Opinion Columnists 27 Apr 2017 In divided France, i ...

In divided France, it’s too early to rejoice

Published Apr 27, 2017, 12:15 am IST
Updated Apr 27, 2017, 6:59 am IST
Ms Le Pen did remarkably well in the most distressed areas of France.
Emmanuel Macron  (Photo: AFP)
 Emmanuel Macron (Photo: AFP)

FOR once, the opinion polls were more or less accurate. Emmanuel Macron emerged as the clear frontrunner in the first round of Sunday’s French presidential election, with Marine Le Pen not too far behind. There is little reason to doubt that Mr Macron will defeat his remaining rival in the second round on May 7. That would make him the youngest occupant of the Élysée Palace in the Fifth Republic. Mr Macron has never before held any elected office. Given that his closest rival is determined to rescue France from its commitment to the European Union (EU), it is hardly surprising that Mr Macron’s first-round success has prompted jubilations in Brussels and various other European capitals. After all, notwithstanding his consistent attempts to cast himself as an outsider, the former investment banker effectively represents a reinforcement of the neoliberal status quo. He has been notably reticent on providing policy detail, but he unequivocally backs the EU as it stands, intends to sharply reduce the size of the public sector, and wishes to curtail the social and economic provisions that all too many French workers already see as inadequate. At the same time, he is broadly in favour of immigration, acknowledges the atrocities of his nation’s colonial past, and has thus far refused to pander to the worst forms of xenophobia and specifically Islamophobia.

Ms Le Pen, on the other hand, thrives on many of the associated tropes, even while seeking to “detoxify” her Front National (FN) brand, including by expelling her more blatantly racist and anti-Semitic father from the party he led for decades. It was only 15 years ago that Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into the second round of a presidential elect-ion, prompting a landslide in favour of Jacques Chirac. Hardly anyone expects a repeat of that 82-18 humiliation in the second round of this year’s election. As things stand, Jean-Marie’s prodigal daughter can expect a 20 to 25 per cent deficit 10 days hence. Some commentators, though, are hedging their bets — which may well be the wiser course to take, given the degree of volatility in Western politics. Ms Le Pen did remarkably well in the most distressed areas of France, the largely rural expanses with low wages and high unemployment, where her diatribes against globalisation — which the EU represents in many eyes — found resonance. Her stance on purely economic issues in some ways coincided with the platform of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the charismatic one-time Socialist Party senator who substantially outpolled his organisation by articulating a rather different vision for France. Mr Melenchon’s late resurgence, largely at the expense of the official Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, who received barely 6 per cent of the vote, would appear to pose an existentialist crisis for what has long posed as the primary centre-left political force in France, even though its agenda has for more than four decades been rather thin on policies that could actually be classified as socialistic. The party’s choice of Mr Hamon, who had deserted Mr Hollande on account of his government’s “austerity” measures, was intended to signify a shift to the left, but the candidate failed in finding traction.

 

The first-round result is nonetheless perhaps even a bigger blow for the traditional centre-right, represented in this instance by former Prime Minister François Fillon, who refused to quit the race even after he was formally charged with nepotistic greed. The Gaullist right wing’s failure to make it into the second round is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic.  But perhaps parliamentary polls in mid-June will serve as a better barometer in terms of the fate of the mainstream  left and right. Mr Macron’s En Marche! movement, formed just last year, is inevitably unrepresented in Parliament, and Ms Le Pen’s FN has just two legislators.    Neither can it seriously be expected to gain a parliamentary majority. And while coh-abitation could be a fraught experience for either of them, as well as for France, it would obviously prove less arduous for Mr Macron. But the electoral map shows a starkly divided France, and there is no indication that the inexperienced Mr Macron has any idea of how to heal the rifts. Ms Le Pen would almost certainly deepen them, notwithstanding her symbolic gesture this week in stepping aside from the FN leadership in an apparent attempt to project a more unifying image. Just as the terrorist attack last Thursday on Champs-Élysées had no discernible effect on the polling numbers, it is possible that the expected result on May 7 will not substantially affect the outcomes in Britain or Germany later in the year. Plenty of bets would be off, though, in the event of an unexpected outcome.

 

By arrangement with Dawn

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