Politics & Policy

The French Difference, First Round

Emmanuel Macron greets supporters on election night, April 23, 2017. (Reuters photo: Benoit Tessier)
The populist Front National gained ground, but even more votes went to a center-left elitist.

France is another country; they do things differently there. In Theresa May’s Britain and Donald Trump’s America, recent votes have been defined by populist hostility to technocratic “elites” — the modern aristocracy of bankers, civil servants, and politicians. Yet Emmanuel Macron, the winner in Sunday’s first round of the French presidential elections, embodies all of these unpopular categories.

Macron is an énarque—a graduate of the École nationale d’administration, France’s elite civil-service academy. After a brief stint in the finance ministry, he moved to Rothschild’s bank, then passed through the revolting door to politics, as an economic adviser to the current president, François Hollande a socialist of no fixed depth or clear competence. In 2016, Macron stepped aside as Hollande sank in the polls and floated himself as a one-man party. Its name, En Marche!, handily matches his initials: EM! On Sunday, Macron’s promise of technocratic efficiency won a plurality, 23.8 percent of the votes.

Macron is heavily favored to win the second round on May 7. Or rather, Marine Le Pen and the Front National (FN) are heavily favored to lose. Le Pen came a close second in Sunday’s vote, with 21.6 percent of the vote. Both are beneficiaries of the collapse of the traditional parties of the center right and the center left. Both style themselves as insurgents but promise to preserve France’s welfare state. Macron, the erstwhile minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, promises to overhaul the French system through an efficiency drive. Le Pen calls for more radical measures, including the abandonment of the euro. In power, either would be an unknown and inexperienced quantity.

The policy differences between Sunday’s two winners are doubled by Sunday’s two losers: François Fillon, of the conservative Républicains (20 percent); and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.5 percent), of the broadly left-wing La France Insoumise. Like Macron, Jean-Luc Mélenchon defected from the Socialists — in his case leftwards — and set up his own party in 2016. Its title, “La France Insoumise,” translates like a Le Pen campaign slogan: France Unbowed, France Undefeated, France Rebellious. His hostility to the EU and his dirigiste promises to defend the welfare state and the jobs of French workers closely resemble Le Pen’s positions. Les extrêmes se touchent, as the French say: The extremes meet.

Mélenchon had surged in the polls in the days before the vote. The media in France and abroad had characterized this as another insurgency, this time neo-Communist. Perhaps this explanation appealed because none of the candidates looked certain to overtake Marine Le Pen, the candidate, by ideological and familial extraction, of neo-fascism. Really, Mélenchon’s rise reflected the collapse of the Socialists. The Socialists started in a bad position, as the sitting government. Worse, their candidate Benoît Hamon was tarred with the failures of François Hollande. Hamon lost votes to Mélenchon on his left, to Macron on his right, and to Le Pen across the board, and ended with a disastrous 6 percent.

François Fillon is a neo-Thatcherite. As the least statist of the major candidates, he was, in French terms at least, more of an insurgent than Macron or Mélenchon. Fillon’s policies are a center-right mirror of Macron’s center-left policies; the prescriptions are those of Thatcher and Reagan rather than Clinton and Blair, but the promised cure is the same. Fillon, like Le Pen, ran an anti-elitist campaign that appealed to traditional and Catholic voters. He led Le Pen until a series of corruption scandals exposed him as an elitist in populist’s clothing, which opened a path for Macron. Still, Sunday’s result does not damage Les Républicains in the way that it does the Socialists.

For the first time since 1958, neither of the major parties of the Left and Right will be in the second round. The second vote will test how well the ‘republican consensus’ is surviving the collapse of the center.

In 2002, Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Luc, who is not a neo-fascist but an old one, came second in the first round, with 16.86 percent of the vote. In the second round, strategic voting preserved France’s “republican consensus,” giving Jacques Chirac 82 percent of the vote. At least Fillon’s elimination deprives French voters of having to revive the 2002 slogan, “Vote for the crook, not the fascist.” On Sunday, Marine Le Pen beat her father’s first-round score in 2002. Her strategy of “dediabolisation” — “making undiabolical,” or disassociating the Front National from its fascist and racist past — is working. The FN is now the first choice of first-time voters.

Sunday’s first-round voting confirms that in politics as in cheese, the French are a law unto themselves. France’s two-stage electoral process thins the rich and odiferous range of first-round options to a two-candidate runoff. On May 7, will the voters hold their noses in the second round, as they did in 2002?

For the first time since 1958, neither of the major parties of the Left and Right will be in the second round. The second vote will test how well the “republican consensus” is surviving the collapse of the center — and how far the FN are becoming normalized as the voice of another kind of consensus, about national identity. The question seems to be less whether Macron will win, but by how much Le Pen will lose. In this sense, Le Pen is also a winner of Sunday’s vote. The FN might still have an electoral ceiling, but it is rising.

Macron is no longer the insurgent, but the favorite. Like Fillon, he is an elitist campaigning as a populist. Le Pen will attack him as a “globalist” insider, as a turncoat Socialist, and as a fervent supporter of the EU and the euro. On paper, none of these should be vote-winning positions, yet on Sunday they were. But then, the French are different.

— Dominic Green is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and teaches politics at Boston College.

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