Cautious optimism

Print edition : June 09, 2017

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and outgoing President Francois Hollande after the handover ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 14. Photo: Christian Hartmann/REUTERS

Marine Le Pen on May 7 after the second round of the election. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP

Protesters holding a banner that reads “Neither Le Pen nor Macron, we deserve better” during a demonstration on April 27 after the results of the first round, in Rennes, western France. Photo: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the La France Insoumise movement. Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP

Emmanuel Macron had a clear victory in the presidential election, but the National Assembly elections to be held in June will be the real indicator of the future direction of French politics.

HOW does one interpret Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the second round of the French presidential election? To some people, his clear win over the Far-Right, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim Marine Le Pen (who, following the first round, stepped down as the leader of the National Front in a cynical bid to widen her appeal to voters) is an indication of the failure of Far-Right populism to hold sway in Europe. This was the case in the Netherlands, where Mark Rutte of the Centre-Right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy triumphed in national elections early this year, beating Geert Wilders, leader of the Far-Right Party for Freedom. It would also seem to match trends in other countries, such as the losses Britain’s right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) suffered in local elections in May, which are seen as a sign of what will follow in June’s general election. The other view is to treat his victory as a sign of the far more complicated forces at work in French politics, as they have been in many other parts of Europe too. The first round of the presidential election certainly highlighted the decline and fall of the two-party system, which has dominated the country since the establishment of the Fifth Republic in 1958. This is the first time in a presidential election that neither the mainstream established socialist nor the Right-of-Centre parties made it to the second round. Instead, Macron won 24 per cent of the vote and Marine Le Pen 21.3 per cent.

The most notable change was the destruction of Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party, which won just over 6 per cent of the vote under the leadership of Benoit Hamon. The choice of Hamon himself was a sign of the changing times: he was the surprise winner of the primaries that the party held to select a replacement for Hollande (who came under pressure in the party not to run for a second term). Many established figures within the party preferred former Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Interestingly, the primaries of The Republicans party yielded an unexpected victory for Francois Fillon, who lies to the right of his party, over Alain Juppe, a moderate within the party who was favoured because he was seen as a unifying candidate.

However, in the first round, attention quickly began to focus on the success of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) movement. He came in fourth, inspiring people, particularly the young, with his “red-green” agenda that combined radical political reforms (rise in taxes for the wealthiest, a revisiting of France’s relations with the European Union, and a move to a sixth republic more akin to a parliamentary system, with less presidential powers) with a green agenda (moving away from nuclear energy in a phased way towards offshore wind power and other sources of renewable energy). Unlike many of the candidates who opposed Marine Le Pen, Melenchon declined to endorse Macron in the second round.

The deep-rooted nature of the changes under way in France was also visible in the second round, in which 33.4 per cent of the voters either abstained or spoilt their ballot papers (as against 24.3 per cent in 2012 and 24.6 per cent in 2002 when Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, lost to Jacques Chirac). The figure exceeds the number of votes for Marine Le Pen, meaning that she effectively was in third place. In the run-up to the second round, protests, including by student groups, highlighted the high level of dissatisfaction with the choice of candidates.

Following Macron’s victory, there were protests in Paris over his plan to reform the labour market, an initiative he championed as Minister of Economy under Hollande but which has proved to be deeply divisive. Workers at an automobile parts factory in central France, which is facing closure, staged protests and booby-trapped and destroyed some machinery. Unions highlighted the “savage” way workers were being treated (many are older workers with few employment options in a country where the average unemployment rate has been running at around 10 per cent) and called on Macron to intervene in the situation.

More widely, there is a sense of caution in France’s reception to Macron. Some people drew parallels with Hollande’s victory in 2012, recalling the optimism with which he was greeted in the early days of his presidency. His promises to shake up the complacent politics that characterised the term of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy of The Republicans, had raised hopes. By the end of Hollande’s term, his presidency was widely recognised as one of the least popular in recent history despite the command his party held over the legislative Assembly. That track record is clearly reflected in the concerns people have regarding Macron. A poll conducted by Sondage Kantar TNS for Le Figaro and other newspapers between May 4 and 5 found that only 34 per cent of French voters wanted Macron to get a parliamentary majority in the Assembly elections to be held in June.

These elections will be the next big indicator of the direction of French politics: whether the rejection of the two mainstream parties will continue and whether Marine Le Pen will be able to capitalise on the gains she made during the campaign. While she was decisively rejected in the second round, she performed strongly in the first, gaining over two million more votes than her father did in 2002. Her party has two seats in the National Assembly, but it remains to be seen whether it will make gains, particularly in the former industrial areas such as the north-east and the south.

Melenchon’s challenge

It will also test the appetite for Melenchon’s radical reform agenda. Melenchon, who has pledged to field candidates in all the seats across the country, is a far more electorally experienced politician than Macron. His campaigning has also been marked by tech-savviness when it comes to communicating with the electorate. (For example, his speech at an event in Lyon earlier this year was projected as a hologram at a separate rally in Paris.)

Macron, of course, cannot be underestimated. While his lack of a party base has been seen as a weakness from the start, and it was suggested that the National Assembly elections would be his true battleground, he has risen to the challenge. He actively courted applications from people outside the political world to be candidates and received over 19,000. He has published a list of 428 (out of 577) candidates who will contest the Assembly elections on behalf of La Republique En Marche (the name he gave his En Marche! movement after securing electoral victory), whose composition highlights his eagerness to not be seen as an establishment figure and part of the political continuity that has put off many voters. The list has a 50:50 ratio of women to men and comprises a sizeable number of people (52 per cent) who are new to politics and have careers ranging from law to education and the police. Just over 20 are incumbent Members of Parliament. To set himself apart, he has also made a pitch to a more global audience, releasing a video of himself inviting scientists and others working on climate change in the United States to continue their work in France, where they would be welcomed.

Recent polls suggest it could be a close race. One poll, conducted by Sontage Kantar TNS in early May, puts Macron at 24 per cent, The Republicans at 22 per cent, the National Front at 21 per cent, Melenchon at 15 per cent and the Socialists at 9 per cent.

While there is some uncertainty about the outcome of the Assembly elections, what cannot be disputed is the high levels of dissatisfaction with the status quo and with politicians perceived to be from within the mainstream, something that has become apparent over the course of elections across Europe over the past two years. This is exacerbated by high levels of unemployment and the feeling that the economic recovery that followed the eurozone crisis has left many sections of society behind. This resulted in gains for the Left (such as the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in the United Kingdom) and the Right, which has successfully tapped into the migration crisis and widened it to include scapegoating of the continent’s immigrant population. In some cases, this has led to gains by the mainstream Right, too, as was the case in the Netherlands where Rutte’s success hinged partly on the decidedly rightward drift of his politics (including, for example, adopting an increasingly tough line on immigrants). It was also the case in Britain, where the losses of UKIP in the local elections were put down to it being seen as the main party of Brexit. The ability of the Left to make headway in this environment (building on some of the success of the Podemos movement in Spain) remains to be seen: the Assembly elections will be a major test as will Britain’s ideologically charged June 8 election.