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The Several Faces of France

We are now just more than half-way between the first and second round of the French presidential election. Eleven candidates have been reduced to two, those two are seeking to broaden their appeal to supporters of the eliminated candidates and the latter have in some cases made recommendations to their political base on how to vote in the run-off.

First, to recap, the most significant results of the first round: Emmanuel Macron 24.1%, Marine Le Pen 21.3%, François Fillon 20.01%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon 19.58%, Benoît Hamon 6.36%, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan  (a right-wing “sovereigntist” who has since teamed up with Le Pen) 4.7%. The remaining five candidates garnered between 1.21% and 0.18% each.

How did we get to these figures? First, the incumbent president, François Hollande, of the socialist party (Parti Socialiste/PS) declared last December that he would not be a candidate for a second term. A resulting party primary saw Benoît Hamon, supported by the party left wing, defeating the more centrist former prime minister Manuel Valls. On the right, the early frontrunner to represent the post-Gaullist formation Les Républicains (LR) was the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, a prime minister during the presidency of Jacques Chirac. But in a three-cornered primary fight with Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy, he lost out, a victim perhaps of his more moderate image and reluctance to adopt a strong “security” or anti-Islam position. Fillon’s team targeted “firm right” and traditionalist Catholic voters and on social media Juppé was caricatured as “Ali Juppé”. In the primary second round Fillon beat Juppé comfortably.

Emmanuel Macron, a Jesuit-educated former civil servant (in the department of finance) and later investment banker, was for a time a member of the Parti Socialiste and served as an aide to President Hollande and then economy minister in Manuel Valls’s government before quitting to found his own centrist movement, En Marche, and begin a campaign for the presidency.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon left the Parti Socialiste in 2008 to found the Parti de Gauche, which has since campaigned in electoral coalitions with the communist party (PCF). In 2016 he founded La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) to contest this year’s presidential and legislative elections.

In early opinion polling, with Hollande’s presidency widely seen as a failure on the economic front and the left demoralised, it looked quite likely that the election would boil down (in the second round) to a contest between the right and the extreme right, with Le Pen as leader of the first-round pack but losing out quite decisively to a second-placed François Fillon in the second round as supporters of the eliminated candidates of the centre and left opted to vote tactically to keep the Front National out of power. Then Fillon was confronted with charges of financial irregularity in connection with a paid, but allegedly fictitious, employment of his wife as an assistant. The charges knocked him back in the polls; he later recovered to a considerable degree but, in the end, not quite enough to reach the second round.

Through the gap, during Fillon’s first weeks of difficulty, burst the centrist Macron, who as the vote grew nearer even began in some polls to dispute the first-round lead with Le Pen. On the left, Hamon had started off ahead of Mélenchon, but the PS standard-bearer failed to impress in television debates and Mélenchon began to surge ahead. In the final week of the campaign the polls had the four leading candidates (Le Pen, Macron, Fillon, Mélenchon) bunched very tightly together: given the margin of error, any two of them, it seemed, might make it to the second round. But it appears likely that the publication of these polls – and particularly the possibility that the run-off might be between the extreme right and the hard left, concentrated minds to some effect. If Benoît Hamon had earlier suffered from seeming to offer a weaker left-wing brand (and consequently bled support to Mélenchon), he was now to suffer again precisely because of Mélenchon’s success as traditional PS voters began to consider the possibility of a vote utile, not the vote that your heart dictates but the one that is more likely to achieve a desirable result, or perhaps more importantly prevent a dreaded one. The gap between the late polls and the actual result (with Macron nearly three points clear of Le Pen) suggests that, while Mélenchon had the momentum in the closing weeks, at some point that momentum stalled; and also that more alarmed socialist voters switched at the last minute from their party’s man (already seen as a lost cause) to Macron in order to block the scenario of a second-round battle between two extreme, populist and anti-European candidates (for many a nightmare scenario – and one in which the polls incidentally suggested that Mélenchon would have won the presidency).

We started off with the figures: Macron first, Le Pen second and Fillon and Mélenchon on third and fourth but actually in a virtual tie. What is more interesting, however, is the detailed geographical breakdown of these figures presented (and beautifully demonstrated through impressive “heat maps” showing concentrations of support geographically) by Le Monde in the days after the first round.

The page one headline (on April 25th) above the main map reads “MACRON-LE PEN: LES DEUX FRANCES”. And the colour-coded map of electoral support bears this out to a considerable degree, though in fact there are in evidence more than two Frances. Broadly speaking, the north, the east, the Mediterranean coastal strip and Corsica are strong areas for Le Pen, while the west and southwest, except for a few patches, are very weak areas for her. The traditional right polled well in scattered rural areas across the northern half of the country and also in the Alps and the Massif Central. Macron’s support was most concentrated in the western half of the country, and the left’s (which went to Mélenchon rather than Hamon) in the southern half, with particular strengths in traditionally communist areas. Left voters of any kind seem very thin on the ground in the entire northern half of France.

Overlaying this broadly geographical pattern there is another striking one which is both geographical and sociological. Of the eleven cities in France with a population of more than 200,000, Marine Le Pen scored better than Emmanuel Macron in only two (Marseille and Nice). In the other nine (Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Nantes, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Lille and Rennes) the ratio varied from almost 2:1 in favour of Macron (Lille, Montpellier) to 3:1 in Lyon, 4:1 in Bordeaux and a striking 7:1 in Paris, where Le Pen scored less than a quarter of her national percentage vote. It will be interesting to look again at the second-round vote in the major cities. In most of them there were also of course significant votes for Fillon and, particularly, Mélenchon, who topped the poll in Toulouse for example.

This analysis of France’s political geography will no doubt invite comparisons with recent elections and referendums in other countries. (It should be said that in France these divisions are not particularly new.) While there are of course similarities –in the UK the cities voted strongly for Remain in the Brexit referendum, in the US the Democratic Party vote is overwhelmingly an urban one – there are also differences: in the US presidential election and the British referendum we had a choice of two options. In France on this occasion we have had a choice of four main ones and seven others. The second round will of course give us a choice of two, or three if one includes abstention, which could well be quite high (in French terms, that is). In general, however, France seems to be moving towards maintaining a larger number of political movements, a phenomenon that is common in a number of European states.

After last year’s US and British votes, some commentators (chiefly of the left) warned liberal, social democratic and “progressive” politicians of the dangers of the policies they were seen to have been pursuing (globalisation, environmentalism, internationalism, feminism, openness to immigration) and in particular the danger that they could lose a sizeable part of their traditional working class support (to Trump, to UKIP, even in Britain to the Tories). But some have questioned this analysis, and in particular the idea that support for the populist right is largely a revolt by the poor (and hence, by implication, if you are on the left something you should be very understanding of). Daniel Geary, for example, writing in a recent issue of the Dublin Review of Books, argued that “[i]n demographic terms, Trump supporters are disproportionately white, male, rural and old. Though less likely to have a college education, they are mischaracterised as working class. Trump supporters are wealthier than the average American, predominantly own their homes rather than rent them and are concentrated in small business and skilled trades. (Working class whites were crucial swing voters in Rust Belt states but do not constitute Trump’s main constituency ...)” Geary also stressed that much as sections of the wealthy might object to Trump’s manners they trusted him to keep their money safe (which he seems to be doing).

It would be interesting to see how much of this type of analytical approach might be applied to France. One might tentatively observe that while Macron’s first-round voters are unlikely to have been predominantly among the most economically disadvantaged, those who were economically disadvantaged had at least two choices, voting for Le Pen, who never tired of assuring them she cared for them, and voting for Mélenchon. One might also observe that while a sizeable proportion of the poor voted for Le Pen, a sizeable proportion did not (poor people live in big cities too), while certainly many who did vote for her are not poor: rural Alsace and the wine-growing country around Bordeaux are two areas where the FN did rather well: they are far from poor (and also largely devoid of immigrants). Widening the geographical frame of reference still further, the economy of Sweden has recently been performing rather well, but support for the country’s far-right Sweden Democrats is running at about 20%: there is not always a correlation between disadvantage and support for the far right; it seems one does not necessarily have to be badly off to be attracted by a politics of spite.

One phrase frequently used by those who have (quite correctly) reminded social democratic and liberal leaders not to ignore the concerns of those who are turning to populism is “those who have been left behind”. What these voters are understood to have been left behind by is principally globalisation, the migration of jobs to cheaper labour destinations, in eastern Europe for example. Equally of course, though this is less often mentioned, jobs can migrate to different parts of the same country (in England from north to southeast, in Belgium from Wallonia to Flanders, in France from the north to the west). And as jobs migrate so do people qualified to take them up, leaving behind in the villages and small towns the elderly and the underqualified, groups of people who can sometimes be receptive to a politics of blame and resentment. The flight to cities to take advantage of greater opportunities, and the broadening of the mind that can often take place in such new settings is as old as European urbanism itself. Those who fled rural serfdom in the Middle Ages observed that city air was conducive to freedom (Stadtluft macht frei). And while it is both unkind and politically inadvisable to look down on ill-educated reactionaries (Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”), the finger-wagging leftist commentators who show such concern for the blue-collar lost sheep might remember that it was Karl Marx who deplored what he called “rural idiocy”. He also of course referred to antisemitism as “the socialism of the poor in spirit”. The noxious ideological mix favoured by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, with Muslims standing in for Jews, is perhaps to some degree the twenty-first century equivalent of this.

Detailed information on the voting in round two – due in about a week’s time ‑ will no doubt give further scope for analysis of where France now stands sociologically and politically (and there’s certainly a book or two in it as well). Whether Emmanuel Macron, if he is elected, will be able to govern effectively and reform France in the way he thinks is necessary will depend on the outcome of the legislative elections which will follow. An early guess would be that these will see a measure of recovery for the traditional right (LR) but more grief for the Parti Socialiste, which has just registered its worst result in a presidential election since 1969.


The image shows the fountain at the memorial to the Girondins in Bordeaux. The city has ‘stood by the Republic’, with a vote for the Front National only a third of its national score.