Although the outcome was entirely predictable, by the time the decisive results were announced at 8pm on Sunday 24 April, the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron was still a historic event. This was the first time in two decades that a French president had won with a full and independent mandate without relying on partnerships with other political parties. The result is also notable for its record level of abstentions – the highest since 1969, with 28 per cent of voters staying at home. Another three million voters spoiled their ballots.
I watched the announcement of the result in a café in the working-class district of Pernety. The mood was mainly one of cynicism. There were some muted cheers and clinking of glasses when Macron’s victory, with 58.5 per cent of the vote, was announced. Much louder were the jeers when Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader of the Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National), appeared on the screen. “Now f*** off and retire,” shouted the man standing next to me at the bar. His mates all joined in with insults and laughter.
This was a flash of emotion in a presi-dential campaign that has been most notable for its lack of drama or surprise. In the days leading up to the elections, as the gap between Macron and Le Pen widened in the polls, there was a singularly muted atmosphere in Paris. On the afternoon of Saturday 23 April, the day before the final vote, I spoke to Valentin, a 27-year-old who runs a fashionable bakery in a recently gentrified part of the 14th arrondissement. A young and dynamic business owner, Valentin is exactly the kind of voter who was courted by Macron in the last election in 2017.
Valentin voted for Macron then. This time, he said, he wasn’t convinced. “I feel let down,” he told me. “I don’t think Macron has done anything to really help small businesses like this. He’s only interested in big money. And all my generation has ever known in politics is the same scenario. The far right talk about ‘the people’ and how they will look after them.” But then the far-right candidates do or say something that makes them seem like fascists, he said, “and suddenly everyone gets scared and votes for the safest candidate. And so nothing ever seems to change.”
Valentin volunteered that even at this late stage he didn’t know who would get his vote or if he would vote at all. “I can’t vote for Le Pen,” he said. “But it’s hard to support Macron.” We agreed that one of the key factors in this election would be abstentionism. Though support for Le Pen has surged since she first ran for president in 2012 and she has made concerted efforts towards so-called dédiabolisation – ridding her party of its demons – only a minority of the country backs her. Yet if enough disenchanted voters opt out of the electoral process altogether, Valentin said, there was potential for “a shock that no one really wants”.
The general mood of apathy was particularly noticeable during and after the televised debate between Macron and Le Pen on the evening of 20 April. Many cafés had put out extra tables and chairs, as if for an important football match. In my own quartier, most cafés were half-full at best; they emptied as the debate went round in circles for what felt like an interminable three hours, without either candidate landing anything like a lethal blow. The next day the press generally agreed that Macron had the edge over Le Pen, but not by much. In 2017 Le Pen had fallen apart during her debate with Macron, losing her temper and appearing vague on figures. This time she was careful with her words, sure of fact, but still on the back foot in the face of Macron’s sophistry. This didn’t guarantee a poll boost for him, however. One of Le Pen’s repeated slogans was that she was “the candidate of the people”. The “people” I spoke to the day after the debate – not necessarily Le Pen supporters – thought that Macron was slippery, arrogant and aloof.
In Le Monde, there was a report from a bar in Montreuil, a working-class, staunchly left-wing district just outside Paris and a stronghold of the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “[Le Pen’s] not very good,” said one Mélenchon supporter over beer and crisps, “but [Macron] is absolutely unbearable.”
This view matched opinions from various strands of the traditional left, from socialists to communists, which I have canvassed over the past month or so. All were gloomy about the absence of the left in this election. “The fact is that the left in France is asleep,” said Laurent Jamet, a 52-year-old activist and Communist Party member from Bagnolet, an impoverished area in north-eastern Paris. Jamet held a particular contempt for Anne Hidalgo, the notoriously high-handed mayor of Paris and a presidential candidate for the Socialist Party in the first round of elections.
“The problem is that, like most middle-class Socialists, she has no understanding of who the working class are and what their needs are,” said Jamet. “Sometimes I walk the rich areas of Paris, where people support Hidalgo, and I feel as if I am on another planet. I am not against gay politics, or any other kinds of freedom – I am for all freedoms. But real freedom also begins with money, basic needs, and class conflict. You can wish all of that stuff away but they are still here in France. More than ever.”
I had my own personal encounter with Hidalgo’s dismissiveness in March when I went to a private briefing she had called for the international press in Paris. The event was a fiasco. We were first told that she was running late before an embarrassed spokesperson finally explained that she wouldn’t be coming at all. No excuse was given. Nearly everyone stormed out in fury. In the end, Hidalgo scored 1.8 per cent in the first round.
The mainstream centre-right party, Les Républicains, did not fare much better in the first round. its candidate, Valérie Pécresse, secured only 4.8 per cent of the vote, an all-time low for the party, which ran an disorganised and disunited campaign. Now the party is arguing over whether to throw their hand in with Macron, which will create further splits and breakaway factions.
Macron’s victory did not pass off as smoothly as he liked. After his win was announced, there were demonstrations, some of them violent, across France. In the quartier of Les Halles in Paris, the police were heavy-handed in running battles with young people. It is unclear whether the demonstrators were of the far right or far left but they were anti-Macron, angry that their voices weren’t being heard.
The divisions in French society are bitter, and run deep. The battle lines of the past few years – between the well-heeled metropolitan middle classes and those who are economically excluded from the benefits of Macron’s “globalised” France – are still intact.
Macron himself is no doubt aware of this: his victory speech lacked the triumphalism of his win in 2017. Instead he called upon the abstentionists, the Le Pen supporters and his other political opponents to join him in creating a new sense of unity. But for the time being, France, as Macron knows all too well, is still a country in fragments.
There is of course a sense of relief among many in the country at Macron’s victory. But the anger and alienation that fuelled the rise of the far right and the disarray on the left has not been dispelled. Macron can only serve two terms as president: he’s faced his last election. Yet the real political challenges for France, with its increasingly splintered electorate, have only just begun.
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma