France’s election is far too close for comfort. If he wins a second term, Macron must transform his presidency.

Jeremy Cliffe

7 mins - 11 de Abril de 2022, 11:11

Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and it jumps out; throw it into a pot of cold water and heat it gradually and it boils alive. In a country with a tradition of frog cookery, the parable is an apt one today. If one or two decades ago the French far-right had taken over three in ten votes, with almost six in ten votes overall going to anti-system candidates of the right and left, it would have been treated as a shocking crisis. Yet when, last night, the first round of France’s two-round presidential election delivered precisely this result, the overwhelming reaction was one of jubilation. Among the pro-European moderates at Emmanuel Macron’s election rally in Paris there were cheers and whoops of joy. French and EU flags were waved. 

The contrast between what were truly alarming results and the air of relief illustrates how much the water has warmed up in recent years. When in 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen took 17% of the vote in the French first round, it was a Europe-wide scandal. Yet in an era of Trump and Brexit, Salvini and Abascal, Orbán and Kaczynski (let alone Russia’s murderous, fascistic Putin) the fact that Jean-Marie’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, took 23% of the vote feels much less remarkable. Likewise the votes for the yet more extreme Éric Zemmour, the left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and other hardline candidates that all together saw support for anti-mainstream politics in all its forms reach 58%. And in an era in which mainstream parties across the West are struggling with fragmentation, it surprises us less than it once would have done that France’s Socialists and Gaullists - the mighty political families of Mitterrand and Hollande, Chirac and Sarkozy - fell to under 2% and 5% respectively. Turnout was the lowest in two decades.

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To be fair, Macron’s 28% yesterday was impressive in its way. It is the best first-round vote share for an incumbent president since 1988. It is better than his equivalent score in 2017 and gives him a larger lead over Le Pen than five years ago. But these facts should not blind us to the fragility of liberal democracy in France today. Two polls taken last night point to a worrying close second-round runoff vote on 24 April: they put Macron-Le Pen on 54-46 and 51-49. Le Pen could still win.

It was not meant to be this way. Macron’s initial win in 2017 was meant to be a turning point. “What is at stake isn’t only politics,” he said at a rally back then. “It is the future of our society, of the French people, of our lives together.” The young candidate argued that his reforms were: “essential to prevent the National Front [as Le Pen’s party was then called] from becoming stronger in five years' time”. 

Back then many of us, myself included, allowed ourselves some optimism about his potential. In a country that seemed lost in its own sense of decline, alienated from its politics, knocked back by terror attacks and economic stagnation, Macron promised hope and change. He had started his bid for the presidency with La Grande Marche, a bottom-up process of conversations with tens of thousands of citizens, a movement out of which would grow En Marche, his new political party. He promised to break from the old left-right divide with a new radical politics committed to taking on the rigid structures and vested interests that were holding France back. It was and is an attractive vision.

The five years since then have not been without achievements. France’s unemployment has fallen to a 13-year low. For the first time in decades the majority of new jobs are permanent contracts. Business start-ups are booming: Macron’s goal of 25 French digital companies worth $1 billion or more by 2025 was reached in January this year. France’s economy came through the pandemic better than most of its counterparts. 

Yet despite all this, a deep malaise persists in French society. For a sense of the state of the nation, last month I travelled across it from the English Channel to the Mediterranean, visiting big cities and small towns. The argument I heard again and again was that France today is more divided than ever before: between urban areas and the left-behind “peripheral France”, between a culture of secularism and official colour-blindness and the multicultural reality of today’s France, between rival visions of the meaning of what it is to be French.

The roots of these divisions are deep and pre-date Macron’s presidency. Yet it is also obvious that he has fallen short of the hopes of 2017. Far from reinvigorating politics, En Marche has turned out to be an empty shell of a party. Far from reconnecting ordinary voters with politics, Macron has too often adopted a haughty, even regal style. And far from healing France’s divisions, he has at points deepened them: for example, allowing the impression to arise that he is a “president of the rich”. The most memorable scenes from his first term have been the Gilets Jaunes protests against rising living costs in 2018 and 2019. Rather than a new sort of politics transcending the left-right divide, he finishes the quinquennat looking like a conventional centre-right leader.

Even if Macron does win reelection, the long-term trends are alarming. The Socialists and Gaullists may both be on the verge of collapse. The Greens, though successful in municipal politics, have failed to achieve a breakthrough like their German counterparts. And En Marche is built overwhelmingly around the personality and appeal of Macron himself, with a limited grassroots infrastucture. Yet under France’s term limit rules he would have to stand down after a second term. That sets up a dangerous situation for 2027: a potential vacuum in mainstream French politics combined with the serious possibility of a consolidated and yet stronger far-right.

The answer, then, is to avoid the slightest drop of complacency. Hopefully Macron will win a second term. If he does, he must use it as a chance to reset and restart his presidency, taking it back to the optimistic radicalism of 2017. En Marche must become a living movement once more, a platform for serious exchanges between citizens and politics, and an incubator for the talented potential leaders of tomorrow rather than just Macron and a cluster of ageing ex-Gaullists. Macron must show humility and contrition, a willingness to learn from his failings and respond to the reasons driving voters towards anti-system politicians. He must also reconnect with the centre-left and its sense of social cohesion and solidarity; in particular the so-called “deuxième gauche”, whose emphasis on decentralisation, pluralism and intensive democracy is urgently needed in today’s fractured, over-centralised republic. 

Macron is not a fundamentally bad president. But he is a flawed one, and yesterday’s first round result is an illustration of that. The French republic is dangerously close to calamity, to boiling alive. The first priority is to avoid this calamity on 24 April. The next priority is to prevent it in 2027 and beyond.

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