You can almost hear the sighs of relief in Paris and other European capitals. At the time of writing, Emmanuel Macron’s lead in the French election campaign is gradually widening ahead of his second-round run-off against Marine Le Pen on 24 April. After a couple of polls gave the president a mere 51 per cent to 49 per cent lead over his far-right challenger as cost-of-living concerns once more rose up the agenda, more recent ones award him a double-digit advantage. The spectre of a President Le Pen appears to be receding.
Anyone who has lived through the Brexit vote in the UK or the 2016 US presidential election will be wary of complacency. Will enough left-wing voters, especially younger ones, turn out to push Macron across the line? In the first round of voting on 10 April, the president finished a distant third among those under 35, behind not just Le Pen but also the left-wing populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A shock Le Pen win – horrifying France’s allies, delighting Vladimir Putin and potentially auguring an existential crisis for the EU – cannot be ruled out.
Even if Macron wins, this election has been far too close for comfort. Recall that in the 2002 French presidential election, when Jean-Marie Le Pen narrowly made it into the second round and obtained 18 per cent of the vote, it caused an international scandal. Recall too that in 2017 his daughter Marine Le Pen’s 34 per cent against Macron was considered a new high-water mark for the European far right. She will almost certainly better that result this time. Relief at her taking “only” 40 per cent or 45 per cent in the final round will be a sign of just how fast the political landscape has changed.
Anti-system candidates of left and right collectively won fully 58 per cent of the vote in the first round. The two political families that long dominated French politics – Gaullists and Socialists – together took under 7 per cent. Turnout was one of the lowest in 20 years. Macron’s La République en Marche party has a weak foundation in municipal and regional politics and is built almost entirely around the personality and appeal of the president. Travelling across France in March to report on the state of the nation, the most common observation I encountered was that the country is profoundly and dangerously divided.
It is easy to forget that Macron was meant to be the president who would put French politics on to a different, better track. When he first ran for office in 2017, he sold his reform proposals as an antidote to disillusion and extremism, calling them “essential to prevent the National Front from becoming stronger in five years”. Here we are, five years on, and Le Pen’s party (now renamed the National Rally) is clearly stronger than it was then.
The president bears his share of responsibility. Yes, Macron’s economic reforms have delivered results. France’s unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest level in 13 years. A new study by the Institut des Politiques Publiques think tank finds that almost every percentile of the income spectrum has benefited from the fiscal approach of the past five years. Plenty of the president’s contentious policies – such as the pledge to raise the pension age from 62 to 65 – can be reconciled with the goal of a social market economy. A recent anti-Islamism law on religious “separatism” is more nuanced than some of its critics allow. Yet Macron and his allies have accompanied these policies with an unhelpfully abrasive and haughty style of leadership.
Individual instances of tin-eared behaviour have stuck: the president telling an unemployed man he just had to “cross the street” to find a job; his responding to the gilets jaunes cost-of-living protests from the Elysée’s ostentatiously gilded Salon Doré; ministers adopting far-right talking points such as the conspiracist notion of an “Islamo-leftist” alliance against French secularism. While a big cut to France’s wealth tax was also accompanied by a new property tax and a reduction in payroll charges that benefited lower earners, it was not sold as part of that wider package and thus became a totemic symbol of Macron as “the president of the rich”. A leader who promised to fuse elements of France’s left and right and renew its politics has instead presided over growing polarisation.
In an unusual moment of contrition, Macron conceded this in a recent interview with the TV channel TF1: “I think that with some of my comments I hurt people. And I think you can get things done without hurting people.”
The alarming state of France’s politics also has much deeper causes. Macron and his lofty presidency are in many ways a function of the Fifth Republic’s constitutional architecture: a Gaullist construction concentrating huge power and grandeur in that quasi-monarchical office and limiting rival centres of authority. My trip across France left me struck most of all by the obvious urgency of overhauling this anachronistically rigid, top-down order.
If the polls are right and Macron is heading for a second term, this then needs to be his task. First: establish a new, more humble and consultative style of leadership with a greater emphasis on sustaining broad coalitions of support for his policies. Second: reform the structures of the Fifth Republic to introduce much greater decentralisation and constitutional pluralism, reflecting the new realities and challenges facing French society. The alternative? To shrug and accept that even if French liberal democracy survives this brush with its own mortality, it may not be so lucky next time.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder