Le Pen and Macron seek to polarize French society for electoral edge
The “home run” that Emmanuel Macron supporters stated that the war in Ukraine would give his electoral chances was not as clear cut following last week’s first round. With a vote result of 27 percent, closely followed by the far right Marine Le Pen at 24 percent and the leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon at 22 percent, Macron’s relatively late campaign did not exactly blow away rivals. It is an election that has been characterized by extremes, demagoguery and the politics of fear.
With Macron and Le Pen having made it to the runoff, they will now depend on working-class Melenchon voters from what Le Pen has called “forgotten France.” The social marginalization of the campaign thus far can only be expected to continue as both sides seek to target migrants as the source of France’s ills.
In May 2017, Macron became the youngest president in French history, with 66.1 percent of the vote in the second round, having defeated Le Pen. His socially and economically liberal En Marche! movement was labelled as “progressive.” The fresh-faced, agnostic former banker vowed to “unblock France,” claiming that the previous president, Francois Hollande, was “normal” and that he would govern in a more Jupiterian style. This he has done, and though he has overseen several reforms to labor laws and taxation, at moments his plans have been unpopular. Opposition to a proposed fuel tax culminated in the 2018 yellow vests protests and other protests; such sentiment has resurfaced recently as he seeks to raise the pension age and streamline France’s 42 existing state pension schemes.
Macron could once claim to be a political outsider, a candidate who offered an alternative to what he characterized as ossified and dysfunctional political parties. Five years on, however, several scandals have given him a reputation for cronyism and a certain stubborn arrogance that has alienated many.
Despite being a graduate of the elitist Lycee Henri IV, Ecole nationale d’administration and then a banker at Rothschild Bank, Macron initially successfully portrayed himself as an anti-establishment candidate. However, his term in office has exposed this misjudgment. The yellow vest protests and the state’s heavy-handed response have only served to encourage a much broader complaint that working class people have struggled under Macron.
Despite unemployment at only 7.4 percent, this sentiment has been growing and Le Pen has now made it central to her campaign. Focusing largely on cost-of-living issues, she repeatedly refers to the “elitist and rich” president who does not “understand little people” while her campaign slogan is “For all French people.” She has campaigned almost exclusively outside big cities with small rallies and visits to local markets, showing that she is in touch with people’s daily post-pandemic struggles.
Le Pen is aiming to highlight that the country is split along deep geographical fractures — between the places where people are doing well, in urban centers and tourist areas, and where they are not, rural areas and small towns. Despite distancing herself from her party, her message is still xenophobic and divisive at its core.
Analysis of the French electoral landscape has focused on three forces: The far right with Le Pen and Zemmour, the center with Macron, and the radical left with Melenchon. However, a fourth constituency, France’s 6.5 million immigrants, has not had a voice, but rather has been used as a battleground by Macron and Le Pen to put forward their credentials.
Where Le Pen has claimed that women wearing headscarves will be fined and that state benefits will be accessed in tiers, benefitting French-born citizens ahead of immigrants, Macron has continued his drumbeat about “Islamo-gauchisme” (“Islamo-leftism”). Following the pushback to his reforms, he has consistently claimed that French values are under threat from Islamic principles.
The focus on migrants and Islam is far removed from the support Macron curried in the last election when socialists such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit and even the Grand Mosque of Paris came out in favor of him. As a onetime bulwark against the far right, Macron enjoyed the support of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US President Barack Obama. However, with centralization of power and wealth in Paris blamed for the inequality that exists in France, the president has increasingly sought to appeal to xenophobic sentiment and shift the focus from his problematic reform program. Whereas his 2017 election campaign promoted tolerance toward immigrants and Muslims, expressing confidence in France’s ability to absorb more immigrants, he now argues that France “cannot hold everyone” and that “Islamic separatism endangers our republic.”
Whereas previous elections were won by candidates vowing to stop the far right, this election may be won by whichever candidate most successfully embraces it.
Zaid M. Belbagi
In light of an increasingly sophisticated campaign by Le Pen, Macron has changed tack. This week he challenged voters in Le Havre: “There is not a single country in the world that bans the headscarf in public. Do you want to be the first?” and while on walkabout supported a Muslim woman on her choice to wear hijab. To many voters his attempts to show support to Muslims citizens after spending his term deriding them seem contrived.
The distasteful racist undertone of this year’s election has its foundation in Macron’s own discourse as president. As both candidates now compete for the formerly left-voting electorate, it is increasingly clear that despite ideological differences, the far left and the far right have much in common: Anger against the establishment; a distrust of globalization, alienation from traditional politics; of economic exclusion and a fear of migration. Whereas previous elections were won by candidates vowing to stop the far right, this election may be won by whichever candidate most successfully embraces it.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid