Far-right leader Marine Le Pen may not win France’s presidential election. But her party keeps making gains while traditional ruling groups lick their wounds.

France
Results by department of the first round of France’s presidential election on April 23. Each department bears the color of the candidate who won the most votes there. Note the split between Macron’s supporters in the West of mainland France and Le Pen’s backers in the North and Southeast. Source: Ministry of the Interior
This is the latest in a series of articles on the future of Europe.

By Nelson Graves

What are we to make of the first round of France’s presidential election, which saw two outsiders — centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen — qualify for the May 7 run-off to succeed Socialist President François Hollande?

Here are some sobering thoughts.

1. Mainstreaming Marine

While Le Pen trailed Macron to finish second among the 11 candidates, she won 7.7 million votes — 60% more than her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, did in 2002 when he finished second to Jacques Chirac in the first round of that year’s presidential election.

Ahead of the decisive second round, Chirac famously refused to debate Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was seen by a very large proportion of the electorate as politically toxic. Before he was expelled in 2015 from the National Front by his daughter, Jean-Marie Le Pen had been convicted several times at home and abroad of xenophobia and antisemitism.

Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has sought to cut a less divisive image without alienating the National Front’s base, which takes a hard line against immigration and in favor of security measures. To some extent she has succeeded.

She was on stage under kieg lights when the candidates debated before the April 23 first round, and she is scheduled to debate Macron on national TV on May 3. And while most political leaders on both the Left and the Right rallied around Macron within minutes of the results of the first round, leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the fourth-place finisher, has withheld his backing.

So, too, have some center-right politicians who had reluctantly backed third-place finisher François Fillon and who now are looking to parliamentary elections in June as an opportunity to hamstring Macron and eventually turn defeat into at least partial victory.

This time, Marine Le Pen raised nary an eyebrow.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the run-off round in 2002, thousands of distraught protesters took to the streets of Paris, overturning cars, setting fire to garbage cans and throwing rocks at riot police who fired tear gas. This time, Marine Le Pen’s second-place finish raised nary an eyebrow.

What is more, Macron and indeed Hollande’s Socialist governments have hewed more closely to the National Front’s positions in crucial matters of security. In fact, for the first time under France’s current constitution, a presidential poll was held during a national state of emergency, imposed after attacks in Paris that killed 130 people in November 2015.

To that extent, the debate in France has shifted towards themes dear to the National Front’s heart — an indication that while some of its positions, including its dislike of the euro currency and the European Union, are anathema to many French voters, its views on immigration and security are much more widely shared than 15 years ago.

Even the National Front’s animosity towards the EU and the euro is shared by several of the other candidates, including Mélenchon, whose youthful electoral base — not dissimilar from Bernie Sanders’s — could provide electoral pickings for Marine Le Pen in the second round.

So even if polls are correct and Macron trounces Le Pen in the second round, the National Front will likely win a record number of votes and consolidate its position as a leading opposition party, even if not quite yet in the mainstream.

Far-right politician Geert Wilders absorbed similar mixed results in March when his Freedom Party failed to win parliamentary elections in the Netherlands while nonetheless increasing its number of seats to 20 from 12.

So Euro-skeptical populists in these two EU founding members may not have seized the reins of power this year. But — to turn a metaphor inside out — they are chomping at the bit.

2. Malaise and distrust run deep

Macron’s first-place finish in the first round could not mask the implosion of the two mainstream parties that have led France since the nation’s fifth republic was established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

To that extent, French voters displayed some of the same electoral malaise and distrust of ruling elites seen recently in the United States, Britain and other Western democracies — not an encouraging sign for an old guard defending the liberal democracy that has prevailed in the developed world since 1945.

3. Steam and the safety valve

Once again, France’s two-round system of voting has offered an opportunity for frustrated citizens to make a statement and let off steam without forcing them straight away into a corner.

Would Britain have chosen to leave the EU and would U.S. citizens have elected Donald Trump president if voters had had a safety valve in the form of a second vote, after choosing among multiple options in the first round?

If Macron, as all leading polls indicate, wins on May 7, it will be because millions of voters who did not support him in the first round hold their noses and, in their minds, choose the lesser of two evils. Which, after all, is the kind of compromise that is required in a democracy if decisions are to be taken.

It’s the kind of compromise that has been glaringly absent in Washington, polarized between two parties that are engaged in a do-or-die battle, first at the polls in America’s single-seat constituency, first-past-the-post system, then in the halls of Congress.

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