“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
On Sunday May 7th, French voters delivered a decisive victory to the centrist, pro-business candidate Emmanuel Macron, who soundly defeated Marine Le Pen in a runoff for the country’s presidency. This was seen in the English language press as a victory for the European Union and a repudiation of the virulent nationalism of Le Pen, who temporarily stepped aside as leader of her Front National (FN) Party in the run up to the election, likely in a failed attempt to distance herself from some of its more extreme elements.
The election was also of more interest than usual across Europe and North America as it was inserted into the narrative about Russian interference in Western elections that’s become something of an obsession over the last few months, especially on American cable news networks. A hack of Macron’s email just prior to the vote, hyped by Tweeters on the far right fringes, mostly in the US, didn’t help their favored candidate at all and, in the end, only revealed that Macron is somewhat boring.
As an aside, it’s unfortunate that Wikileaks sometimes links to outside leaks that turn out to not be as advertised without vetting them first. The Macron emails, publicized by people who seem to lack a basic understanding of the French language and containing possible fakes, have now been tied to Russia because they contain Russian language code, providing ammunition to the ongoing efforts to portray the publisher as a Russian stooge.
Macron is interesting in the sense that the former investment banker ran as an outsider despite the fact that he had a short stint as Economy Minister in President Francois Hollande’s unpopular Socialist government. There is even a law named after him, generally seen as an attack on the country’s generous provisions for workers, which caused large protests in 2015.
He created his own party, eventually settling on the name, Republique En Marche (“Republic On the Move”) in the process of his presidential run, and the first real test of the actual level of support for his solidly pro-EU, neoliberal ideas as opposed to his obvious personal charisma, will come after two rounds of parliamentary elections with the initial vote on June 11th and the second round on the 18th of the same month.
One problem Macron faces is in building his new party from scratch, taking almost 20,000 applications from the public in the initial search for candidates. On Thursday, the 11th of May, the new party announced the names of 428 of those chosen around the country, meaning they will need 148 more names to ensure they have a full slate before the first round of voting for the legislative assembly.
As reported by the UK Guardian, “True to the president-elect’s campaign pledge to “renew” the country’s political class, 52% of the 214 men and 214 women chosen to stand for parliamentary seats are from civil society, The youngest is 24 and the oldest is 72.”
France has a somewhat odd semi-Presidential system, in which the chief executive must pick a Prime Minister supported by a parliamentary majority, a choice that sometimes has the effect of putting these two figures at odds, usually to the detriment of the former. As explained by Politico, “This spells trouble when voters choose a parliament in opposition to the president. It reduces the head of state to a figurehead, akin to northern European monarchs or ceremonial presidents such as those of Germany or Italy.”
Although Macron has never held elected office, just like his former boss Hollande, and almost every major figure in contemporary French politics (and perhaps more importantly, in the upper levels of the bureaucracy), the President-elect studied at the Ecole National d’Administration, a prestigious university that is even more influential in terms of French politics than Ivy league schools like Harvard are in the US.
The fraught presidential election also saw the rise of other outsider candidates. Jean-Luc Melanchon, who had previously held elected office, first with the Socialists and then as part of the Left Front coalition, also started his own party, France Insoumise (France Unbowed), which drew support from some parties on the left including the French Communists and became increasingly popular with younger voters as the election approached.
Melanchon eventually placed a close fourth in the first round of voting that put Le Pen and Macron in the run-off, and he plans to run for a parliamentary seat in the center of the southern city of Marseille in June. Even though his finish in the first round of presidential voting wasn’t the result he and many on the left had hoped for, just a couple of months before he and his movement had been dismissed as also rans in the press.
With the Socialist Party looking like it’s going to be the big loser in the near term, recently polling at just 8% in terms of the upcoming parliamentary vote, Melanchon and his party are looking to build on their moderate success and left wing critique of the EU project and austerity politics that Le Pen and her followers attack from a different angle. How effectively they can carry forward the mantle of the left will also be decided by the parliamentary elections, and a recent rupture with the Communists may play a role in diminishing France Insoumise’s chances of winning seats.
A set back for right wing ‘populism’?
Although she failed to meet her goal of getting 40% in the second round of the presidential vote, Le Pen managed to easily double her party’s previous best showing in a presidential run-off in 2002 when her father, a cartoonish racist and anti-Semite, took a little over 17% of the vote against former President Jacques Chirac.
In terms of the Front National, which is apparently mulling a name change,and currently holds just two seats in the 577 seat legislative body, some experts believe it could take as many as 60 in the upcoming vote, further legitimizing it a serious force in French political life.
While Le Pen’s future and that of her party remains up the air, it can’t be denied that their anti-immigrant and anti-EU ideas have become more mainstream, a process that seems to be accelerating across the Eurozone, especially with the backdrop of forced austerity and the current refugee crisis.
As reported by Zack Beauchamp the day after the election, “What’s more, you saw the French center-right… using hostile, FN-style rhetoric about immigrants during the first round. Though Le Pen’s supporters have to be disappointed, this election is proof positive that their ideas have more purchase in France than ever before.”
For their part, although their presidential candidate was wiped out in the first round of presidential voting, the center right Republicans can’t be counted out in the parliamentary vote. Fearing defections to Macron’s new party on one hand and the FN on the other, Francois Baroin, a former budget minister in charge of the campaign, has stated that any candidate who approaches either, a common occurrence in tight races, will be expelled from the party. If the Republicans do well, it will be interesting to see if they continue their rightward drift into FN territory or try to work with the new president.
One other thing that should be understood about the Front National and Le Pen in particular is that the French right, even its fringes, champions ideas very different from those we find on the right in North America. The party is a defender of the French welfare state but wants to reserve its protections for the traditional polity. Under the current leadership it’s also become strong on women’s rights and has been embraced by some in the country’s LGBTQ community. In France, a strong welfare state and secularism are part of a long tradition that is conservative in terms of the country’s somewhat unique public life.
Coming on the heels of the loss of the Austrian Freedom Party in late 2016 and Geert Wilders Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands shortly thereafter, it appears that the wave of so-called rightwing populism, really more of a return to the jingoism and xenophobia of the past, is stalled. It is far too early to celebrate this however, especially when one considers how ideas promoted by these parties which would have been dismissed as too radical just a decade ago are now making their way into the platforms of mainstream conservative parties throughout Europe and the world.