External Affairs

A Sigh of Relief in a Country Still Divided

Emmanuel Macron has promised to fight discrimination before terrorism and protect French culture. If he fails to translate this into actual socially progressive change, the extreme right is bound to rear its ugly head again.

French president-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates on the stage at his victory rally near the Louvre in Paris, France May 7, 2017. Credit: Reuters

Paris: It is 8 o’clock in the evening. Most French people are in front of their TV. They know the drill. Every five years (seven years until 2012), the face of the new president appears on the screen at the exact same time. The vast majority of people are watching at home, surrounded by family and friends. Others, particularly those who are younger and politically active, go to bars to watch the broadcast together. The announcement is not a private experience. This year, with the extreme-right Front National in the runoff for the first time since 2002 and the second time in French history, the sense of danger was high and people repeated that they were scared Marine Le Pen would win and that they did not want to be alone when the results would be made public.

Usually, hurrahs are heard in the victor’s camp and tears are shed on the other side. This year was quite different. About 150 kilometres outside Paris, the highways were noticeably empty. Inside the city, hardly anyone was on the streets or at the café terraces. At 8:01 pm, in most places except at the candidates’ headquarters, no clinking of glasses were to be heard, no toasts were given, no hugs or pats on the back were exchanged. There was only one long, country-wide, sigh of relief, like a fresh breath of air after an emotionally exhausting and intellectually disappointing campaign. In the Le Pen camp, a sense of a wasted opportunity and a determination to fight harder in the near future replaced tears. A respiration on one side and a clenching of teeth on the other.

Vincennes is a rather affluent city just outside Paris where Le Pen gave her concession speech in the evening. Earlier in the day, on a local train taking me back into the city, I met a family of five: a middle-aged mother, her 22-year-old son and her two teenaged daughters. The son, Yacine, kept saying “It’s going to be a catastrophe if she wins! She will want to deport all foreigners, visas will be extremely difficult to obtain and people like us, people of Algerian origins, well, our lives will really become hard”. His sisters stopped tapping on their iPhones to look at their brother and mother in bewilderment. This was the first time Yacine cast his ballot in a presidential election; he was too young to vote in 2012. His mother Mariam smiled fondly as her son told me about his fears. She would like to reassure her son and her daughters, she told him he is right but should not worry too much because Le Pen was sure to lose. Yet she was quite pleased by her son’s outrage. When they were about to leave, with her three children out of earshot, she leaned forward and said to me, “It’s raining. I’m worried. Aren’t you?”

In and around Paris, it drizzled from morning to evening. Grey skies, drab light on the wet pavement and people everywhere unsure of what to expect. The French media is legally forbidden from publishing any polls while the election is going on and is only authorised to give the turn-out figures at noon and 5 pm, which contribute greatly to the suspense building up until 8 pm. As the turn-out appeared to be low, many feared that Le Pen would have a narrow win. When I cast my vote, at around 10 am, two hours after the stations opened throughout the country, the man behind me in the line exclaimed: “Oh no, the queue is short and there won’t be much waiting time!”

During the day, the top hashtags trending on Twitter were #Avoté (Ivoted), #Louvre (where victor Emmanuel Macron held his victory rally), #participation (turn-out), #Elections2017 and #JeVoteElleDegage (I vote, she buggers off). On social media, where support for either candidate was made punishable by law even for private citizens, a recurring comment appeared: “It’s a long day, such a long day”.

This election has left the country deeply divided: Macron, with only five years in public life, has never held an elected position before and is relatively unexperienced. His pro-EU stance, his will to reform the very protective labour laws and make the job market more flexible, and hence harsher, and his experience as a former banker all make him suspicious in the eyes of a vast majority of voters. Only people with post graduate degrees, disposable income and residing in cities feel enthused by the promise of change this 39-year-old embodies. The rest of the population are wary. In fact, most of the votes that went to Macron were cast more in order to prevent Le Pen from becoming the head of state than in support of his agenda. Macron will need a clear majority in parliament to be able to govern. The general elections are scheduled to be held mid June. Both the extreme-left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the extreme-right led by Le Pen will do their utmost to win the largest number of seats and steer French politics.

Le Pen’s high score testifies to the rise and even normalisation of her racist, nationalist, homophobic ideas, which have now entered the mainstream. Still, Macron’s victory was expected, especially after Le Pen completely botched the TV debate a few days earlier.

Many journalists from trustworthy progressive media outlets were denied entry into the Front National headquarters. Some left in solidarity. Many who remained there were physically assaulted. But, for all the talk of Le Pen’s defeat, 11 million voters chose her over Macron, or rather, one in every five French adult – almost twice what her father achieved in the runoff in the 2002 presidential election. This truth should not necessarily temper the relief and enthusiasm that the Macron victory entails, but it should definitely humble the entire French political class. In his speech after the results were announced, the president-elect seemed to take heed of this and of the responsibilities that now befall him. One can only commend him for this humility, for mentioning his will to fight discrimination before terrorism, and his mention of education and culture. If he fails to translate this into actual socially progressive change, the extreme right is bound to rear its ugly head again.

As the day was about to the end, Macron’s supporters, most of them young, gathered in front of the Louvre to celebrate. They were given French flags. A few European flags and LGBT flags were seen floating around too. Ivorian band ‘Magic system’ played music as the crowd waited. A Raï singer followed. This would undoubtedly contribute to giving the world an image of a cosmopolitan, diverse, hopeful France. But that it is also bitter and divided will appear soon enough.

Macron will soon be the youngest president in the world and the youngest president in France since Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851. One can only wait and see if and how his youth will serve the country.

Ingrid Therwath is a Paris-based journalist.