France doesn't want an overhaul

'The Great Debate' on April 5 featured, from left, Francois Fillon of the Republicans, Nathalie Arthaud of the extreme-left Lutte Ouvriere (LO), Marine Le Pen of French National Front (FN), Benoit Hamon of the French Socialist party, Jacques Cheminade and Philippe Poutou of Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). (Reuters photo)

To a politically attuned American, the French presidential election sounds familiar: A great but divided country facing economic and social problems grows disillusioned with the political class. Cue a populist movement to rip up the script, deconstruct the state and drain the swamp, right?

Some of the parallels are genuine. There really is a voter revolt going on in France -- all the obvious candidates for the job were rejected and the two front-runners don't come from mainstream parties. And France does have a populist disruptor. That's Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party, who shares with President Donald Trump an anti-immigrant, protectionist platform. Mr Trump promised to make America great again; Ms Le Pen pledges to do the same for France.

And yet don't think for a minute this means the French want a radical overhaul. While French voters want change, it's not the root-and-branch kind that Trump voters sought, or that Britons yearned for when they voted to leave the European Union. Indeed, as I learned during a recent visit, it's hard to find anyone who wants to dismantle France's fabled social contract; the bargain by which the state delivers wide-ranging services in return for collecting a hefty share of people's incomes.

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