Macron the safe option as populism rises in France
Another two weeks of bruising campaigning for the French presidential election has now begun, as the incumbent Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marine Le Pen strive to reach out to constituents in the hope they will endorse them in the second round of voting on April 24.
The key question revolves around the ability of the French people to keep out the increasingly popular far right, which has been growing across societies throughout Europe and the wider world and has managed to take root in very disruptive ways in dozens of countries over the last decade.
Up to now, France has managed to rally around common sense in keeping the far right from reaching the presidency. This time, however, there is a serious danger that the National Front of the late Jean-Marie Le Pen, which is now the National Rally of his daughter Marine, will forge ahead based on the fact that nearly a third of the French electorate chose to vote for the far right in Sunday’s first round.
The results from the first round put Macron in the lead with 27.8 percent of the vote (up 4 percent on his result in 2017) and Le Pen on 23.1 percent (up 2 percent on 2017), while the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon was in third with 22 percent. The anti-Islam and anti-immigrant extreme-right media pundit-turned-politician Eric Zemmour scored 7.1 percent. If we add together those who voted for him and Le Pen, we can see that almost a third of voters backed the far right.
The duel in the second round is likely to be between two opposing visions of France, in a similar vein to 2017, when Macron won with 66 percent of the vote. Unlike in 2017, however, the war in Ukraine, the energy crisis and the increasing cost of living in post-pandemic Europe increases the uncertainty and may allow more room for the empty slogans of the far right to resonate among the sections of French society that feel angry that the so-called establishment is failing them.
I believe that Macron will have a better chance of persuading those who abstained in the first round to vote for him than he does of winning over those who drifted toward the far right. In a speech in northern France this week, the president called for the French people to support him, as he is best placed to allay their fears and deal with the challenges they face. He admitted they have the right “to be angry at inequality, the economic hardship, the insecurity of everyday life, the difficulty of living in dignity even while working hard, and the feeling that they have been insufficiently represented or listened to or included.”
Unlike in 2017, today’s conditions may allow more room for the empty slogans of the far right to resonate.
The alternative is a far-right win, which would constitute a tectonic shift for France, but also for the EU project as a whole, which Le Pen has campaigned to radically reform. She has also promised to pull France out of NATO’s joint military command. Despite her efforts to moderate her image, Le Pen remains a divisive figure whose opponents accuse her of racism and being anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and against the hijab, not forgetting her friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like all populists, she has promised massive tax cuts to please the angry public, along with plans to reduce inequality and bring those who feel disenfranchised in society back into the fold, without revealing how she will pay for her economic and social policies.
Part of the forthcoming battle, many say, is how to mobilize the 25 percent of registered voters who abstained in the first round, as well as those who voted against Macron. Many believe that the first round of a French presidential election is usually a protest vote. This time, this points to the failure of Macron to connect with and advocate for members of the working class, who are suffering from the impacts of the pandemic, the Ukraine war and its security repercussions, and the rise in the cost of living. So, will the promise made by Macron to work toward a more inclusive “method of governing” convince the abstaining and angry voters? Maybe, because Macron, despite his fluctuating personal appeal among the French, remains the safest option in these turbulent times.
Macron, like previous leaders from the left or right, has been grappling to find the means to reform the country and keep it afloat, while pushing for growth that could pay for the state’s ballooning social bills.
The president might seem to have veered from the traditional post-Second World War social and liberal values in his efforts to adopt a freer labor market and adapt the nation to EU cooperation and internationalism, while also ensuring a commitment to level up society through upward mobility and social solidarity. In recent years, both the center-left Socialist Party and the center-right Republicans have been criticized unfairly in my opinion for their excesses and adoption of policies that triggered rising inequality and further marginalized low-wage workers. The far right has used such social failures and magnified them, despite the fact that France remains the envy of all thanks to its efficient and often generous welfare system, which ensures its inequality figures are on a par with those in the well-thought-of Scandinavian countries.
Macron was right to remind the French that to vote for Le Pen means to endorse her bid to leave the EU and that, “once out of Europe, France would only have the international alliance of populists and xenophobes as allies.”
• Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist, media consultant and trainer with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy.