French Presidential Election: Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

Despite the disappointments of many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen with how the 2017 presidential elections enrolled, and despite of all societal divisions that this process emphasized, it also manifested the strengths and intellectual potential of French society, Valdai Club expert Rein Müllerson believes.

There has been no French commentator who has failed to mention, write or imply that the 2017 presidential race in France has been very different from all previous elections of the head of State under the Fifth Republic, introduced in 1958 at the initiative of Charles De Gaulle. It has been, however, noted by most of them that in one important respect these elections repeated the April 2002 contest for this supreme post, when in the second round the then incumbent Jacques Chirac faced the co-founder and leader of the National Front (FN) Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of this year’s candidate Marine Le Pen. In 2002, the leader of the FN had eliminated Chirac’s Prime Minister Lionel Jospin – the leader of the French Socialist Party in the first round. At that time there also emerged the term ‘faire barrage’ (to raise a roadblock), the call to do everything possible to prevent the candidate of the FN from being elected. As it was explained then and repeated time and again in 2017, pinch your nose if necessary, but vote for whoever is opposing the leader of the FN; abstention or casting a blank bulletin into the ballot-box would not be good enough.

Under Macron, France Will Be a Deeply Divided Nation Jacques Sapir
The post-election France is deeply divided and will not be able to unite under the new President. Whole sections of the population have entered, or are about to enter, into secession, writes Jacques Sapir, Director of studies at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. 

In 2002, the socialist’s leaders, who hated Chirac, and during the campaign portrayed him as evil incarnate, prior to the second round unanimously called for and voted for the conservative incumbent to make sure that the extreme right Le Pen not only lose, but lose impressively. And it did work: Chirac, who in the first round had 19,99% of votes vis-à-vis Le Pen’s 16,86% (the rest went to Jospin with his 16,18%, and other candidates), in the second round won nicely with 82,21% of the votes against the 17,79% of Le Pen. On May 7, 2017, Emmanuel Macron also seemingly won hands down. However, if we compare the numbers and percentages of 2002 with those of today’s – 66,06% for Macron and 33,94% for Le Pen – we notice a significant change. Moreover, for the first time since 1969 the abstention rate in the second round was higher than in the first – 25,4%. There were also more than 4 million blank bulletins, whereby the voters expressed their mistrust in both candidates. Also, some 11,5 million French, twice as many as had voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002, this year voted for Marine Le Pen. And though nobody knows exactly how many votes cast for Macron expressed genuine trust in him and how many of them were protest votes against Le Pen, it is quite clear that there is no place for triumphalism. And next month parliamentary elections will be no less important for the governability of the country than the presidential race.

In the spring of 2017, quite a few of my friends and colleagues in Paris, where I closely followed the elections, expressed frustration of having to vote for somebody whom they either did not trust or did not know. One of the articles, published by in Valeurs after the first round of elections, even compared Emmanuel Macron to an ‘unidentified flying object’ – a UFO (un objet volant non-identifié or OVNI in French). What my friends all seemed to be certain of was that they would never vote for Marine Le Pen. But this was, of course, Paris, and not the peripheries of France where Le Pen’s voters abound. Although the candidate of the National Front was unable, especially in the pre-second round TV debate with Macron, to present a coherent programme of radical transformation that she was calling for, this does not mean that all her critical and even vindictive outbursts were all entirely misplaced. Without proposing and implementing realistic and viable alternatives to the excesses of globalisation, American financial and military dominance of the world, migration problems in Europe, challenges of Islamist terrorism, the weaknesses of the Euro and the inability of European leaders together with Brussels bureaucrats to find solutions to these and other urgent problems (and these were and remain indeed the most crucial issues for France and Europe), it may indeed happen that in five years’ time the French will lay their trust on the National Front. Many of Marine Le Pen’s spiteful comments reflect what about 40% of the French people are angry about.

The dissatisfaction with the way in which the country has been governed is also reflected in the fact that during the whole campaign none of the eleven candidates, including the conservative François Fillon, who had been Sarkozy’s prime minister, and the socialist Benoît Hamon, who had been Holland’s minister, presented themselves as inheritors of the French political system. Macron himself – until 30th August of last year Holland’s minister of economics – promised a complete overhaul of the French political system and even entitled his pre-electoral book Révolution. Jean-Luc Melénchon, who with quite a respectable 19,58% of vote was fourth in the first round, spoke of the need for a Sixth Republic instead of the Fifth and called for the ‘Bolivarian alliance’.

The movement En Marche! (Let’s Go!), created by Emmanuel Macron as a launchpad for the presidency, may or may not constitute itself as a political party. French historian Jacques Juillard even predicted the end of the era of the domination of political parties and a drive from representative democracy towards direct democracy. As we saw in last year’s American presidential elections, traditional media in most Western countries (major newspapers, journals and the TV), usually liberal and cosmopolitan in its orientation, has become fused with the system of political parties. However, in the era of the Internet, such media has lost its dominant position. Hence, the rise of so-called populism, which until recently was seen as a mainly a Latin American phenomenon in many, if not most European countries. Even Macron once admitted that ‘if to be a populist means to speak to the people in the way they understand you, I want to be a populist’ (JDD à la Une, 18 mars, 2017). However, populism and demagoguery are not the same, he explained. Professor Chantal Mouffe – whom some call ‘the mother of Spain’s Podemos’ has recently written that ‘populism, far from being a despicable phenomenon, can serve as an instrument of fighting neo-liberal hegemony and rebuild politics’ (Valeurs, du 27 avril au 3 mai). This has yet to be seen, but there seem to be links between the Internet, populism and direct democracy.

Marine Le Pen as President of France would have indeed been a disaster not only for France but also for Europe. In the televised debate with Macron, she revealed startling incompetence on matters of economics and social issues. Instead of explaining or highlighting the strengths of her programme, she chose to attack, and not as much various aspects of her opponent’s programme as his personality. Moreover, besides her personal incompetence and vindictiveness, she would not have been able to competently govern the country, even if she were elected. Using an analogy from sports, her bench for governmental posts would have been terribly short, if not nonexistent. In times of serious and wide-ranging crises in society, it may sometimes, contrary what the old prover declares, be wiser not to trust the devil you know but rather rely on the promises of an UFO?

The eleven first round candidates reflected, in a way, divisions existing in French society: from leftist sovereigntists (Jean-Luc Melénchon) to rightist sovereigntists (Marine Le Pen), from liberal globalists and pro-Europeanists (Emmanuel Macron) to economically liberal but socially conservative and moderately pro-Europeans (François Fillon). Instead of traditional divisions based on belongingness to a social class à la Karl Marx, new fault lines are grounded more on questions of identity and divisions between so-called progressivists, believing in a universal history of mankind (cosmopolitans), and those who place higher value on national history, religion, tradition and language. Emmanuel Macron was right in his victory speech that deep divisions are undermining the country.

Hence, he has promised to re-unify the country, to be the President of all the French. But is this at all possible? There are those in France, like elsewhere, who have benefited from the existing political system and those who have been left behind, those who prosper on the wave of globalisation and those who lose their livelihoods to underpaid (by French standards) Chinese workers. There are those whose interests lie in the continuation of the system and those who favour its radical change. Is it possible to reconcile their interests, to have a win-win society that would equally benefit all and everybody? So far no one has succeeded in doing this and most radical attempts to get rid of all inequalities have unfortunately led to totalitarian temptations. This, however, doesn’t mean that France will not be able to face contemporary challenges. But instead of a revolution, it needs deep reform.

Practically all the experts I spoke to in Paris agreed that the foreign policy of France will hardly undergo radical changes, especially if Emmanuel Macron, whom his detractors love to describe as President Holland’s successor, were elected. One of the reasons given for such a prediction was what I would call by analogy the ‘Trump impediment’. As in the US, in France there is a kind of ‘deep state’ that will not allow profound and quick overhauls of existing political systems, and especially of radical transformations in foreign policy. There are those who have vested interests in the continuation of policies as they have been. In the wings of every revolution a counter-revolution is waiting. However, if the saying that ‘the more it changes the more it remains the same’ has some truth in it, its opposite adage is no less relevant: the longer a necessary change is postponed the more destructive and painful will the transformation be when it can no longer be deferred.

It is not possible to disregard the fact that the world of 2017 is radically different from the world of the 1990s. It is much more complicated and dangerous. Macron’s promise as President-elect to ‘fight terrorism by all means’ should include the creation of a wide international coalition, something that President Holland failed to achieve. The editorial in Le Figaro of the 2nd May was right in recommending: ‘On matters of strategy and politics the future head of the State has to be distrustful of neo-conservatism – the ideology that at the end of the last millennium did surge across the Atlantics – the ideology that prefers “democracy” to peace. The world doesn’t any more adhere to the law that arrogates to the West the right to export its values by force’. And the editorial continues: ‘It is not in our interest to keep Russia in the periphery of the Euro-Atlantic civilization and push it further into the fold of China’. In French society and among French intellectuals there are traditional sympathies towards Russia, Russophobia of some is well balanced by De Gaulle’s idea of Europe from Lisbon to the Urals and there remains a respect for Russian culture. None of the foreign policy experts I spoke to in Paris believed that the Kremlin has any intention to attack, for example, the Baltic countries. Whether such realistic views will prevail over neo-conservative ideologies remains to be seen. Like in many other issues, in matters of foreign policy Emmanuel Macron has expressed a willingness to accommodate different constituencies. However, in practical politics it is much more difficult to go both ways.

Despite the disappointments of many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen with how the 2017 presidential elections enrolled, and despite of all societal divisions that this process emphasized, it also manifested the strengths and intellectual potential of French society. And this notwithstanding, or may be even due to, the fact that the elections were carried out in circumstances of a state of emergency being in force since November 2015. The French are vigilant but don’t panic. They believe in their country and where there is a will there is a way (quand on veut, on peut).
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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