Centrist tops French vote but far right still matter of concern
The Fifth Republic, as it has functioned since 1958, has collapsed. The two major pillars of French politics — the Socialists and the Republican Party — failed to secure their respective candidates’ presence in the run-off of the presidential election.
Rookie candidate Emmanuel Macron, who founded a new political movement just more than a year ago, won 23.9% of the vote and the leader of the extreme right-wing National Front Marine Le Pen claimed 21.4% in the first round of elections April 23.
The former Conservative Prime Minister François Fillon, with 19.9% of the vote, lost his bid to succeed the outgoing President François Hollande and the socialist Benoît Hamon crashed to a humiliating 6.3%. The extreme left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with 19.6% came close to Fillon.
The overall results show a fractured French electorate going into the May 7 run-off between Macron and Le Pen.
This truly historic election can be read through different prisms. Macron symbolises an optimistic France, open to the world and keen to play its role in Europe, however much he is well aware that the way the European Union functions does not encourage economic growth, condemns Greece to ruin and hardly makes young Europeans and the many unemployed dream of better days ahead.
His experience as a banker stands him in good stead with German Chancellor Angela Merkel but to convince German leaders to bring changes to the governance of the eurozone he will have to push through tough reforms in France. That will not be easy as public spending accounts for 57% of gross domestic product and the budget has not been balanced since 1974. Unemployment in France stands at 10% and is 25% among those under 25. That figure is 40% in poorer suburbs among the children of immigrants.
France will only be able to regain influence in the affairs of Europe and vis-à-vis Germany if the next president pushes through brave economic reforms that will inevitably meet resistance from the left and trade unions.
Le Pen wants France to leave the European Union and the euro as it pulls up the drawbridge. She symbolises a crisis of hope and draws support from her party’s nationalism, anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Islamism. Her supporters and their narrow vision of French identity draw upon the ideas of Vichy France during the Nazi occupation and others who have lost out to the economic changes of the past few decades.
This vision of France draws on the tacit support of conservative publicists, ironically Jewish, such as Eric Zemmour and Alain Finkielkraut, who conflate the peaceful religion of most French Muslims with the ideology of terrorists who proclaim links to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Her reaction to the terrorist killing of a French police officer on the Champs-Élysées three days before the vote was a calculated gamble to instil fear into the hearts of the French.
Macron, in comparison, was calm and statesmanlike. Furthermore, he dared during his campaign to admit that France’s 132-year colonial rule had witnessed crimes against humanity, no easy matter in a country where some contend that Algeria should have stayed French 55 years after it acquired independence.
Macron does not adhere to the nationalist essentialist version of French history, which dismisses the talent political and economic refugees have brought to the country. He believes in a France that boldly embraces the 21st-century world.
The 39-year-old former banker from Rothschild and briefly minister of the economy who broke with Hollande is keen to embrace the challenge of ushering in reforms in a country which is very conservative with a small “c.” It is a tough challenge and he knows it.
Fillon is a Gaullist and, after the result, he made it clear he would back Macron. He could hardly support a party that traces its roots to the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s. Where he erred was in playing the identity card, courting the traditionalist Catholic vote and indulging the theories of the National Front where Muslims and Islam are concerned.
Accusations of personal corruption dogged the campaign of a man who as the prime minister of Nicolas Sarkozy from 2007-12 never dared confront the president on any issue of importance. Electors sensed he lacked spine.
The continuing advance of the National Front, the fact that it is, as in 2002, in the run-off of the presidential election is a cause for grave concern in France and with the country’s European partners.
The country’s politicians are deeply despised and the discredit they have fallen into has spelled an early end to the careers of Sarkozy, Hollande and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
The Fifth Republic’s institutions are being recast. Whether Macron succeeds in the run-off against Le Pen and what margin of victory he might enjoy will decide the future.
Will he turn out to be the hand of steel in an exquisite velvet glove? Could he be a new Franklin D. Roosevelt, who built, with the New Deal, a social compact that defines the United States 80 years later?
Periods of change are bumpy and by essence dangerous but France might be in luck.