French voters have turned into political strategists. For the past few months, millions of French citizens have been making calculations in view of the 2017 presidential election – not so much to get their favoured candidate elected, but to prevent their least-liked ones from winning.
Left-wing voters rushed to the right-wing primaries to stop former President Nicolas Sarkozy from winning. Moderate socialists voted for the most radical candidate in their party’s primaries to leave the floor open for independent centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron. Many voters will cast their ballots for Macron in the first round to prevent a second round between the far-right Marine Le Pen and the conservative candidate François Fillon, embattled in corruption cases.
For numerous reasons, this 2017 election resembles no other, and has the perfume of the end of an era.
If opinion polls are correct, and recent experience elsewhere constitute a big ‘if’, both parties which have dominated political life and successive governments in France for the past 35 years, the right wing Republican party and the Socialist party, will be excluded from the second round of voting, and therefore from power.
Instead, French voters will have the choice between the heir to the Le Pen dynasty, Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right, nationalist and anti-European Front National, and Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old former adviser and Economy Minister of President François Hollande, who has broken ranks with him and launched his own independent social-liberal movement, En Marche! (Let’s go). Still according to polls, Macron should easily win the second round and become the first president elected without the support of a traditional political party in France’s Fifth Republic.
Nothing has gone according to expectations since the beginning of this campaign, with every favourite falling on the way to election day.
Two weeks before the first round, analysts still could not exclude a come-back by Fillon, despite the huge discredit his candidacy has had since it was discovered that he used public money to pay his wife and two children for allegedly fake jobs, and received gifts of hugely expensive tailor-made suits paid for by a man known for his dubious African connections. Right-wing voters who have deserted him for ethical reasons could still come back to ensure their side’s victory and a real break with the socialist era.
And a ‘fourth man’ is rising fast, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the charismatic leader of the ‘Insurgent Movement’, a radical Left veteran who has conducted an efficient populist campaign, taking votes away from the Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, despite his eye-catching programme, including a universal wage.
But if polls are right, the second round of voting, scheduled for 7 May, should oppose two visions of the future of France, and have profound significance for Europe and the world.
Since the Brexit victory in the UK referendum, and even more with Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US in November, many commentators hastily concluded that an irresistible populist wave was sweeping the former industrial world – a revolt against the inequalities produced by globalisation and the rise of immigration and its multicultural consequences.
A presidential election in Austria and parliamentary elections in the Netherlands have already proved the domino theory wrong, but France was going to be the biggest test, as Europe could not survive a ‘’Frexit’ – French exit from the European Union, advocated by Marine Le Pen and other more marginal candidates.
On the other side, Emmanuel Macron is the most openly and unashamedly pro-European candidate among the 11 contenders for the presidency. A former philosophy student, who graduated from elite schools, an investment banker with Rothschild turned politician, Emmanuel Macron personifies the ‘system’ Marine Le Pen is denouncing. She is calling the campaign against him ‘Patriots’ versus ‘Globalists’.
French voters will therefore have the clearest choice to make: on one side, Le Pen’s programme of returning to a Europe of nations, with a return of the French franc and border posts to stop immigrants and less space for Islam in French society; on the other side, a liberal approach to making France and Europe more efficient and competitive in the world economy, embracing the digital revolution, and appeasing community relations within French society by addressing the deep social inequalities affecting the infamous banlieues of major metropolises.
Marine Le Pen has seen an important surge in support for the same reasons that brought Donald Trump to the White House: a sentiment of abandonment from the ‘losers’ of globalisation, citizens from deindustrialised regions, and worried and angry middle-class voters. She is trying to depict Macron as the candidate of the ‘winners’ of globalisation, urban, well-educated and well-off citizens, who look down on ‘the people’ – in a word, the ‘bobos’.
But there are limits to this caricature. Every opinion poll shows that 70% of the French don’t want to abandon the euro, and that Emmanuel Macron’s youthfulness, start-up inspired positive energy appeal beyond the realm of bobos. By declaring himself ‘neither right nor left’, in a country that has lived for decades under that sacrosanct divide, he is offering another way out of a failed political system – less risky than the adventurous path advocated by the far-right.
If Macron wins, there could be a new ‘alignment of planets’ in Europe before the end of the year, after Germany’s elections, where the two major contenders, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic candidate Martin Schultz, are both pro-European. After a decade in which Paris and Berlin had serious differences, this could change the European equation. A first answer will be given on 7 May by French voters who hold, without always knowing it, Europe’s future in their hands.
Pierre Haski is co-founder of the French news website Rue89.com and a columnist with the magazine L’Obs. A long-time journalist and foreign correspondent with Agence France-Presse and Libération, his latest book is Le droit au bonheur – La France à l’épreuve du monde (Stock, 2017).