The idea that politicians operate on a spectrum, with the right on one end and the left on the other, originated with the French Revolution, when royalists sat on the right side of the National Assembly and revolutionaries on the left. So it’s only fitting that, 228 years later, France is at the forefront of a phenomenon on display in many democracies at the moment: the crumbling of left-right politics.
Of the four leading candidates in France’s presidential election, the first round of which takes place on Sunday, only one hails from a traditionally dominant left- or right-wing political party. And that exception, the Republican Party’s Francois Fillon, is currently embroiled in a scandal over whether he improperly funneled taxpayer money to his family members. As some observers have noted, the French political spectrum now looks more like a circle—or, more accurately, a tangled mess of circles where the most significant differences are not between left and right, but between nationalists and internationalists, populists and pluralists, rebels and preservationists. The National Front’s presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, advocates far-right anti-immigration policies and far-left economic policies. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate for the new France Unbowed movement, is way to the left of Le Pen on many issues, but not so far from her sympathy toward Vladimir Putin and hostility toward globalization and the European Union. Emmanuel Macron, the candidate for the new On the Move movement, rejects “left” or “right” labels altogether.