External Affairs

It’s Macron v. Le Pen, But the French Presidential Race is Still Wide Open

Emmanuel Macron (left) and Martine Le Pen (right). Credit: Reuters

Centrist, party-less, with a political movement that is just about a year old, Emmanuel Macron is on the brink of becoming France’s youngest-ever president.

Sunday’s first round saw him emerge as one of the two frontrunners with 23.9% of the vote against the extreme right candidate Marine Le Pen, who scored 21.4%. Having polled over two percentage points more than the National Front leader  –a difference of over a million votes –  Macron enters the face-off on May 7 as the clear favourite to be France’s next head of state. Unless the arithmetic goes horribly wrong, that is.

That possibility cannot be ruled out. Doom watchers are advising caution. Remember how Hillary was a sure-fire win until Trump barged in and upset her apple cart, they say. In the Macron v. Le Pen race, two plus two is unlikely to make five. However, the danger of an extreme right victory should not be dismissed out of hand. With the support of the most dogged anti-European and anti-globalisation voters who plumped for candidates such as the far left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.6%), conservative  Francois Fillon (19.9%) or the alt right’s Nicolas Dupont-Aignan (4.7%), Marine Le Pen could add to her own first round score to rustle up over 50% of the ballot on May 7 and grab the presidential mantle.

Campaigning in the next two weeks, therefore, is crucial and the Macron camp has to mobilise voters from both the right and the left. The Mélenchon vote is particularly volatile. Many of his voters are those left behind by globalisation, people who have seen their jobs evaporate or their pay packages stagnate. Macron’s wholehearted embrace of Europe and his market-friendly economic policies fills them with dread. Banks and other businesses have already reacted with jubilation and the Euro has perked up in the currency markets as a result. These economic indicators could fuel the anger and determination of anti-EU elements both on the left and the right.

Macron’s sudden emergence on the political scene and his spectacular showing should come as no surprise. He is and remains the protégé of François Hollande, the outgoing president who, realising early on that his supply-side politics were not bearing fruit, decided to orchestrate the campaign from behind the scenes – introducing his fresh-faced, young economy minister as the next poster boy of French politics. Macron appeals to the young, who see him as business friendly and tech smart. He wants to reform Europe, he says, not destroy it. His love story – a post-modern tale of a young man who has three step-children and an equal number of step-grandchildren from a wife 23 years his senior, has captured the popular imagination.

Winning the election remains a distant dream – so near and yet so far. And then, even presuming he wins on May 7, Macron will, despite these seeming aces, have a difficult task building up a presidential majority in the weeks leading to the legislative polls on June 11 and 18. For while the presidential poll is considered to be a contract between a leader and the nation, the election of the country’s 577 members of parliament is very much a matter of big party machinery, and political give and take.

France has never been ruled from the centre. Since the 1789 revolution, when the terms Left and Right were first coined, France has been marked by distinct political polarity. In the current Fifth Republic, President Charles de Gaulle was perhaps the only president to govern from the centre, albeit in a very conservative garb. Since then, the vote has alternated between Left and Right, François Mitterrand becoming the first Socialist to be named head of state after nearly four decades of conservative rule. François Bayrou tried repeatedly to make a centrist bid for the presidency, and centrist parties have continued to exist. But they are usually seen as an appendage to the conservatives and a part of their political family.

Macron’s election could spell a profound and far-reaching recomposition of the political landscape. It could mean the implosion of the Socialist Party as well as the recently re-re-baptised conservative Les Republicains. In both these political formations, the long knives have been out ever since they set aside the practice of anointing the party leader as the presidential nominee and opted for American-style primaries. Former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, as well as prominent Socialist leaders lost their chance of standing for the election as a result. The system has also led to deep fault lines within these parties – with warring leaders cancelling each other out in internecine strife.

The National Front is here to stay and, as the phrase goes, things could get much worse before they start getting better again. Despite all that is said about French moroseness, economic under-performance and stagnation, France has the highest productivity rate in Europe. The social model is intact and the country has excellent infrastructure, health care, pensions, and unemployment benefits. Nevertheless, Marine Le Pen’s message of hatred appears to be seducing large sections of the country. True, France has lost some of its past glitter and grandeur and perhaps this move towards a national and cultural “identity” is just a nostalgic yearning for a glorified past.

For Macron, knitting together a presidential majority and keeping the country on a steady keel will, therefore, be no mean task. If he fails to build a strong party to back him, will he be able to form a government of national unity? Will he be able to dominate an unruly coalition of parties and choose his advisers well and wisely?

The possibility of a neo-fascist president in France is too terrifying to contemplate.

Will French voters realise the danger they are running and take steps to inflict a decisive and definitive defeat on the National Front?