Ten days back the French voted in the first round of the presidential elections. Emmanuel Macron, the candidate of the liberal centre, came first with approximately 24 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the nationalist hard-right Front National, was pushed into second place with just under 22 per cent of the vote. Within hours of the result, François Fillon, the conservative candidate, urged supporters to vote for Mr Macron. Benoît Hamon, candidate of the moderate-left Socialists, did likewise. The next Monday euro and stock prices surged. Clearly, the financial markets believe Mr Macron’s victory in the second round is assured. The opinion polls appear to agree. They give Mr Macron around 60 per cent in the run-off due next Sunday. It’s a done deal: France — and Europe — has been saved from the social division, economic destruction and international dislocation of a possible Le Pen presidency. That may well be true; but only up to a point. The headline results — and the projections for next Sunday — hide a more complex and troubling story. It has several themes. On the right, voting for the Front National has been normalised. Ms Le Pen won the highest-ever vote for the extreme right in a presidential election.
An opinion poll of Mr Fillon’s supporters, taken shortly before the vote, showed around seven in 10 of them consider the Front National a normal political party, just like the others. This despite Ms Le Pen’s wish to pull France out of the European Union and institute economic protectionism: a complete upending of France’s domestic and foreign policy stance of the past 60 years. The Left has now apparently disintegrated. Since 1981 the French Socialist Party has successfully managed to marginalise the hard-left and monopolise the centre-left. Not any more: the centre-left voted for the liberal Mr Macron; the hard-left voted for the Communist-backed Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and Mr Hamon, the official Socialist candidate, was left with just six per cent of the vote. So deep is the animosity of the hard-left towards Mr Macron that Mr Mélenchon has refused to endorse him. In Mr Mélenchon’s eyes, Mr Macron and Ms Le Pen are as bad as each other. It’s likely many of Mr Mélenchon’s supporters — and those of other hard-left candidates — will abstain in the second round. So-called “Republican Discipline”, which saw left-inclined electors vote for the conservative right to defeat Ms Le Pen’s father in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, is breaking down.
The candidates of the extremes, whether of left or right, won 45 per cent of the vote. Or to put it another way, nearly half those who voted in the first round backed candidates who don’t accept the democratic, social and economic norms of the Fifth Republic. A very large segment of the French population is clearly completely alienated from modern France. That alienation is borne of fear of the future and resentment of the elite; and Ms Le Pen knows exactly how to play to this. She characterises the contest as one between her, “a woman of the people”, and “banker” Macron. While it’s true Mr Macron worked for the investment bank Rothschild & Cie for four years before he became a government minister, this characterisation is a grotesque distortion. Ms Le Pen is hardly a woman of the people. Her family inherited a fortune. She was brought up in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Before taking over the Front National leadership from her father, she practised as an advocate — by no stretch of the imagination a proletarian occupation.
Mr Macron on the other hand was brought up in Amiens, a depressed town in northeastern France. His parents were doctors. Although comfortable, his family — unlike Ms Le Pen’s — did not inherit a fortune. Also unlike Ms Le Pen, Mr Macron was not effectively handed the leadership of a political party on a plate. Mr Macron is where he is thanks to his own diligence, intelligence and motivation. But none of this really matters, as was vividly shown last week. Mr Macron went to visit a factory in his hometown. The workers are on strike against the threatened relocation of production to Poland where labour costs are lower. Whilst Mr Macron was meeting the union representatives and telling them that globalisation could only be countered by retraining and re-education, Ms Le Pen was meeting the strikers. She told them to an ecstatic response that the answer was closed borders and withdrawal from the European Union. When Mr Macron later met the workers, he was booed and jeered. The fact Ms Le Pen’s “solutions” would lead to chaos in Europe and the pauperisation of France is irrelevant. She knew what the workers wanted to hear and she told it to them.
France has been here before of course. During the 1940s and 1950s the combined forces of the Communists and the Gaullists hovered around 45 per cent. Neither accepted the legitimacy of the Fourth Republic. It ultimately collapsed under the stresses of withdrawal from Algeria and Gen. Charles de Gaulle took over. But there are crucial differences. The ’40s and ’50s were a period of sustained economic modernisation and improving living standards. Living standards over the last 10 years in France have stagnated. Although the Gaullists denied the legitimacy of the Fourth Republic, they were anti-racist. The Front National is not. Gen. De Gaulle knew France had to adapt to the modern world; Ms Le Pen denies it. Gen. De Gaulle ultimately showed himself to be a democrat; it is doubtful that Ms Le Pen is. So then, if Mr Macron is to be elected next Sunday — and despite abstention by some of the hard left it seems likely that he will be — he must show that he understands the anguish which appears to motivate 45 per cent of the electorate. He must learn to give them hope and reconcile them to the world as it is, rather than the world they wish it were. If Mr Macron fails, the outcome of the next presidential elections may be rather different and the consequences for France and Europe will be dire....