le Pen, saying that the French State is not responsible for the Vichy Regime during World War II and for its anti-Semitic policies, show that the FN is trying to stand out from its historical roots: the party was established in 1972 by admirers of the authoritarian Vichy Regime. Hence by “turning History around”, the FN is fully embracing the Gaullist narrative according to which the “real France” was in London with the General De Gaulle fighting alongside the Allied forces. This rhetorical realignment is part of a broader move against French historical repentance that has been initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 campaign and that the FN has strongly incorporated in its rhetoric.

Strategic Situation of Emmanuel Macron ("En Marche")

Emmanuel Macron and his political movement “En Marche!”, created one year ago, are the newest political actors in French Politics. Former economic advisor of President François Hollande and former Minister of the Economy from 2014 to 2016, Macron’s challenge is to stand out from the economic policies of the government he was a member of. He chose to do so by embodying a liberal agenda, both on economic and cultural issues. In the economic realm, he aims at cutting the public deficit, in particular by reducing expenses related to social welfare and unemployment. In addition he plans to engage structural reforms to modernize French administration, to liberalize the labour market and to homogenise the pension system between the private and the public sectors. In parallel to these structural reforms, his manifesto includes an investment plan amounting to 50 billion of which 15 would go for the training and formation of the youth and of the unemployed, but also to the development of renewable energies and organic food. Conversely to other progressive candidates (Hamon and Mélenchon), he does not plan to exit nuclear energy but simply to reduce its weight in the French electricity mix to 50% (it stands at above 70% today). On cultural issues, as just mentioned, Macron is in favour of a progressive ecological transition; he also supports child adoption for same-sex couples but has not expressed an opinion on the issue of euthanasia.

His political movement has received support from both the centre-left and the centre-right of the political spectrum. In particular many MPs and mayors from the Socialist Party have joined Macron’s candidacy. “En Marche!” has also recruited candidates for the parliamentary election that will take place in June, half of which are new to politics and come from civil society. In case of a Macron’s victory in the Presidential election in May, the parliamentary election will be key for him as he most likely won’t be able to enjoy a majority in the French National Assembly and will have to govern through a party coalition that may prove to be rather unstable.

Strategic Situation of Jean-Luc Mélenchon ("La France insoumise")

Jean-Luc Mélenchon launched his campaign more than a year ago with the creation of a new political movement “La France Insoumise” that now has more than 400.000 members. Besides performing well in the Presidential election, Mélenchon’s strategy aims at displacing the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) as the main party of the French left. Policy-wise, his strategy to achieve this goal has been focused on the making of a “left-catchall manifesto”.

His economic platform relies heavily on state interventionism, wealth redistribution and labour protection. A plan of 100 billion euros of public investment is included in his manifestos as means of boosting the economy. He also plans to introduce a 100% tax for any income above 400.000 Euros annually, as well as an universal tax, i.e. every French citizen will pay income taxes in France even if they live abroad (French citizens abroad would pay the difference compared to the income tax they pay in the country where they live). He would abrogate some of the bills passed under the Hollande presidency deregulating the labour market. Mélenchon has also put at the centre of his manifesto the ecological transition that aims at replacing nuclear energy with renewable energies, developing organic food (mandatory organic food in school canteens for instance) and developing the “blue or sea economy”. As he has done in the past, Mélenchon adopts very critical stances toward the European Union: he advocated a renegotiation of EU treaties in order to end “austerity policies” and to establish upward social, fiscal and ecological harmonisation. If negotiations would fail, then he would support a “Frexit” from EU treaties. He also advocates the establishment of a 6th Republic in order to end the current “Republican monarchy in which too many powers are granted to the President” through the establishment of a Constitutional Assembly. Finally, he is also in favour individual freedoms (such as euthanasia and child adoption for same sex couples), while suggesting a reinforcement of authority (mandatory civil service with the option of doing it as a military service).

Methodology and Authors

How were the graphs created?

The graph above displays the positions of French candidates on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 30 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “libertarian” or “authoritarian”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of candidates on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances.

The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the candidates on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the libertarian-authoritarian dimension). The precise candidate position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the candidate answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, candidates in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; candidates in favour of both libertarian and authoritarian policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the libertarian-libertarian axis.

Who realised the Strategy debates France 2017?


Thomas Vitiello - Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris, ISCOM Paris and IES Abroad Nice


André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV

Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV

Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV

Project coordination:

Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Strategiedebatten Frankreich

International Policy Analysis


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The International Policy Analysis Department is working on key issues of European and international politics, economy and society. The aim is to develop policy recommendations and scenarios from a perspective of social democracy.

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