A Panel Response: What to Take Away from the Second Round of the French Elections?
To debrief the second round of the French presidential elections, Tocqueville 21 has invited a distinguished set of academics, journalists, and commentators on French politics to provide their thoughts on what we just witnessed as well as what to expect as the legislative elections approach.
From Parties to Movements – Elisabeth Zerofsky
If I’m honest, I didn’t really believe that Marine Le Pen could win the French election until about 5pm yesterday, as I serially refreshed the Twitter feeds of the French pollsters I follow. There are several truisms that I and probably many other dual observers of French and American politics rely on—that, unlike in America, in France a candidate must scrape past the 50% threshold of the popular vote, such that a Le Pen or a Trump could win in America, but not in France; also, French pollsters have been dealing with so-called “shy Le Pen voters,” since the late 1980’s when Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen launched his perennial candidacy, so they’ve had more time to fiddle with their models, and French projections of the populist vote tend to be more accurate. But in the late afternoon yesterday, the pollsters started tweeting out a few early data points: for example, the greater the support for Jean-Luc Mélénchon in a given department, the greater the abstention rate in the second round; likewise, there was a decrease in voter participation between the first and second rounds in areas that went for both Macron and Le Pen, but the decrease was slightly greater in Macron territory. All of this leant in the direction of what would need to happen for Le Pen to achieve an upset. In the end, those data points didn’t go nearly far enough in her direction, but you could see being enacted in real time all the trends that would conspire to bring about a dramatic overturning of France’s political fortunes.
Given the circumstances—a pandemic, inflation, war, not to mention numerous novel protest movements and a spate of gruesome terrorist attacks—Emmanuel Macron’s victory should not be diminished. He increased his score in the first round by more points than Le Pen did hers since 2017, and in the end the contest between them wasn’t really close. Still, it was encouraging to see him acknowledge in his acceptance speech last night that “many compatriots voted for me not to support my ideas, but to block those of the extreme right.” Hopefully he governs accordingly. On the other hand, a Le Pen scoring 41% in the second round tells us that the historical associations with the name have indeed weakened.
Much has been made of the collapse of the party system in France, at least at the national level, with the traditional left and right parties practically disappearing (at the level of local and regional governance, where administrative competency is more important than media-penetrating personal charisma, they endure). National politics in France now seems to consist not of parties with their members and ideas, but of “movements,” precariously organized around big personalities. Traditional parties that played by the old rules clearly lost out. The pressures of the “vote utile,” that sent French voters flocking to these personalities may have deprived many of expressing a real choice. In the next five years Macron should support the rebuilding of an infrastructure of more diverse democratic ideas and offers, as he may not like what transpires in the wake of the system he has rendered.
Elisabeth Zerofsky is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, based in Berlin. She has written widely on European politics, with a focus on France.
Les fractures françaises – Emile Chabal
Much has been made of the various fault lines in French politics in recent years. Not so long ago, in 1995, Jacques Chirac’s entire presidential election campaign was articulated around the “fracture sociale.” This language of fragmentation and disintegration continues to play a powerful role in French political discourse. Historians of modern France will not find this very surprising. The fear of disorder, collapse, and revolution has driven French politics since the early 19th century—so much so that calls for “national unity” are almost always a reflection of how unlikely it is that any such unity can be achieved.
And so it was again last night. As Macron’s supporters celebrated, not unfairly, a strong victory under challenging circumstances, his detractors had already condemned him to the most ignominious of fates: the president who could not unify the French. One might well ask why this matters at all. Democratic politics is, by its nature, divisive, and the political fault lines of this election were not imagined ones. The demographic and socio-economic differences between Macron and Le Pen’s electorates reflect real jobs, places, communities, and lived experiences. Like all modern democracies, France is a divided country. Would it not be easier to start from this premise, rather than imagine the country as united behind a single vision?
The problem is that Macron himself has reinforced this desire for unity. Structurally and personally, he has embraced the hyper-presidentialism of the Fifth Republic. He has not shied away from his Jupiterian pose—brilliant, talented, knowledgeable, omniscient. Nor has he created a sustainable political movement in En marche. The party, such as it is, is a coalition of different groups, all of whom think they have something to gain by their proximity to the president. The marcheurs are supposed to represent all of France, but they represent mostly themselves.
Macron’s challengers in this election were no better. Mélenchon’s called his cheerleaders “l’union populaire”, and Le Pen promised that her first act would be to convene a “gouvernement d’unité nationale”. At least Macron could credibly claim to represent the consensual middle-ground in French politics; the idea that either Mélenchon or Le Pen would be anything other than deeply divisive is laughable. And yet the desire to project themselves as unifiers was too strong. Even they couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge that they are—and would be—sources of division.
Of course, if this were all at the level of political rhetoric, we could laugh about it. But the dramatic disconnect between the aspirations of the current crop of presidential hopefuls and the variegated social reality of 21st century France is a real issue. Without recognizing the divisions that exist, it is hard to develop strategies to solve them. Macron may have done a better job than most of convincing people that he is a unifier—and only the most churlish would fail to acknowledge his very real achievement in getting re-elected yesterday—but those divisions he wants to wish away will come back to bite him soon.
Emile Chabal is a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh. He is a specialist of postwar French and European history. He has published widely on contemporary French politics and intellectual history, from major scholarly monographs to newspaper op-eds.
“Everyone’s a Winner!” (Or, Requiem for the Two-Party System) – Michael Behrent
Elections used to be reality checks. During a campaign, candidates could go on and on about how they were the authentic voice of the people, the soul of the nation. But on election night, they had to yield to the hard facts of the ballot box—“le verdict des urnes,” as the French say.
France has not experienced the election-results-denial that has wreaked havoc in American politics since November 2020. And yet: watching the election coverage on Sunday night, it was difficult not to be struck by the impression that everyone seemed to think they had won. Emmanuel Macron claimed that his impressive reelection was a both an endorsement of his first term and a rejection of political extremes (though, with the best humility that money can buy, he acknowledged that not everyone who voted for him did so because they supported his political program). Despite underperforming compared to recent polls, Marine Le Pen basked in her party’s best-ever presidential score, even as she claimed to represent those excluded from an disloyal and unpatriotic establishment. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, despite being eliminated from the second round, appeared to take some credit for Le Pen’s defeat, while asserting that Macron, due to high levels of abstention, was the “most poorly elected” president of the Fifth Republic.
As for Éric Zemmour, who was also disqualified from the second round, he thinks that no one won, and certainly not France. He concluded his election night remarks with some underhanded—but nonetheless shocking—anti-republicanism: “Vive la République,” he declared, and “SURTOUT vive la France!” (Long live the Republic, and, ESPECIALLY, long live France!”).
My point is not to reiterate the truism that, in any age of fake news and social media, perception prevails over reality. What these election-night spins indicate is something about the current nature of French politics, as it becomes increasingly clear that the populist revolt, like the covid pandemic, is not going away anytime soon. There is a sense that, even as they engage in electoral politics and compete for power, the main candidates for the French presidency aren’t playing the same game. When elections pitted the right against the left, there existed a kind of symmetry between their goals. While they may have disagreed, both were invested in a system that they could imagine themselves governing.
Now, the main candidates seem to be playing fundamentally different games. Macron and his team exude competence and professionalism but view the democratic task of appealing to voters as distasteful and a bit silly. Le Pen seeks to be a lightning rod for the country’s pent-up resentment and anxiety, which she has tried, more or less successfully, to transform into a political program. Though he has abandoned most references to the “left,” Mélenchon is focused on the task, which has a robust leftist pedigree, of building a movement. Whether or not he wins, the union populaire, he contends, is growing greater by the day. Far from being engaged in a single game, each candidate seems to be focused on their own, very different game. The latter play to the candidates’ respective strengths, while requiring them to cast their opponents’ gambits as vaguely illegitimate.
On the plus side, the 2022 French presidential election makes one nostalgic of the two-party system. This is quite a feat: what’s not to hate about a system organized around stale showdowns? But the 2022 race reminds us of what politics looks like when one abandons this organizing principle. Transcending the left-right divide, Macron formed a vast centrist party. As a result, his primary opposition came from the political extremes (corresponding, sociologically, to the more marginalized elements of French society). In a left-right dynamic, centrists and extremists on each side have some incentive to collaborate; when it’s just the center vs. the extremes, each extreme is extreme in its own way. Electoral confrontations between the center left and center right may have bored electors and contributed to the view that there was little at play. But they also ensured that genuine competitions occurred, rather than the lopsided contests witnessed in France’s past two presidential elections (66%-34% in 2017, 59%-41% this year).
France finds itself in an era of high-stakes and vigorously contested elections with (relatively) uncompetitive outcomes. In opting for Macron rather than a potentially disruptive candidate like Le Pen, France chose to adhere to its democratic traditions. But a political system that seems so out of sync with the frustrations and expectations of the French people is a danger for democracy as well.
Michael C. Behrent teaches modern European history at Appalachian State University (North Carolina).
A Normal Election Night – Harrison Stetler
Every election must be historic. Even the most anti-climactic—a feeling best captured last night by the France-Info host who, announcing Emmanuel Macron’s victory, remarked in the same breath that here was the first incumbent reelected since the introduction of five-year terms. It was the least that can be said about the results on April 24: Macron has been reelected. Jacques Chirac was France’s last president to sit for two consecutive terms in office, one seven-year stint followed by a five-year mandate between 2002 and 2007. He was followed by two single-term presidencies held by France’s traditional governing parties, prefiguring, with the benefit of hindsight, what now looks to be their total disappearance from the political field.
Macron’s 58-42 percent is a miniscule margin compared to the twenty first century’s other two face-offs with the far-right (this is the third of the century). More interestingly, it is a large margin in a normal bi-partisan electoral face-off, which is perhaps how this will be remembered. Piercing the 40 percent mark, the National Rally can claim, with some justification, that it is just that: a normal party. The banality of Sunday night’s result was only confirmed by the string of Macronist spokesmen, making the rounds of the television studios, who celebrated the results as a ringing endorsement of their champion.
This new normal is an erasure of an entire sphere of French society, the left-wing voters who had to cover their noses to again fend off the far-right, and who, studies will surely show, will have been instrumental in Macron’s victory. If over the next five years the latter governs the country the same way he has since 2017, we can’t count on them showing up again to support X responsible centrist’s Defense Of The Republic from Y far-right demagogue’s Race-Baiting Populism.
And yet, we should look at the numbers: 18-34-42. Since 2002, there is an unambiguous trend in support for a far-right presidential candidate—one that should be setting off alarm bells. There’s not much cushion left.
A few years ago, some friends and I (naively) speculated about the possibility that Macron would, as we put it, pull a “reverse Mitterrand,” meaning that he would take an opposite leap from habits developed, breaking from the right to the left. Does Macron have the political wherewithal to know that this flexibility is what France needs most in the coming years? I’m not holding my breath.
Harrison Stetler is an independent journalist and teacher living in Paris. He has written for The New York Times, New York Review of Books, The Nation, Jacobin, Mediapart and other French and American publications
It Didn’t Happen Here – Shane McLorrain
The French presidential elections are over. After an uncertain run, Macron has been confirmed for a second term, beating out Marine Le Pen and becoming the first French president to win a second term in twenty years. For Europhiles, technocrats, and entrepreneurs, Macron’s 60-to-40 triumph over the far right is a cause for relief. But with high dissatisfaction, inflation, and a more robust performance by the far right than ever before, France runs a historically high risk of serious social and political unrest.
Macron’s first term has been marred by seemingly endless crises. From the Gilets Jaunes and transport strikes to the anti-lockdown protests, there has scarcely been a move made by the president that hasn’t garnered outrage from one side of the political aisle or the other. Despite a 72% participation rate in the second round of the elections, the perception of disenfranchisement is high. Combined with a tack to the right on social issues and the emergence of far-right challengers such as the quixotic ethnocentrist Eric Zemmour, Macron’s second term is vulnerable to compromise through both legitimate means (ie being kneecapped in the upcoming legislative elections) and less legitimate ones (another round of massive protests). The real battle for Macron will therefore be social. Racial and religious tensions have flared and could very well reach their peak should inflation continue to squeeze the working classes. To prevent this, Macron must first thread the needle of economic issues by managing inflation while encouraging high GDP growth. As Nicholas Sarkozy and François Hollande can attest, that is no mean feat, even for the “Mozart of Finance”, and especially without a strong parliamentary majority.
Next, he must do what his predecessors, most notably Sarkozy, could not and open a meaningful national discussion on race and religion in France. Viewed as taboo in the decades since the Vichy government, ethnic and religious tensions have consistently defied any attempts at defusion and have been exacerbated by multiple high profile incidents in the past few years including the beheading of Samuel Paty. France collects no data on ethnicity or religion, opting instead to avoid the question as a matter of principle. Engaging with these sensitive matters will mean redefining how the country understands both civism and its long-standing tradition of laïcité, all while preventing a hijacking of the conversation by Mr. Zemmour and his ilk.
Mr. Macron has his work cut out for him. Between these deep domestic issues and foreign policy crises such as the war in Ukraine and the ongoing supply chain disruptions, not to mention the impending legislative elections that will define the edges of his power for the entire second quinquennat, the next few months may very well be the most significant period of his presidency.
Shane McLorrain is an Editor for Tocqueville 21. His contributions focus on geopolitics, geoeconomics and French politics. He is also the creator, host and producer of the Tocqueville 21 Podcast.