France’s ambiguous presidential election

11 May 2017

As a new president is inaugurated in France, James Shields FAcSS, Professor of French Politics and Modern History at Aston University, warns against seeing Emmanuel Macron’s election as a mandate to reform France or as a sign that the challenge from the Front National has been seen off.

Does Emmanuel Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen mean that the rise of the far-right Front National has been stopped at the gates of the Elysée Palace?

That is one reading of the run-off vote of 7 May. With 66% (20.7 million votes), Macron won by a wider margin than predicted – and the presidency of France has gone to a pro-European Union, pro-globalisation, pro-immigration liberal who stands for so much that the FN opposes.

Yet there is another reading of this election. The FN can see it as a defeat – but it can also see it as a victory, almost doubling the 18% won by Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 run-off (5.5 million votes) and by Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2012 election (6.4 million votes). With 34% and 10.6 million votes, the FN has reached a new electoral high. It will use this as a platform to be a major force of opposition under the Macron presidency. Marine Le Pen is also now set on renovating the party, probably changing its name and selectively revising its programme to make it more attractive to potential defectors from the right wing of the conservative Republicans.

What this election shows is not the defeat of the FN but its progressive normalisation and further implantation within the French political landscape. As proof: Le Pen’s ability to attract 3 million votes between the two rounds, a reservoir of new and previously uncommitted support tapped into for the first time – this in an election where valid votes between first and second round fell by almost 5 million. As proof again: the alliance sealed for the first time with another party, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s Debout la France, breaking the long-term isolation of the FN within the French party system.

As always, the FN will fare badly in the National Assembly elections of June, where the two-round majority system will deprive it of seats in proportion to its vote. But among Macron’s proposals is the introduction of an element of proportional representation from which Le Pen’s party could benefit in future.

Macron’s election has stopped the FN for now – but only for now. Le Pen’s party has gone from strength to strength under Presidents Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. If Macron is to be the president who reverses the FN’s fortunes, he must address the issues that have fed its populist appeal. That means tackling difficult questions relating not just to his most urgent priorities, the economy and job creation, but also to immigration, Islam, security, globalisation and the EU.

But Macron will only be able to implement his reform agenda if he can win a governing majority in the National Assembly elections of June. That is his next major challenge – and it may make winning the presidency look easy by comparison.

The political landscape that emerges from this presidential election is deeply fractured. France now has four almost equal political blocs: a nationalist, protectionist far right (Le Pen’s); a free-market conservative centre-right (under new management with François Baroin); a liberal, pro-European centre-left (Macron’s); and an anti-globalisation far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s). And in there too is a once mighty Socialist Party whose candidate was reduced to a near record low of 6.4%. The Socialist Party has governed for the past five years only to find itself now threatened in its very existence, caught between Macron’s rising centrist tide and Mélenchon’s resurgent far left.

This is the landscape within which the new president must forge a cohesive governing majority. And with a recent poll showing over 60% of respondents wishing to see his République en Marche party deprived of such a majority, his task looks a formidable one.

This takes us to a weakness at the very base of Macron’s mandate. He won 66% of valid votes cast, a score exceeded only by Jacques Chirac’s 82% against Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, in 2002. But more than 25% of registered voters (12 million) abstained, in the lowest second-round turnout for almost fifty years; and over 11% (4 million) went to the polls just to spoil their ballot, an all-time record in a French election.

Macron begins his presidency therefore supported by fewer than 44% of registered voters (compared with Chirac’s 62% of the electoral register in 2002). This puts in perspective his two-thirds majority of valid votes. He must also concede that a large proportion of those who voted for him (up to 40% or more) did so reluctantly and quite simply because he was not Marine Le Pen. He is their president not by choice but by default.

The tectonic plates of French politics appear to be shifting. Only one voter in four (26%) in this election voted for one of the two major centre-right and centre-left parties that have alternated in power throughout the Fifth Republic. The old bipolarising right-left divide is now cut across by other faultlines in the political debate – between reactionary conservatives and progressive liberals (Macron’s perspective), between globalists and patriots (Le Pen’s). And for the first time, the presidency was disputed by a candidate of “both left and right” and a candidate of “neither right nor left”.

But the old parties will return in force in the National Assembly elections where many constituency notables will fight off the challenge from Macron’s candidates. As a graduate of France’s most elite educational establishment, a former banker turned technocrat and Economy Minister, Macron defied the odds to get himself elected as a “new man” outside the system. Perhaps he can do so again by winning a majority for his fledgling party. If he does not, he will have to either seek a “coalition of the willing” to enact his reforms or resign himself to a potentially fractious “cohabitation” with opponents (most likely the centre-right Republicans) nurturing resentment over his meteoric rise at the expense of their own hapless candidate, François Fillon.

Macron starts his presidency with arguably the weakest mandate of any president under the Fifth Republic. His personal image, confidence rating and support for his programme are all fragile. And he can expect no honeymoon from trade unions and other groups who are mobilising already to oppose reforms they see as injurious to them.

This election opens a period of intense uncertainty in French politics. But one thing is sure: Macron must get his presidency right. France cannot afford another president getting it wrong.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.