Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1342, (27 April - 3 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The French elections

There were few surprises in Sunday’s first round of the French presidential elections, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

This time the polls were right, and the expected earthquake did occur. The surprise was that there was no surprise.

Emmanuel Macron emerged as a clear winner in the first round of the French presidential elections, albeit with a less than impressive score, though also as the first centrist to cross the threshold of 20 per cent of the vote since 1981. Marine Le Pen came second in Sunday’s vote, and the two will face each other in the second round of the elections in May.

François Fillon, as predicted by the polls, failed in his come-back attempt. Jean-Luc Mélenchon made an unexpectedly strong showing, destroying the Socialist Party Benoit Hamon’s campaign and decisively weakening the party itself. Hamon’s crushing defeat was expected, but it was even worse than feared. Nevertheless, Mélenchon did not hide his disappointment: over the last 15 days Mélenchon and the pundits thought he might be able to reach the second round of the elections, a goal which proved to be unrealistic.

This result means that the two political parties that have ruled France for most of the last 59 years (the exception being the presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s) were routed. Together, they did not manage to get 27 per cent of the vote. This was a staggering result. Moreover, the main anti-system candidates (Le Pen and Mélenchon) together scored more than 41 per cent of the vote.

Fillon and Hamon elegantly acknowledged their defeat and said they would vote for Macron on the second round, now the clear favourite, as Le Pen’s National Front is very poor at building coalitions. But surprises happen in France, and the greatest unknown is the behaviour of Mélenchon’s voters. Although they are on the left, some could be tempted by Le Pen’s anti-European stance. Moreover, her economic and social programme has a lot in common with Mélenchon’s. However, even so, and all things considered, I think Macron will win.

The presidential race was structured by events that came together to help Macron in his rise to the top. The main event was current President François Hollande’s decision not to seek a second term in office. One thoughtful insider told me that the impact of this decision was widely underestimated. Everyone in France interpreted Hollande’s decision to mean that the battle for the presidency was already lost, and that it had been won by the right.

This assessment had a huge impact on the primary elections held to select candidates for the Republicans and Socialist Party nominations. Right-wing voters, thinking that the battle was already settled, opted for a candidate who was not a centrist as they thought they would not have to court the favour of undecided voters. Socialist voters made the same miscalculation: as the battle was already lost, trying to broaden their camp’s appeal would be pointless, and as a result they opted for a hard-left candidate, Benoit Hamon.

The decisions created a very large space for any centrist candidate to fill. Former presidential elections candidate François Bayrou, sensing this space was not large enough for two, decided to support Macron and not to run himself.

I have already expressed my doubts about Fillon’s programme in this newspaper. It seemed to be too conservative on cultural issues and too liberal on economic ones for the French public as I understand it. He was already losing ground when he was decisively hurt by a financial scandal earlier this year. Not only was a man who had claimed to be the most honest politician of his generation now suspected of personal enrichment, but he also seemed to be unable to understand his wrong-doing.

Nevertheless, the race was tight, and things were not clear cut. Between the front runner and the fourth in the order of the results the difference is only five per cent of the vote. Until 18 April, a different result seemed possible, and many pundits believed Fillon would make a come-back. True, right-wing voters, especially elderly people, were angry with him, but, or so went the reasoning, they so wanted a victory for the right that they would vote for him, even if only grudgingly. Other pundits, most notably the influential commentator Roland Cayrol, doubted that this would happen. “We have been waiting for a switch for months, and it simply has not come,” he said. It turned out that these other pundits were right.

Many pundits expected a collapse in Macron’s presidential bid. He was not convincing, they claimed, and he was simply the lesser evil. Voters who were telling the pollsters they would vote for him added that they were not absolutely sure and that they might change their minds. However, an insider from another team told me 15 days ago that Macron would win. “He blundered many times last month but did not lose any ground and instead improved his score,” he said. “If he has not collapsed after this series of blunders, he never will.” This insider turned out to be right.

Both Macron and Mélenchon benefited from the left-wing fear of a second round that would see Le Pen opposing Fillon. They thus decided not to waste their votes on “losers”, with the main victim being Hamon, who lost some nine per cent of his support in just a few weeks. Hamon himself was partly responsible for this, as he led a lacklustre campaign. But the task was also daunting: he was too right-wing for the left of the left, and too left-wing for many Socialist Party voters. He did not have the political talents of Mélenchon.

I have yet to understand how Le Pen could have managed to lose six per cent of her support over the last month. Pundits say the financial scandal that has targeted the National Front hurt her, as she could no longer claim to have clean hands. I am not sure that this is the correct explanation, however. Perhaps Mélenchon succeeded in attracting some of her potential voters, as their economic and social programmes have some features in common.

Whatever the case may be, we are now confronted with a clear choice, with a son of the system being placed in competition with someone who wants to change it, a pro-European against a Eurosceptic, a liberal versus a statist, a supporter of globalisation versus a protectionist, a multiculturalist versus a xenophobic nationalist, a supporter of a firm stand against Russian president Vladimir Putin against a friend of his, and so on.

The only feature they have in common is that neither of them belong to the parties that used to rule France, though it is also by no means sure that either of them will be able to gain a clear majority in the legislative elections that will be held in June.

Macron is the clear favourite for the presidency. But in France surprises can happen.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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