Letter from Paris

The French Resolution

Samantha de Bendern is an analyst of European political trends. She has worked with the European Commission and NATO
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Europe may avoid a nervous breakdown as a neophyte globalist is likely to win the Elysee Palace in the final round. But how long can France resist the populist?

“I’M STILL HESITATING between Macron and Mélenchon…” It’s late at night, two days before the first round of France’s presidential election, and I am talking to Pierre, a 45-year-old French real estate entrepreneur by day and semi-professional singer-actor by night. At first glance, it may seem a fitting reflection of the multiple facets of his personality for someone pursuing two radically different activities to be torn between very different candidates in this election—the centrist pro-European, pro-business Emmanuel Macron, and the far Left anti-globalisation Jean-Luc Mélenchon. But Pierre’s dilemma was not unique in the run-up to the most unpredictable presidential election France has seen since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. His words reflected much of the self-questioning of the French electorate as a whole, where many remained undecided until the last moment in the face of a large but mostly uninspiring array of 11 candidates. On polling day, four very different presidential hopefuls were neck-to-neck, and almost any combination seemed possible for the second round run-off.

In the end, the vote on April 23rd eliminated both mainstream parties from the contest, with the candidate of the ruling Socialist Party, Benoît Hamon, scoring a paltry 6.36 per cent and the mainstream Republican Right’s François Fillon lagging behind the candidate of the National Front with 20.01 per cent, only slightly above the radical Left Mélenchon’s 19.58 per cent. In another first for the Fifth Republic, this is first time the Republican Party will not have a candidate in the second round of the presidential election.

With 24.01 per cent of the vote, Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year- old former economy minister under the current government, who has never been elected to any public office, and whose political party En Marche! (‘Forward March!’) was set up only a year ago, will face Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front (21.3 per cent). Macron, with his open liberal values, reformist economic outlook and humane social policies, is the blue-eyed boy of the international media and markets, as well as, it would seem, a significant proportion of the electorate. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, has campaigned on a promise of combatting immigration, radically reinforcing security in the face of the terrorist threat and restoring France’s ‘sovereignty’ by taking the country out of the Eurozone and the EU and ensuring a ‘France first’ approach to all economic and investment decisions.

The second round of the election is on May 7th, and the stakes could not be higher: with two candidates with such radically opposite visions of the world, the future not only of France but of Europe as whole is at stake, and perhaps that of what one could call—for want of a better term—the Liberal West as well.

IN MANY WAYS the divisions apparent in France echo the divisions embodied in both the Clinton-Trump contest in the US election and the UK referendum over the European Union last year. Many of the themes are the same: internationalists versus nationalists, the moneyed well-educated elite versus those eking out a living on the periphery of a globalised world, loss of identity, town versus country with suburbia torn between the two, worries on the nature of national identity, and last but not least, the fear of terrorism and questions on how to combat it.

Unlike the US and UK elections, which saw victories for the nationalist champions of the ‘forgotten man’, France looks set to reverse this course as all opinion polls predict a significant victory for Emmanuel Macron. But with two more weeks of campaigning to go before the final run-off, things could change and perhaps the biggest danger facing Macron and his supporters is that of complacency. His other weakness (which is also his strength) is that he is a man of many faces, with as much to attract as to repel a divided and confused electorate.

Many on the Right see Macron as a product of the socialist system. “For me, Macron represents a victory for the Left in disguise,” says Maider Arosteguy, 50, a pro-Fillon municipal counsellor in the chic seaside resort of Biarritz on France’s south-west coast. “Voting for him is ensuring that the National Front will be victorious in 2022 (the next presidential elections),” she explains. “Fillon, with his clear plans for economic reform and strong stance against terrorism, was the only real barrage against Le Pen.” She is clear that she will not vote for Le Pen, but at this point is still undecided on whether she will vote at all. Fillon will vote for Macron, but with “little joy in his heart”.

The defeated Socialist candidate, Hamon, has called on Socialist voters to fight Le Pen as he sees a clear difference between “a political opponent (Macron) and an enemy of the Republic (Le Pen)” and President François Hollande has endorsed his former minister. Indeed, many Socialists had already defected to the Macron camp even before the second round, which partly explains his success. Helena and Pierre are retirees in their sixties based in south-west France; Pierre is a card-carrying Socialist and both were Trotskyists in their youth. This time, for the first time in decades, they did not vote Socialist in the first round of the presidential polls: “I would have voted Hamon, but he did not have a chance. The only candidate we saw capable of defeating Le Pen is Macron. We did not want to take any chances, so we voted for him.” This will have been the second time that they have voted for a candidate who is too much to the right for their liking, in order to protect France from a Le Pen victory. In 2002, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, came second in the first round of the presidential election. He was widely defeated in the second round when 82.2 per cent of the electorate voted for the incumbent Jacques Chirac. Of those, a significant majority were voting against Le Pen, not for Chirac.

The shadow of 2002 is probably the greatest challenge facing Macron. However striking his sudden popularity may be, the great unknown is how much this is a reflection of what people are rejecting as opposed to what they are embracing. He represents in many ways a break with the traditional party lines—he left the Socialist Party in 2016 to form his own movement that is just a year old, and has no parliamentary base. But he is also product of the system, and attended the same elite ENA National Administration school that has formed generations of top politicians. He is both an insider and an outsider who moved into a vacuum created by the Left and Right which were both moving to extremes.

However charismatic and dynamic he may be, Macron also owes much of his rise to that of the National Front, whose shadow has been growing larger and larger over French politics over the years. The big question in French politics during this whole election, and for the last five years since the last one, has not been ‘Who will be the next President?’ but ‘Who will stand against Marine in the second round?’ For many, this is Macron, but whether he will be able to move out of her shadow and become his own man, as opposed to Marine’s opponent, will determine not only his victory, but how France evolves in the future.

Marine’s anti-globalisation rhetoric attracts a working class electorate as well as left-leaning intellectuals and youth, traditional bases of the far Left

SINCE POLITICS AND politicians do not exist in a vacuum, the same forces that helped Macron also helped Le Pen’s rise. First of all, the two main political parties, the Socialists and the Republican Right, have suffered from ideological struggles and infighting. The primary campaigns of the Left and Right exposed party rifts, which were even more striking for the fact that open primary elections to choose presidential candidates is a new thing in France. Add to that the fact that the Socialist President François Hollande’s approval ratings were so low that he decided to not even run for the presidency, and any Socialist candidate was doomed from the outset.

The Right was in similar disarray, with the exuberant ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, the sensible former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, and another former prime minster, François Fillon, thrashing out in-party feuds during the first ever primaries on the Right. Until January this year, Fillon was the favourite to face, and beat, Le Pen in the second round. Then scandal broke out when he got mired in allegations that he had paid nearly €1 million over the years to his wife and children in salaries for fake jobs. This undoubtedly cost him his place in the second round, and probably the presidency. “I have always been on the right,” explains Nathalie Behar, a successful 50 year-old Parisian entrepreneur and single mother, “and if it were not for the scandals surrounding Fillon, I would have voted for him, in spite of his staunch Catholicism and ultra-conservative views on family and society. I saw him as the only candidate capable of beating Le Pen. But he went too far.” After the terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees which killed one policeman three days before the polls opened, Nathalie nearly switched to Fillon. “He is the only one who can stand up to terrorists,” she insisted, as she agonised over her choice until the last minute. In the end she voted Macron because she did not want to “fall into the trap laid by the jihadists who want to influence this election”. Other voters, angry over the Fillon scandal, moved to Le Pen instead.

The rise of terrorism linked to radical Islam in France is undoubtedly a significant factor which played into Le Pen’s hands. Apart from the three widely reported spectacular attacks on French soil since January 2015, France has seen a multitude of small-scale attacks, mainly against symbols of the state and the Catholic Church, many either claimed by Islamic State or with Islamic overtones. Le Pen has capitalised on the fear and desire for strong law and order generated by these attacks.

Nevertheless the terrorist threat is not the prime motivator of her constituency. Julien Mauranne, a 29-year-old Paris-based documentary filmmaker who voted Mélenchon, explains that Le Pen’s strongest electoral base is in the “France of the peripheries”, those who live away from big cities and feel forgotten by the metropolitan elites. He cites a book by author Christophe Guilluy, Peripheral France , which explains how a White, unemployed and poorly- educated working class are seeing their job prospects and hopes for social mobility taken over by immigrants who usually settle—or are settled—in big cities where there are better educational and job opportunities, even in the poorest banlieues, than in the provinces.

This feeling of being ignored, trapped in a cycle of ever increasing poverty and hopelessness has been the main engine propelling Le Pen forward. Her anti-immigrant, anti-elite and anti- globalisation rhetoric appeals to a disenchanted population to whom she offers hope of renewal, while they can blame all their woes on the evils of internationalism, rampant capitalism and a wave of immigrants who they believe are stealing their jobs and identities. This will not go away even if the terror threat subsides.

Le Pen’s anti-globalisation rhetoric also attracts a large working class electorate as well as left-leaning intellectuals and youth, traditional bases of the far Left. Julien explains that although he could never vote National Front, many Mélenchon supporters will vote for her on May 7th.

This logic is echoed by Bastien, a 21-year-old laser game centre manager in the north-eastern town of Amiens, and an ardent National Front supporter. “There are two sorts of candidates in this election: the patriots and the globalists. Mélenchon and Le Pen are the patriots.” Bastien explains that if Mélenchon were to have faced either of the “globalist favourites”, Macron and Fillon, in the second round, he would have voted for Mélenchon, in spite of the latter’s significantly more moderate views on terrorism. Bastien admits to being worried by terrorism: “I often go to the Bataclan (one of the sites of the November 13th attacks) and could easily have been there when the attack took place.” But he nevertheless stresses that his main concern is for France to regain her sovereignty (from the EU) and the fighting against globalisation.

Emmanuel Macron promises to rebuild the French economy, strengthen the EU, and unite the fractured Left and Right parties under a new all-encompassing umbrella that will soften France’s crippling labour laws while maintaining most current unemployment protection, prioritise education, keep immigration flows going while maintaining the stringent laws of the state of emergency, and deepen the European Union. His policies make sense. The only way to rejuvenate France is to ensure better standards of education, easier job creation and most of all allow entrepreneurship to flourish in a country where even the most basic form of self-employment is stifled by bureaucracy and expenses. And yet this is not an easy message to get across, and these reforms will take time to bear fruit. Even if he is elected, time is not something that Macron will have in abundance if he is to make a real difference to France, not only that of the middle-class, but that of the underdog. All that is assuming he will actually make it to Élysée Palace: the favourite party of 18-34 year olds is the National Front, and in this context Macron’s youth no longer seems to be such an advantage.

Christian Cardona, the pro-Fillon mayor of Mauroux village in rural southwest France, explains that although the Socialists have overwhelmingly endorsed Macron, much of the Left electorate will find it very difficult to vote Macron. “Macron was an investment banker with the prestigious Rothschild Bank in Paris and the French have a real problem with world of banking. Many will probably abstain, or else return blank ballot sheets on May 7th. This is significant because you have to remember that practically one in two voters in France voted for an extremist party, and we can be sure that those who voted for the smaller far Right extremist candidates, as well as some of the Left extremists will vote for Le Pen.” Cardona himself feels “that a statesman should have experience in the private sector” and will cast his vote for Macron in the second round, despite misgivings over his youth and relative inexperience.

The next two weeks will be determinant for Macron to define who he really is, and what the words of his beautifully written campaign manifesto really mean. Many hope that he will be able to deliver the liberal reforms that France sorely needs, while maintaining France’s social contract as well as its open outlook on a world increasingly beset by forces of isolationism. This hope is also that of France’s continental neighbours who see a victory of Marine Le Pen with her anti-European policies as the death-knell of the EU. But even if he does get in, the uphill climb will be steep. France faces parliamentary elections in June. With widespread disenchantment over the choices in the presidential election, some are focusing on these elections now. Maider Arosteguy, who is standing for the parliamentary elections as a member of the Republican Party, explains that for her “the important thing now is to ensure that my party gets enough votes in parliament so that we can push through the reforms that France needs, irrespective of who is president”; “I will not vote for the National Front, but I am not sure whether I can vote for Macron. The presidential elections are over for me.”

With this is mind, the question is not only can Emmanuel Macron be elected, but if he is, will he be able to govern or will the new parliament render him a sitting duck. The one certainty in all this seems to be that if he does get in, unless he is able to address the grievances of France’s Periphery, the 2017 election will just have been a dress rehearsal for Marine Le Pen’s victory march to the Élysée in five years’ time.