World Affairs: France

France's presidential election results highlight growing threat of racism and xenophobia

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Emmanuel Macron at a Paris suburb on April 27 during his first trip after being re-elected President. Photo: BENOIT TESSIER/AFP

Marine Le Pen, Far-Right leader. She said the election results showed that the French people needed a “strong opposition to Emmanuel Macron”. Photo: Michel Euler/AP

The results of the presidential election in France show that the influence of racist and xenophobic right-wing parties is growing in French and European politics.

Emmanuel Macron staved off a spirited challenge from the Far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen to become the first President since Jacques Chirac in 2002 to win a second term in office. On paper, the French President won a decisive victory, getting more than 58 per cent of the votes in the run-off held on April 25. Marine Le Pen got 41.5 per cent of the votes. It was for the first time that a candidate from the Far Right could break through the 40 per cent vote barrier in French politics.

When Marine Le Pen and Macron first faced each other in the election held five years ago, she got 32 per cent of the votes and Macron won handily. The results of this year’s election are yet another indication that the influence of racist and xenophobic right-wing parties is growing in French and European politics. Conceding defeat, Marine Le Pen claimed that the results were all the same “a striking victory” for the right-wing cause. She said that the “ideas we represent have reached new heights”.

Also read: Emmanuel Macron defeats Marine Le Pen to secure second presidential term

In the run-up to the election, Marine Le Pen said that this would be her last bid for presidency. But in her combative post-election speech, she vowed to continue serving “France and the French people” in forthcoming elections. She said that the election results showed that the French people needed a “strong opposition to Emmanuel Macron” and that she was the one who could lead the opposition to victory. On the campaign trail this time she tried to moderate her anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric

Another candidate from the Far Right, Eric Zemmour, had already appropriated her platform on the issue and taken an even more virulent stance against immigrants in general and Islam in particular. Zemmour, speaking after the election results were announced, said that the need of the hour was unity among right-wing forces to defeat the ruling party and the Left in the parliamentary elections in June. If the opposition gets the majority in parliament, Macron will have to go in for a government of “cohabitation” led by a Prime Minister from the opposition ranks.

The number of people who abstained from voting in the presidential election was the highest recorded since the general election in 1969. The French Communist Party had called for a boycott that year. This year, although no political party had called for a boycott more than three million people cast blank or spoilt ballots in the final round. A significant chunk of the voters was left without an alternative as the run-off was between candidates basically representing the Right and Centre-Right spectrum in French politics. For the record, Macron got two million votes fewer than he secured in 2017.

The two major parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, which had monopolised power in post-War France, are now virtual non-entities in French politics. It was Macron who triggered the disintegration of the Centre-Right and Centre-Left parties in the 2017 election. The “En Marche” party he floated attracted voters from both sides, but there was hope that the traditional parties would be revived. Many big and small-town mayors are from these two parties.

Also read: Africans in France face tough choice

Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, was the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in this election. She got only 1.75 per cent of the votes cast in the first round. Valerie Pecresse, the Centre-Right’s candidate, fared slightly better, but she also got less than 5 per cent of the votes. Most of the Centre-Right votes went to Macron, Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour, representing the Extreme Right. After this year’s presidential election, the French political landscape seems to have changed dramatically.

Marine Le Pen managed to come second in the first round by a narrow margin and challenge Macron in the run-off. She edged out Jean-Luc Melenchon, the candidate of the left-wing “Unsubmissive France party” (LFI), by less than a percentage point. Melenchon made a late surge in the election by focussing on bread-and-butter issues and taking up the cause of minorities.

France has the biggest Muslim population in Europe. With Melenchon out, the final round became a contest between the “President of the rich” Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the National Rally. Until 2018, the party was called the National Front.

Following the announcement of the final results, there were demonstrations throughout the country and riots in Paris and Rennes by anti-Macron protesters. Macron, speaking to a comparatively small crowd in Paris on that day, said that the country had “chosen a humanistic programme that is ambitious for the freedom of our country and for Europe”. He, along with the mainstream French and Western media, had been warning that a victory for Marine Le Pen would be a calamity for the European Union (E.U.) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

On earlier occasions in her political career, Marine Le Pen had raised questions about the relevance of both the institutions and suggested that France should pull out of the NATO military command. But she started taking a more accommodative position on the E.U. saying that her party was no longer in favour of “Frexit”, the French version of Brexit. However, she formed strong alliances with Eurosceptical right-wing leaders within the E.U. such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and leaders of resurgent right-wing parties in countries such as Germany.

Also read: Macron, Le Pen lock horns over Islamic headscarf

Much was made in the media about her party getting a loan from a Russian bank. Macron accused her of being personally indebted to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the campaign trail, Marine Le Pen had to tell voters that her party was left with no other option because French banks, under pressure from the Macron government, had refused to sanction a loan for her indebted party.

She did not waste any time in criticising the Russian military action in Ukraine, saying that Putin had crossed a red line by sending troops into Ukraine. In her television debate with Macron a few days before the final round, she agreed with the French government’s position on Ukraine. But her party has opposed the move to ban the import of oil and gas from Russia, saying that it will further impact the living standards of the French people.

Stand on Ukraine

The Macron government is among the most vociferous supporters of the hard-line position adopted by NATO on Ukraine. Marine Le Pen’s clarification on her stance on Ukraine did not stop Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from issuing a call to French voters to vote for Macron. He described the French President as “a true friend” of Ukraine.

The French electorate has been lukewarm in its support of the E.U. and NATO role in Ukraine. Josep Borrell Fontelles, E.U.’s foreign policy chief, told a Spanish newspaper that half of the French population “politically supports either leaving the alliance, like Jean-Luc Melenchon, or the NATO military command, like Le Pen, which means the same thing”.

Also read: Putin says Macron's proposals on Ukraine crisis de-escalation 'realistic'

In his victory speech, Macron reminded his supporters that “the war in Ukraine is there to remind us that we are living through tragic times”. He did admit that the election results revealed that the country had become a deeply divided one “riven by so many doubts”. He promised to reinvent himself in his second term. He said: “The new era will not be in the continuity of the term in office that is ending but will be the collective invention of a new method to create five better years in the service of our country and our youth”.

Macron promised that no French citizen will be “left behind”. He urged his supporters to adopt “a benevolent and respectful tone” towards the increasing numbers of voters who had voted for his Far-Right opponent in the final round of the election.

Macron’s economic policies

In his first term, Macron’s neoliberal economic policies, coupled with his penchant to wield executive powers indiscriminately, alienated large sections of the French populace. He had come to power promising a new era in French politics, pledging to set up more democratic institutions and even owning up to the crimes committed under the French colonial rule in Africa and other parts of the world. He claimed at that time that he fully understood the fact that France had become a multicultural and diverse society and promised to rule on behalf of all its citizens. But soon after taking over, he started implementing neoliberal economic policies with a vengeance. In his efforts to change long-standing pension and labour laws, he targeted the powerful trade unions.

Earlier on in his presidency, when he decided to raise the fuel tax, a protest movement known as the “yellow vests” manifested itself. It later grew into a nationwide protest movement against Macron’s economic policies. In order to divert public attention from the growing economic crisis, he encouraged culture wars against Islam and migrant communities.

In late 2020, Macron introduced a Bill in parliament targeting “radical Islam”. It was originally named the “anti-separatism” Bill. Macron claimed that a section of the French Muslim populace had withdrawn from mainstream society and that a law was needed “to strengthen republican values”. He said the law was necessary as “Islam was in crisis all over the world”.

Also read: Unpopular, but Macron is president again

In the atmosphere foisted on the French by the Macron administration, the increasingly radicalised youth, some of whom had participated in the path-breaking “yellow vests” campaign, veered towards the LFI led by the firebrand Melenchon. In the first round of presidential election, Melenchon’s main support came from the young voters below 30 years of age and the working class from a multiracial background. The party got almost eight million votes from working class districts in the major cities of France.

After the first round, Melenchon strongly urged his base not to cast “a single vote” for Marine Le Pen. Instead, he gave supporters three options: they could either vote for Macron, cast a blank vote, or abstain from voting. Most of his supporters stayed at home. The number of blank and spoilt ballot papers in the deciding round showed a significant increase.

Many Left voters said that choosing between Macron and Marine Le Pen was like choosing between cholera and the plague. However, despite many of them choosing to abstain in the second round, Marine Le Pen did win in two of France’s overseas provinces, Martinique and Guadalupe, which had voted for Melenchon in the first round. Marine Le Pen won in areas of France outside Paris where the working class and blue-collar workers and their families are concentrated. These areas were once the stronghold of the French Communist Party, but they gradually shifted to the Right in the last two decades.

In her campaign speeches, Marine Le Pen promised to protect the French working class and the poor from the rising cost of living and the consequences of the war in Ukraine as well as preserve the country’s generous social welfare system. At the same time, she kept her core traditional right-wing vote bank on her side by stating that the first thing she would do if elected to power was to enforce a “burqa ban” on women working in government offices and hold a national referendum on immigration.

Also read: Macron banks on robust economy

With the presidential election over, Melenchon has given a clarion call to his supporters to get ready for the “third round”. He was referring to the forthcoming parliamentary election in June. Melenchon wants the formation of a broad left-wing coalition to take on the Extreme-Right led by Marine Le Pen and the Centre-Right led by Macron. The Greens, the Communists and the New Anti-Capitalist Party (ACP) have become part of the coalition. The Socialist Party, which considers itself a Centre-Left party, has not been invited to join the coalition.

Melenchon has asked the French people to vote for the new coalition in the forthcoming election so that he can emerge as the next Prime Minister. The parliamentary election is similar to the presidential election. There are two rounds of voting, with the second round being a run-off between the two candidates who poll the highest number of votes in the first round. In the past, this system helped the ruling party at the Centre. In the previous parliamentary election, Marine Le Pen’s party, despite getting almost one-third of the votes, could win only eight seats in parliament as the votes in the final round went to the candidate best positioned to defeat the anti-National Front candidates.

Melenchon wants to give a tough fight to the ruling party. The coalition he proposes to lead could emerge on top if the electorate comes out in strength and exercises its vote. If elected as Prime Minister, Melenchon has promised to fight for a minimum monthly wage of 1,400 euros and a retirement age of 60. Macron had initially proposed to raise the retirement age to 66.

One thing is certain: it is not going to be politics as usual in France from now on.