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All Change in France

In the end the second-round electoral victory of Emmanuel Macron was more complete than anyone expected. The late opinion polls had given him between 61.5% and 63%. His actual score on the day was 66.1%, more than two points higher than any poll had predicted in the period between the two rounds.

Demographic trends evident in the first round were strikingly confirmed in the second, in particular the weakness of Marine Le Pen and the Front National in large centres of population: Macron won all twenty of the most populous cities, nine of them with votes of more than 80% (Paris 89.68%; Rennes 88.39%; Nantes 86.52%; Bordeaux 85.92%; Lyon 84.11%; Toulouse 82.97%; Grenoble 82.67%; Angers 82.55%; Strasbourg 81.24%). Only in the Mediterranean cities of Marseille, Nice and Toulon did Le Pen poll well. The largest city she actually won was Calais, sixty-seventh in terms of population in the country.

Newspapers (non-French newspapers in particular) were fond of asking, in the run-up to the election, the question “Could Marine Le Pen be the next president of France?” The obvious answer of course, confirmed by opinion poll after opinion poll, was that she could not. This, of course, didn’t stop them: “Comfortable victory for favourite expected” is not the kind of headline that sells newspapers or attracts clicks – or so at least their managements believe.



Where Le Pen did do well was in already established FN strongholds in the north and east of the country (with the exception of big cities like Lille and Strasbourg) and along the Mediterranean coast, which has for some time been a stronghold of the far right. And also in the smallest communes – those with 500 or fewer voters – in almost all cases rural or village constituencies. Not that she carried all of these: unlike the situation in many other parts of Europe, there are rural communities in France with traditional and persisting left-wing affiliations.

While the FN vote has not stopped growing, one would have to conclude that a party that cannot win seats in any of the sixty-six largest population centres in a country is a party that is ultimately not going anywhere – or at any rate not going anywhere any time soon. Another factor working against it is the lack of proportionality in the French parliamentary voting system. In 2012 the FN won 13.6% of the vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections; the clear winners on that occasion, the Socialist Party (PS) won 29.35%. While the socialists went on to win 280 seats (both rounds together) in the national assembly, the Front National won two. This very unusual situation comes about because of the two-round voting system and the operation of what is called a “republican front” – basically the withdrawal of candidates entitled to run in the second round (lower-scoring candidates from the first round are automatically eliminated) in order to maximise support for the candidate most likely to beat the FN and/or tactical voting by traditional left (socialist or communist) or traditional right (Les Républicains, formerly the UMP) voters with the same purpose –large numbers of people being prepared to vote, as it were, for the lesser evil.

It has recently appeared to be the case that (in spite of strong endorsements from influential figures like Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppé) the republican front, which requires both left and right to support it, is going out of favour with some elements of the traditional right, who have said they feel they have as much, if not more, in common with the hard right as with the Parti Socialiste. (Some of them are also feeling particularly bruised at the moment, having been, as they see it, cheated out of their “turn” in government by Macron, seen as a protégé of President Hollande.) Nevertheless, the voting system as presently constituted is stacked against an extreme party which arouses strong negative feelings in a variety of other forces. The FN is currently (May 12th) showing at 20% in opinion polls for next month’s parliamentary elections, a figure just a little bit behind the 21.43% that Marine Le Pen won in the first round of the presidential elections. How many deputies the party will have in the next parliament is likely to depend on how many deals it is able to cut locally with the traditional right in its strongholds, but its representation will not be anything like proportional to its vote across the country. (A similar situation obtains in the UK with the underrepresentation of both UKIP and the Lib Dems: different voting system, same result.)

The key question in June’s elections will be to what degree Emmanuel Macron’s new movement, En Marche! (now renamed La République En Marche!), will be present in the new parliament and whether he will have the majority he needs to push through his programme. At the moment opinion polls suggest he has the wind behind him, with 29% support as compared with 20% for Les Républicains and the Front National, 14% for La France Insoumise (Mélenchon) and only 7% for the Parti Socialiste.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Macron’s victory. This is not necessarily to say that that victory is a wonderful thing, or that the new president is likely to solve all France’s problems – problems which incidentally may be a little exaggerated by les anglo-saxons. But it is quite remarkable that a party or movement founded only a year ago could carry a person not well known to the public, a person who had never before won any electoral office, to the presidency of France, ahead not just of the far right but of the representatives of the two competing blocs of centre right and centre left that had dominated French politics for generations. Of course there was an element of the accidental in all of this (the chief accident being Les Républicains’ candidate François Fillon’s problems with an accusation of corruption) but if Macron is to some degree an accidental president he did not, in the course of the campaign, appear to be an accident-prone candidate. If – and we can be fairly sure this is the case – his opponents were constantly searching for dirt on him they did not find it; and if they were waiting for him to trip himself up he did not oblige them.

The legislative elections will afford both major losers from the presidential, the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains, with a second bite of the cherry. While LR is likely to fight the Front National fiercely (both are on 20% in the polls) and will be motivated to hold its own in so far as possible it is hard to see the PS as being in any position to rebound in the short term. The party suffers from a number of problems: the outgoing president, François Hollande, and his government ministers, are perceived as having failed in office. Social democratic parties also seem to be in decline in many parts of Europe (the Netherlands, Ireland, Greece, soon, quite possibly, the United Kingdom).

Arguably the PS has another, more structural, problem to which there may not be an answer. It has been observed that Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 first-round score of 23.86% corresponds to the 2012 score of the centrist candidate François Bayrou (9.13%) and about half of the Hollande vote of 28.63%. Given the collapse of the PS candidate, Benoît Hamon, in 2017, and in particular the probable late switch of more PS voters to Macron (see blog post of May 1st) it seems quite plausible that Macron’s first-round vote was composed of former centrists plus the more centrist element of the former centre-left voting bloc. If this is the case, Macron’s movement could perhaps be characterised as centre-centre-left: what that is likely to mean in practice remains to be seen.

The Parti Socialiste has at various times in its existence (and that of its predecessor party, the SFIO) managed to combine semi-revolutionary rhetoric with a much more reformist practice in government. Skilled politicians like François Mitterrand (maximalist slogan: Changer la vie [Change Life]) seemed to carry this off effortlessly. At least part of the reason for the maximalist rhetoric was that the PS normally found itself in competition with the Communist Party (PCF), sometimes lagging behind it, sometimes out ahead.

It has seemed that the space that reformist social democracy has to manoeuvre in has narrowed considerably in recent years. On the one hand it does not any longer find it easy to deliver tangible benefits to its constituency; on the other it is challenged by new or renewed movements on its left which are less tarnished by perceived failures in government and better able to channel the enthusiasm of the young and of activists in various new social movements.

The Parti Socialiste responded to the double challenge of putting some distance between itself and the Hollande government and competing for support with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left populist La France Insoumise (FI) by choosing as its candidate Benoît Hamon, a former education minister associated with anti-austerity and anti-liberal positions and an admirer of Bernie Sanders. One problem with this choice was that Mélenchon was already occupying much of the same ideological ground; another was that it had little appeal for that section of the Parti Socialiste which had wanted the centrist Manuel Valls to be its candidate and which ended up very probably voting for Emmanuel Macron. The question must now surely be asked if the PS can be two things at the same time and appeal to two increasingly incompatible electorates, perhaps of equal size. If committed left-wing voters – still a quite sizeable constituency in France – find the hybrid of anti-capitalism, “eco-socialism” and anti-globalism offered by FI a more appealing brand than they do a leftish face of the PS then what exactly is the function of the party? Squeezed on its left by Mélenchon and on its right by Macron, can it really satisfy anyone any more? Its current opinion poll rating of 7% (it had 29.35% support in the first round of voting in the 2012 legislatives) suggests that it now has a major problem in this regard.

The two rounds of the legislative election (for 577 seats in the national assembly) will take place on June 11th and 18th. The early indications are that Macron’s La République En Marche! is positioned to do well; that Les Républicains will put up a tough fight against their rivals in the Front National, whose long-term aim is to replace them as the main party of the right; that La France Insoumise will be buoyed up by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s good first-round display in the presidential (FI now appears to have fallen out with the PCF, however, which could be costly); and that the Parti Socialiste, which traces its lineage back to the great pacifist and internationalist Jean Jaurès, assassinated by a nationalist fanatic in 1914, will be fighting for its political life.

Above: the Pont Alexandre III and the Grand Palais in Paris, where only one in ten voters supported the Front National.

12/5/2017