Guest post by Dr Emmanuelle Schon-Quinlivan, Lecturer in European Politics at the Department of Government, University College Cork.
As predicted by all the French pollsters, Macron and Le Pen are the final two who will go head to head on 7 May to become President of France. What does this election tell us about France and what is ahead of it? Four key lessons can be drawn from the first round.
Firstly, for the first time since the start of the Fifth Republic, there will be no candidate from the Conservatives and from the Socialists in the second round. Fillon records a very personal defeat which sanctions the scandals surrounding his candidacy. He finishes on 20.01% of the vote which is not humiliating per se since Chirac in 2002 moved to the second round with 19.88%. However this needs to be read in an extremely favourable context for Les Républicains who saw this campaign as ‘unlosable’ given the record unpopularity of current president Francois Hollande. Fillon’s score is a personal defeat but does not signal a defeat of the conservatives’ ideas, far from it. This should be kept in mind when looking at the legislative elections on 11 and 18 June. On the left side, Hamon, the socialist candidate, did suffer a humiliating defeat with a final score of 6.36%, the lowest ever for a socialist candidate in the Fifth Republic. Despite him being earmarked as a ‘rebel’ who systematically opposed Hollande’s policies during his term, he suffered from a lack of space on the ultra left with Mélenchon siphoning his voters who preferred voting for someone who was seen as outside the system.
This brings us to the second lesson of this first round, namely a thirst for anti-system or anti-establishment candidates. Three out of the four candidates who had a chance of getting into the second round were perceived as anti-system. But this picture is not as clear when you look closely at the candidates. Through a combination of clever communication and marketing, Macron managed to present himself as coming from outside the system when he is actually a pure product of French meritocracy and belongs to the French elite. He is a former minister in the Hollande government. Le Pen similarly is arguing that she represents ‘the people of France’, the little people from rural France who have been left behind by globalisation and can not make ends meet when her children are going to private schools and she lives in a mansion in the wealthiest Paris suburbs. Mélenchon finally was a representative for the socialist party for years and has been part of French political life for decades and yet, his success comes from his anti-system positioning. Overall, 64.89% voted for anti-establishment or renewal. This puts the boot in the party system as we know it in France which Macron will have to handle after 7 May.
Thirdly, it is often said that in the first round of the French presidential election, you choose and in the second, you eliminate. Looking at the final duo and the reactions yesterday, it is clear that a Republican Front opposed to Le Pen is emerging with various parties calling for a vote to block Le Pen and encouraging their voters to cast a vote for Macron on 7 May. However, looking at the first round, 24.01% voted for Macron but they did not vote out of enthusiasm for his ideas which remain a minority view in France. IPSOS showed that 64% of those who voted for Macron did so for tactical reasons to prevent another candidate from reaching the second round. The proportion is reversed for Le Pen. If we focus on Macron, this teaches us that voters did not focus on his programme but on picking the least of several evils. This is worrying when you think back to Hollande who was elected largely on an ‘Anyone But Sarkozy’ platform. The lack of enthusiasm for Hollande’s programme complicated his mandate from the start.
Finally, the fourth lesson learned is that the left/right divide has collapsed and a new divide, still ideologically based, has appeared. The new dimensions posit a closed, nationalistic, protectionist France against an open, European, globalised France. Macron is being accused of cherry-picking from the left and the right but his vision is misunderstood. It is not based on what he considers old politics but on a new approach which tries to build a protective and economically strong system within a strong European Union. Le Pen wants exactly the opposite. It is this vision for France which is at stake. Le Pen did not do as well as anticipated. She had been leading the polls for many months and she finished two full points behind a political rookie with no party structure, financing or experience. Yet, France is about to take a massive gamble with this charming and clever rookie. If he does not deliver for the disadvantaged people who have seen their standard of living plummet and feel abandoned by a French state who tries to keep up in a globalised world, then Le Pen is a shoe-in for 2022.