And now there are two

April 25, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:34 am IST

This French presidential election has exposed dangerous fault lines in the country’s politics

Face-off:“Marine Le Pen is the voice of a poorer, disenfranchised peripheral France, while Emmanuel Macron is the candidate of affluent, cosmopolitan France.” Campaign posters of Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron in Lyon, France.AFP

Face-off:“Marine Le Pen is the voice of a poorer, disenfranchised peripheral France, while Emmanuel Macron is the candidate of affluent, cosmopolitan France.” Campaign posters of Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Macron in Lyon, France.AFP

Elections are generally about the winners. But the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday was as much about the losers as it was about the two figures who reached the run-off, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

By far the biggest losers in this election were the two traditional parties of government. On the centre-right, François Fillon contrived to lose an election that seemed to have been tailor-made for him. François Hollande’s devastating approval ratings in the final year of his presidency — polls suggested that fewer than 5% of French electors were ‘satisfied’ with his performance — made a right-wing victory almost a certainty. All Mr. Fillon had to do was reach the second round of the presidential election and he was guaranteed to win.

Fillon’s flip

Instead, he committed political suicide. His corrupt past caught up with him and he haemorrhaged votes to Mr. Macron. His failure to reach even the 20% in the first round, despite strong mobilisation amongst his core electorate, sealed his fate. This is the first time under the Fifth Republic that the right has not had a candidate in a presidential run-off. It will be a defining trauma for future generations of right-wing activists.

Not that the centre-left has much to cheer. The socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, was all but obliterated. His score of 6.3% was the worst for a centre-left candidate since 1969. Mr. Hamon offered a raft of new and exciting policy ideas, but he rapidly lost momentum. In any case, French presidential elections are never won with good ideas, and he did not have the charisma to carve out a space for himself.

But, where Sunday night was a catastrophe for the party institutions of the French left, it was more positive for millions of left-wing voters who cast their ballots for the maverick far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. His score of 19.6% exceeded all expectations. Across southern and western France, traditional socialist bastions voted for Mr. Mélenchon, in part to protest against five years of left-wing ‘compromise’ under Mr. Hollande, in part simply because the far-left candidate ran a highly persuasive campaign.

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Mélenchon is a one-man show. He is supported by the French Communist Party, but he is independent of it. And it is not clear whether he can pull together a far-left coalition for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The future of the French left will depend on the ability of the socialists to maintain their strong local representation, as well as absorb the discontent that led so many of their supporters to vote for a candidate whose sole aim is to destroy the Socialist Party.

Uncertain victories

And what of the two winners? Here, too, the picture is more ambiguous than the triumphant rhetoric would suggest. Ms. Le Pen achieved a respectable 21.53% but this is far below the inflated expectations of her supporters (and her detractors). Over the past three months, her poll ratings declined inexorably — from 28% to 22% — and her campaign exposed all of her ideological and institutional weaknesses. Despite a discredited left-wing government and a climate of insecurity, she only managed a modest increase in her vote share compared to 2012.

The French are right to feel intense shame and deep concern that a far-right candidate has once again reached the second round of a presidential election, but it is fairly clear that if Mr. Fillon had run a better campaign, Ms. Le Pen would have been eliminated. She has secured her support base in northern and south-eastern France, but there is almost no chance of her winning the run-off. The only question is how badly she will lose. If she manages 25%, it will be a humiliation; if she manages 40%, she can claim a pyrrhic victory.

For Mr. Macron, on the other hand, the news is mostly good. His score of 23.75% and the fact that he came in first place give him enormous legitimacy going into the run-off. Mr. Fillon and Mr. Hamon have already called on their supporters to vote for him, and while Mr. Mélenchon has so far refused to do so, there is little doubt that a vast majority of his supporters will prefer to cast their votes for a shiny technocrat rather than a crypto-fascist.

Yet even here there is cause for concern. Insofar as Mr. Macron is a known quantity, he is seen as the architect of Mr. Hollande’s unpopular economic policies, and there is little evidence at this stage that his presidency will deviate significantly from that of his predecessor. Just as crucial is the question of who will govern. Who will be his Prime Minister? How will he build a ‘non-partisan’ party? In many ways, the run-off in two weeks’ time has now become much less important than the parliamentary elections in June. These will determine the balance of power for the next five years.

More fundamentally, this election has exposed dangerous fault lines in French politics. For it is quite clear that Mr. Macron is the candidate of affluent, cosmopolitan France, while Ms. Le Pen is the voice of a poorer, disenfranchised peripheral France. Rarely has this long-standing distinction been so starkly reflected in a French election. If Mr. Macron does not find a way to deal with this issue, the real losers of Sunday’s vote will be the French people.

Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’. E-mail:

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