The so-called ‘outsider’ won but the French political system is more out of touch with the public than ever before
On May 7 Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election. An outsider to mainstream parties, Macron founded a social movement ‘En Marche!’ (Forward), and ran on a platform of change beyond the political elites. Based on this premise and with a 66% share of the vote it would appear the French public are in step with this new political foundation. However, the election signals a clear divide between those who govern and those who live in France.
The final two candidates were Macron and Marine Le Pen, both of whom had serious flaws in the eyes of the electorate. Macron claimed to be representing the people and not the elite, yet he is anything but. As a former Rothschild investment banker, former economy minister in the administration of President Francois Hollande and graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) civil service school, Macron hails from the highest echelons of French society. His efforts to portray himself as a man of the people is therefore evidence of being out of touch at best, dishonest at worst. Meanwhile, Le Pen is a prominent far right figure as leader of the National Front. Her commitments to ban all religious symbols, deport immigrants and leave the Euro and the European Union proved controversial and divisive.
Under such circumstances, neither candidate had sufficient appeal; the consequent disillusion meant there was a low turnout at this election. Only 65% of the eligible population voted while 11.5 million people abstained. Furthermore, a record 11.5% of the ballots cast were left either blank or spoilt. Eleven million people voted for Le Pen, but given the circumstances it is arguable that many of those votes were voting against Macron rather than for Le Pen, and vice versa. According to an IFOP poll, only 16% of second round voters voted for Marcon for his programme and 8% for his personality. Therefore, the 66% to 34% vote shares between Macron and Le Pen respectively does not accurately reflect nationwide support for either candidate. It would seem the French were rather voting for the lesser of two evils.
That support for Macron was, in real terms, lukewarm at best is perhaps unsurprising. The new president’s policies are not guaranteed to solve France’s issues. For example, he is not intending to make reforms to the country’s labour laws; he wants to keep the retirement age at 62 and maintain the 35-hour work week. Yet these policies are now outdated and inflexible. In an age when people are living longer, working longer and relying on technology in new ways, these systems are likely to cost the state while keeping productivity low.
Further evidence as to the French political system’s disconnect with the public is laid out starkly when relations with the EU are considered. Forty-five per cent of the votes cast in the first round went to candidates who were against the EU. Yet the eventual winner was the most pro-EU candidate. Macron even came onto the stage at his victory speech with the EU’s anthem ‘Ode to Joy’ rather than the French national anthem. His policies with regards to the EU could also cause future problems. His more hardline approach to Brexit, while logical in some respects given the need to show Britain that it will not have the same benefits as when in the EU, risks hurting the EU economy as a whole. Britain is the eighth largest net financial contributor to the union, contributing €7.1 billion. Ultimately, if Britain suffers, then the EU suffers. Additionally, Macron’s promotion of free trade deals, such as CETA, risk continuing the decline of workers’ positions as they are left vulnerable to the global market.
A Macron presidency needs support in parliament. Winning the presidency is just the first step. With parliamentary elections on the 11th and 18th June, Macron will need his newly renamed party La Republique en Marche (REM) to win a large number of seats to ensure he can fulfil his legislative agenda. En Marche was set up in April 2016 and only officially became a party following Macron’s win. The need to win a majority in parliament by next month is then threatened by REM’s status as a new party potentially lacking enough widespread support in time. If it fails, Macron risks being severely limited at the head of a government which would be left at odds with a parliament opposed to it.
Meanwhile, Le Pen’s legacy and potential to have authority in France has not diminished. The fact that the liberal media expressed relief at Le Pen receiving only 33% of the vote is a telling reflection of how far right the western world has shifted. With the levels of electoral support for the National Front considerably increased, it is feasible that they could win a significant number of seats in parliament. This is particularly the case with the weakness of the main establishment parties and Le Pen’s plan to change the party’s name and move away from its toxic legacy.
Macron’s huge promises and victory mean that the public have put trust in him. He has to deliver on that trust; if he fails then Le Pen is waiting in the wings to strike back in 2022. This is a real possibility as the National Front’s vote share has now risen from around 5% in 1995 to around 30% in 2017. Le Pen has been knocked back but is in prime position to come back fighting.
Ultimately, the French presidential elections is both a win and a non-win for liberal democracy and centre ground governance. The fact that France chose the moderate candidate over an extremist is certainly positive. However, the new president is part of the same establishment which has continuously failed to solve France’s problems in recent years. For many voters, the election of Macron proved more a cause for relief at Le Pen’s loss than elation at Macron’s win; voting for the lesser of two evils proved a strong motivation. Not only does that show that the political class lack popularity, but also that the public have become disillusioned.
For France to avoid future turmoil the public will have to accept that Macron may not be perfect but is the best choice in current circumstances. They will have to give him the best platform to govern by voting for REM in the parliamentary elections. The French political establishment and general population are currently divided, but under Macron they have the chance to move forward under a united front.
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