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How France Chose Macron

A Vote against the Extreme Right

Vaiju Naravane (vaiju.naravane@ashoka.edu.in) is former Europe correspondent of the Hindu and teaches media studies at the Ashoka University, Delhi.

Although Emmanuel Macron’s win is historic and unprecedented, a closer look at the results shows that a significant segment of the electorate was not entirely convinced either by his youth or by his image of a middle of the road, liberal moderniser. This section voted not for him but in order to block the National Front.

This article was earlier published in the Web Exclusives section of EPW website.

Almost exactly a year before he waselected the youngest President in the history of the French Republic on 7 May 2017, Emmanuel Macron was in Orleans, the city of Joan of Arc. “She had a crazy dream. Like an arrow, her trajectory was direct. Joan pierced the system,” he said, harking back to the extraordinary journey of France’s historic and legendary heroine, burned at the stake by the English in 1431.

Macron, who assumed office, whether by intention or coincidence, on 14 May which is the Joan of Arc Day, was making a barely veiled reference to his own meteoric rise to come. He was until then the economy minister of a socialist government, barely known to the public. It was in Orléans, whilst addressing a crowd of 60,000 on 8 May 2016 that Macron’s dizzying political journey to the top truly began.

The evocation of the Maid of Orleans was no accident. The 39-year-old former banker, whose extraordinary rise has stunned the world, is a meticulous planner and executor. For many long years, the extreme-right National Front has captured the symbol of revolt and resistance that Joan of Arc embodies, twisting it into one of fervent nativism and passionate “patriotism” that excludes anyone with a whiff of “foreignness”—whether Muslim, Jewish, or French national—what Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder calls “citizens of fresh date.”

Against Exclusion and Hatred

Macron’s message in the Maid’s hometown was clear: the National Front’s idea of France was in utter dissonance with his notion of an open, welcoming, moderate, and liberal Republic. Although he did not explicitly mention the Le Pens, father, daughter or granddaughter, he made it clear that he would speak out strongly and openly against the exclusion, finger-pointing, divisions, and hatred that the National Front was peddling.

This has paid handsome dividends. The French heard his call. Of those who cast their vote, 66% came out in his favour, decisively rejecting the mantra of “France for the French, Down with the European Union (EU) or Out with Islam,” that had been Marine Le Pen’s clarion call.

Only Jacques Chirac before him had won with a bigger margin. In 2002, when Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, surged past serving socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to enter the second round, 82.2% of the French turned out “to bar” the extreme right’s road to power. Since then, the National Front has steadily gained ground, doubling its score, appealing, like Donald Trump, to frustrated, disenchanted voters on the political extremes, mining the rich vein of persistent unemployment, discontent and marginalisation. Departmental polls in 2015 (minor elections which usually generate little enthusiasm and a high abstention rate) saw Marine Le Pen win an unprecedented 25% of the vote.

One of the most significant results of this election is the atomisation of the traditional left and right parties that have governed France. Political wisdom has handed down that France, split down the middle between two major voting blocks, the conservatives and the socialists, with extreme left and right formations on the margins, is ungovernable from the centre. This time around the traditional parties have been unceremoniously dumped and appear to be heading for implosion, if not extinction, to become the new mastodons of French history.

Vote to Block the National Front

Although Macron’s win is historic, unprecedented, astonishing even, given that three years ago he was a completely unknown quantity, has never held electoral office, and launched his movement En Marche! (On The Move!) less than a year ago, a closer look at the results shows that a significant segment of the electorate were not entirely convinced either by his youth or by his image of a middle of the road, liberal moderniser. They voted not for him, but in order to block the National Front.

A full 12% of those who voted performed their civic duty but decided to protest what they saw as an unsatisfactory choice by spoiling their ballots or refusing to vote for either candidate. The number of voters rejecting both the centrist and the extreme right candidate has more than doubled since the last presidential poll in 2012, and is the highest ever experienced since the present Fifth Republic was established in 1958. The rate of abstention too, at 25% (or 12 million voters) was exceptionally high. In effect, 43% of registered voters voted for Macron, which is just a tad better than Nicolas Sarkozy’s score in 2007.

 An Ipsos poll that sampled 4,838 registered voters shows an interesting break-up of how the votes shifted from the 11 candidates in the fray in the first round to the two second-round contestants.

Of those who plumped for conservative right candidate François Fillon of Les Républicains in the first round, 48% moved to Macron, while 20%, mainly practising Catholics, voted for Le Pen in the second round. Significantly, 32% of his first round supporters abstained or spoiled their ballot.

From the hard left, 41% of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s candidates stayed away while 52% voted for Macron. Only 7% crossed the floor to Le Pen. The Socialist vote was more predictable with 71% going to Macron, 2% to Le Pen, and 27% abstaining or spoiling their ballot.

What helped Macron in the final days of campaigning was Marine Le Pen’s dismal performance during an extremely vituperative, two-and-a-half-hour-long televised debate. Her needlessly combative, aggressive style, riddled with smirks and insults undid years of painstaking work during which she tried to convince voters that the National Front was no longer the anti-Semite party of yore but a legitimate political formation like any other. Macron’s score shot up by a full three percentage points in the last two days before the election. The publication of leaked documents from the Macron campaign by the American Alt-Right, relayed with joy and schadenfreude by members of the National Front boomeranged, turning away several potential voters.

Support for Macron

Macron’s political movement En Marche! which has since been re-baptised La République en marche! (Republic on the Move!) will contest all 577 seats in parliament. Several prominent members of the traditional right and left parties have decided to support him, and he has chosen a member of the centre-right party, the Republicans, Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister.

Early support for Macron came from a man who has tried desperately hard to launch a centrist political party in France and who made several unsuccessful bids for the presidency himself, François Bayrou. He had been tipped as a possible prime ministerial hopeful. In France’s unique system, the president has far-reaching, almost regal powers. The election of the president through universal suffrage is seen as a direct dialogue between a man (or woman, although that remains an unrealised option), and the country.

The prime minister and his government often act as a fuse, summarily dismissed as a sop to public opinion when the heat is on, or when presidential ratings drop. The term of François Hollande, the outgoing president, went through three prime ministers. And there have been periods, three since 1958, when a president had to navigate without a majority in parliament and face a parliament, prime minister and government who came from the opposition ranks. Both, Presidents Jacques René Chirac and François Mitterrand, had to deal with such “cohabitation.” And although the French electorate has always overturned these periods in subsequent elections, backing their presidential choice with a sizeable working majority in parliament, they have not been averse to cohabitation with a sizeable section of the population even relishing it.

Crucial Parliamentary Majority

While it is true that in France, parliament and the government is considered a junior partner in the exercise of power, subservient to the presidency and the accompanying Elysee cabinet of advisers, a hostile parliament can constrain the president; limit his options and margin for manoeuvre. For Macron to succeed, especially in the areas he plans to “reform” such as workplace flexibility, massive public sector job cutbacks or other economic austerity measures, he desperately requires a “presidential” majority.

If the electorate suspects his intention or ability to bring about a true refounding and recomposition of the political landscape, if he is seen to bow to pressure giving electoral tickets to several old dinosaurs both from the left and the right, instead of introducing competent new parliamentarians, he could well find himself without a parliamentary majority. The president-elect had promised that members of civil society would be encouraged to join his movement. That is now proving more problematic than initially imagined.

Macron’s declared intention was to bring about a dislocation of the party system and the entrenched political esta­blishment in France. He has attained that goal. A parliamentary recomposition in his favour is not an unrealistic dream. The Socialist Party is in the process of imploding with Benoît Hamon, the failed candidate, launching his own left-oriented political movement.

Manuel Valls, the former prime minister who betrayed his own and is now desperately trying to hitch his wagon to the Macron star is being made to cool his heels. The knives are out for Marine Le Pen within her own party and her poor showing (despite the alarming 33.9%) has thrown a damper on how the fight in the legislatives should be led on the far right. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has split with the Communist party and Les Républicains have seen several desertions in favour of En Marche! The field is therefore wide open. But failure to get that precious majority will create major problems for the new president.

Wary of Flirting with Fascism

France is Europe’s most self-consciously ideological state. While many have been seduced by the siren song of the extreme right, a majority of the French have “chosen to shun that brand of divisive politics. Despite the experience of Vichy or perhaps because of it, the French are chary of flirting with fascism again. This election has shown how the people have interiorised the tenets of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Ingrained deep in their collective psyche, the spectre of the French Revolution continues to guide their political choices.

French malaise is difficult to comprehend. Yes, there is a rust belt in France too. Industrial areas in the north and north-east of the country have lost thousands of jobs. Agriculture, particularly cattle farming in the south-west has taken a beating. There is a clear north and south versus west and centre divide. There is also a massive chasm separating the sophisticated, smart, ultrachic and remark­ably productive side of France with its glittering cities and historic towns that contrasts severely with the more rustic paysanerie (peasantry) or the undereducated and poorly-skilled working classes of underprivileged suburban zones.

Elusive Golden Key

Macron’s supporters are mostly upwardly mobile, young, middle class, urban and educated. Marine Le Pen’s voters are in the age group of 35 to 80 years. In the main, they come from rural zones and small towns and their education and income levels are low. Creating skills and jobs to beat persistent unemployment that has stubbornly hovered at 10% of the population remains the elusive golden key.

The French economy has been so decried as unreformable, sluggish, rigid, fossilised and sclerotic that most commentators have refused to see its upside. France remains one of Europe’s most productive economies (comparable to and even outperforming Germany), despite the fact that it has the shortest working hours in the European Union.

Coupled with this are a new investment climate with small, several niche start-ups that receive state funding, a redoubled effort towards innovation through new financial institutions like Bpifrance (the French bank for public investment) and an emerging confidence visible at events like the Las Vegas technology fair. France continues to have a positive birth rate and growth rate—although the latter remains below 2%. Pensions and unemployment benefits are amongst the highest in Europe, paid holidays are guaranteed by law and universal healthcare is perhaps the best in the world. The living is good in France.

So why are the French complaining? Why do almost 35% of them appear to suffer from mass anxiety, a sense of alienation with the governing classes? Certainly there are problems, the worst being unemployment. Repeated terrorist attacks have also spooked the population creating Islamophobia, especially and ironically, in zones where the immigrant population is limited or absent. Poor integration has created suburban immigrant ghettos. Their existence has given grist to Marine Le Pen’s hate mill. Cutting back unemployment, changing and transforming the country’s incomprehensible and complex tax and labour laws, while embracing globalisation without sacrificing a welfare system that has stood the test of time but is now beginning to crack under the burden of an ageing population and an ever-narrowing worker/contributor base, are the challenges Macron faces.

Advantage Macron

“The Kid” as a section of the French press has taken to calling him, is, however, not without an arrow or two in his quiver. The tremendous popular élan that has carried him forward, the fact that he has won a victory that seemed utterly impossible only a couple of months ago, and the evident desire for change that the French public has expressed through this vote are all to his advantage. Should he fail to get a substantial majority in the legislative elections scheduled to take place on 11 and 18 June, France will be in real trouble. The National Front hopes to capture between 40 and 60 seats in the 577-chamber house. Mélenchon and the ecologists, Les Républicains and the rump socialists all hope to win back a slice of the cake. At the moment, a profound realignment of forces with four big political formations, the left, the centre, the right and the extreme right, almost equidistant to each other, is underway. This scattering could work to Macron’s advantage if he chooses his candidates wisely and well, pushing away tired old diehards who have lost the confidence of the public and zeroing in on persons with clean records and reputations for competence.

Macron has already resigned from his fledgling movement, portraying himself as a president of the entire French nation, above the fray of petty politics. Several key people will be with him at all times, his wife Brigitte Trogneux, his former drama teacher whom he met when he was a stripling of 16, and married when he was 29 and she was 54, and Alexis Kohler, his former head of cabinet at the finance ministry who will almost certainly become his right-hand man at the Elysee presidential palace.

So what could stop this unusually gifted man who appears to have won every challenge he has faced (except his entrance exam to France’s prestigious Normal Superieur institute of higher studies which he failed twice in succession)? Arrogance and a touch of hubris is the answer. He is exceedingly conscious of and revels in the monarchical side of the French presidency, as the elaborate and somewhat pompous choreography of his victory speech suggests. And, by all accounts he does not suffer fools gladly.

Macron took over on 14 May. A double or quits presidency has begun.

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