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Researcher on French election: “Great breadth in ideas debate”

Johannes Heuman is currently engaged in research on the history of minorities in France and on relations between Jews and Muslims from the post-World War II period until the present day.

We sat down with Johannes Heuman, researcher in history with a focus on French post-war history. He lives periodically in Paris and has commented on the French elections in Swedish newspapers and broadcast media. What does he find interesting about the French election?

“I’m not following the French election as a historian, I’m doing it because of my general interest in the French debate on ideas. Having said that, history feels very much present and of course that adds to my interest. History has helped me understand different positions in the debate relating to religion, culture and issues of identity.

“It’s also an exciting election in view of the great changes we have seen in the world, with Donald Trump as President of the United States and Brexit, the UK leaving the EU. This is why the election in France has attracted international interest.”

You have written that the growing populism in France can be seen as a sign of a crisis in democracy. Similar trends are in evidence in several other countries. What is special about the situation in France?

“The globalisation of recent decades has been particularly painful in France as it has coincided with economic stagnation. Since the post-war period, France has lost its great power status and that has increased resistance to globalisation here. Both Marine Le Pen and the far left have attempted to appeal to these opinions.

“It’s not certain that this is a crisis of democracy – it may be a sign that the political landscape is changing. I find the debate very lively and interesting to follow, and a broad spectrum of views have been expressed. In that sense, what has been happening has not been purely negative.”

You have written about a new direction for the left, is this an example of the way in which the political climate has changed?

“Yes, the Socialist Party, which did very badly in the election, has failed to pick up the votes of the shrinking working class and the underclass. Just talking about welfare is not tenable, you have to appeal to the anxiety provoked by free trade, open borders and a flexible labour market. The far left has understood that. They want to strengthen France’s independence internationally and have begun to talk about reality as it appears to the losers of globalisation, not just the middle class.”

How do you think the election will go?

“One risk in the election lies in the expectations that Emmanuel Macron represents something new. To be sure, he has new proposals, but there’s not that big a difference from the current President. There’s a risk of a backlash when people notice that things are going on much as before. It’s easy to mistake new blood for new times.

“It looks as if Macron will win the election. The calculations that have been made give him a big lead, but one shouldn’t be too sure. A lot can happen in the next two weeks and Le Pen is trying to win over both Republicans and the far left. External factors, such as terrorist acts, may also influence events, though not necessarily in Le Pen’s favour.”

What influence have the terrorist acts over the past year, in Paris and Nice, for example, had?

“It’s hard to say how much the terrorist acts have strengthened Marine Le Pen. They have also led to people rallying round classic republican values such as freedom of expression and an inclusive national unity. For example, large demonstrations have been held in support of the republic that have been unconnected with Le Pen’s policies. During the election campaign, many people who were not politically active previously have got very involved on Macron’s behalf.”


Background facts:

The presidential election in France in 2017 consists of two rounds. The first took place on 23 April 2017. The two candidates who received the most votes – the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the nationalist Marine Le Pen – will meet in a second round on 7 May 2017. The presidential election will be followed by the 2017 French parliamentary elections on 11 and 18 June.

Find out more:

Researcher profile Johannes Heuman: “My research is closely connected to current events”


27 April 2017