Leo Paillard is in his second year at King’s reading HSPS. He is also president of the Cambridge University French Society and is a keen follower of French and European political debate. Below, he shares his thoughts on the state of the French political landscape after the first round of the presidential election. As a rather cynical voter for Emmanuel Macron, he tries to diagnose the rejection of the centrist candidate, who, despite facing one of the least eligible candidates, seems to face a likely weak, and yet uncertain victory compared to that of President Jacques Chirac against Marine Le Pen’s father in 2002.
Before writing these lines, I, like most other French people, ritually assembled with friends to witness the faces of the two winners of the first round appear on the screen. This year, despite a campaign that could be best described as nasty, brutish and long, the polls were proved right and the two faces that appeared on the news at 8:00 pm last Sunday were those of Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron, who will be competing in the second round today, May 7th.
Although Emmanuel Macron’s victory is not exactly prey to a lot of doubts, the polls give a very different picture to what we saw in 2002, when right wing President Jacques Chirac faced Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen. In the face of Chirac’s overwhelming victory of 82%, the Front National has evolved and morphed into a more acceptable party. The rest of the political landscape, especially on the right, has witnessed significant evolution as well. Ahead of voting, leading poll institutes only give a win for Macron with 60% of the vote. What was essentially a unanimous gathering behind Chirac in 2002, has now changed into a tighter race, with important an important voter transfer towards the populist far-right. Therefore I would agree with Le Monde’s editor in chief Jérôme Fenoglio, who invokes the lingering danger of early prophesising the outcome of an unfinished election. The two issues at hand are now the urgency of opposing the Front National in the second round, but also to give the FN the lowest possible score.
The first acknowledgement is the downfall of the mainstream parties and the failure of primaries as an efficient political mechanism. While open primaries secured François Hollande’s candidacy in 2012, they proved to create a particularly toxic atmosphere as a preliminary processes of legitimation before this election. With an historically low combined result, the two main parties accumulated 26 percent of the vote in this year’s first round. But given the uncertainty that surrounds the Macron’s chances round, the voters of the two main parties, along with the radical left, will determine the outcome of the second round.
After an unforeseen win in his party’s primaries, the mainstream right candidate François Fillon has faced considerable dissent within his party, amidst shocking revelations on his lifestyle and judicial inquiries about the alleged fake employment of his wife and children. Not only did the candidate become isolated by his economically radical and socially conservative programme, many of his supporters abandoned the campaign ship, which resulted in the metamorphosis of a parliamentary polished right into a fierce campaign against pseudo-conspiracies between the media and a rigged judicial system, all driven by François Hollande. The secondary effect was the attrition of internal support from Les Républicains (the Republicans) party, with more than light campaigning from the most moderates and a quasi-defection of the party’s traditional ally, the European centre-right UDI. On the other hand, the anti-same-sex marriage movement produced the microparty Sens Commun. The importance gained by the reactionary lobby combined with a brutal and accusatory campaign against Macron’s liberalism has now put the French right into an ambiguous position. François Fillon’s rather distinguished concession speech (which offered a stark contrast to his rogue campaigning) was a clear call to rally under Macron’s banner to defeat the Front National. Yet, Le Pen’s party has ceased to be the ultimate bogeyman party of zealous militants and has sucked in support from Sens Commun and other socially conservative populists like Nadine Morano and Christine Boutin.
On the left, which traditionally pioneered the Front Républicain (alliance of all mainstream parties) against the FN, things are less ambiguous and the rejection of Marine Le Pen is omnipresent, however, another problem is caused by abstention. The Parti Socialiste’s candidate, Benoit Hamon, who achieved an all-time low score of 6.2% called immediately for his supporters to vote against Marine Le Pen, even if it entailed supporting his rival Macron and policies that he did not back.
On the side of the radical left, things are not as clear, and Jean Luc Mélenchon’s 19.6% of voters may well weigh powerfully on the result. While the candidate is a historically vitriolic opponent of the Front National and made his 2012 campaigns into personal duels against Marine Le Pen (he even ran for MP in the same constituency), his position is a lot more ambiguous today. His hatred for Macron’s liberalism is no breaking news, but his concession speech about the absence of mandate to back any candidate without consultation of his voting base could barely contrast more from his previous declarations about “putting on gloves” to vote for Chirac in 2002, or “sham[ing] those who targeted [him] instead of supporting us in the fight against Le Pen” in 2012 . And although only 9% of his electors seem inclined to vote for Mrs Le Pen, only 60% are favourable to Emmanuel Macron as a large share would envisage to abstain to vote for any candidate
The voting procedure in place in the French elections, no matter how open to criticism it may be, pushes voters to face a very concrete choice, and often a cynical one, two weeks from the first round. For most of them, it is at best a question between the lesser of two evils or even worst, the absence of choice in a self-evident vote. The presence of the Front National in the second round makes this 2017 second round belong to the latter, with an almost certain alliance between most voters to thwart the nationalist menace. Many may be tempted to bank on the seemingly obvious victory of Macron to abstain and show their lack of support for either candidate, but lessons from previous elections are unanimous: high abstention has always favoured the Front National, which has more mobilising power.
Now that a populist xenophobic party with equal disdain for Europe and French judiciary institutions made it to the second round, it is every French citizen’s duty to come to terms with reality, and placing both candidates on an equal footing is certainly not the answer. As much as one may spite liberalism and compare it to fascism, is it really a sensible reaction to support the Front National by abstaining, and to give it the credit it craves against the so-called “cosmopolitan oligarchy”?
As tempting as a “clean conscience” may appeal by rejecting Macron’s agenda, theFN defends exit from the European Union, of NATO, and historic partnerships, advocates rancid isolationism, the end of free school meals for the children of the unemployed at the local level, denial of France’s role in the Second World War, and a farandole of delirious reactionary policies.
Equating self-congratulatory liberalism, no matter how much antipathy and discontent it may inspire, and genuine populism with fascist undertones is not only hypocritical and delusional, but is also an insult to those who are the most seriously endangered by a Le Pen win. What about ethnic minorities, the unemployed, the impoverished (including those who have bought into Le Pen’s mirage), the civil servants who will have to enact such policies against their will, LGBT+ people, their immigrant colleagues, and many more will be hurt very directly by the empowerment of fascists and identitaires?
I do not share the argument of En Marche! campaigners saying that Marcon embodies the renewal of the French political elite – he does not.
As a former senior civil servant who turned himself towards investment banking before becoming special advisor to President Hollande and Minister of the Economy, the only new thing he brings as an individual is not having held elected office before running for president (which is not necessarily a positive argument). Macron embodies the very essence of the French social and political elite. Defending his non-Parisian origin and masking his social privilege with the veil of meritocratic exam recruitment into French civil service is indeed a thin defence strategy.
He has been called out from every side for being an opportunist – which he surely is – adding an impromptu one-month military service (a surprisingly popular nostalgic idea in France) to his programme, or forging himself a reputation for agreeing with all his opponents on televised debates.
Despite all of this, Macron did occupy a lone position as a pro-European centrist candidate, between the right and a deliquescent left, by keeping business-friendly relations, tax cuts, a much softer stance on austerity than the right, and a protection of the French social policy legacy.
Many voters’ reluctance is understandable, as exemplified by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s spokesman Alexis Corbière, few want to face the choice between the “cause” of anti-elite politics and its “consequence.” Every voter’s choice is a personal and independent matter, yet the French presidential election is a two solution trial, and one of the two candidates will be elected no matter what individual electors think or how may choose to abstain, and legislative elections will come after, with all the other local and European elections of the French democracy.
Refusing to vote for “social traitor” Macron is obviously understandable for the radical left, after a campaign revolving around the liberal candidate’s financial career and potential conflicts of interest. The actual debate, however lies in the choice between refusal to vote and betraying their convictions to thwart the far-right. In the face of a nonetheless uncertain outcome, the presence of the Front National at the second round is already a victory for populism and extremism.
Although the choice to refrain from voting is more politicised than ever, it could betray the very people the abtainers may claim to champion.