Jocelyn Evans is professor of politics at the University of Leeds.
The result of Sunday night’s first round in the French presidential election has brought into sharp relief the social and political lines that divide the country. As the polls predicted, four candidates won the lion’s share of the vote. Only four percentage points divided the winner, centrist Emmanuel Macron, from the fourth-place Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of three radical-left candidates. The radical-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen and conservative François Fillon took second and third, respectively.
Only the top two candidates can progress to the second round, and in picking Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen, the French electorate have thrown out the political establishment, and picked two outsiders committed to, in Mr. Macron’s words, “revolution.” How they propose to do this differs fundamentally. Indeed, their respective visions of France have almost nothing in common and, on May 7, when the run-off ballot is held, very few voters will find themselves unable to decide between the two.
The results of the first round illustrate just how great this need for renewal is seen to be for French voters. In the absence of the incumbent President, François Hollande, whose dreadful opinion poll ratings convinced him not to stand for re-election, the Socialist Party’s candidate, Benoît Hamon, was unable to mobilize any meaningful support beyond his own movement’s core, and managed a mere 6.3 per cent of the vote – a collapse of a governing party approaching the scale of the Canadian Progressive Conservative rout of 1993.
Similarly, Mr. Fillon, the Republican candidate who would have been presumed the likely victor as the main opposition to the Socialists, slumped in the polls due to a series of financial scandals involving allegations of illicit payments to his wife and children. Political failure, both in policy and propriety terms, has led to a countrywide rejection of politicians and of political parties: In a poll carried out one year before the election, almost nine in ten voters already agreed France was in decline, and more than 80 per cent said that democracy in France was not working.
In all other regards, the second round represents a clash of world views. Mr. Macron, as a former finance minister in the current Socialist government, has set out a vision of France as an entrepreneurial and competitive player in global markets, using its pivotal position in the European Union to prosper economically, and to pursue a social liberal project. On security, a key issue since the terrorist attacks in Nice and Paris, his position is one of supporting existing measures and structures. Immigration, another political pressure point, receives remarkably little coverage in his manifesto. On the other side, Ms. Le Pen has instead underlined France’s need to strengthen its borders to keep out not just those who would attack the country, but also those who are not ready to fit one concept of “Frenchness” – in language, religion, culture or way of life. On the economy, she focuses on national preference and supporting French producers against unfettered international competition.
Which version of renewal will French voters choose on May 7? In the aftermath of the first round, many of the other candidates immediately declared their support for Mr. Macron, in the traditional show of “front républicain” – support for any party that opposes the FN. From socialists to conservatives, all oppose the exclusionary, divisive views of Ms. Le Pen. Only the radical left refused to endorse Mr. Macron, not because of any closeness between the left and right wings, but because the left is fundamentally at odds with the pro-European liberalism he endorses. Many of these voters may abstain.
While “anyone but Le Pen” may strengthen Mr. Macron’s eventual victory on May 7, it requires him to navigate an uneasy course between his own program and a position that does not alienate supporters from other parties. In a country with relatively high levels of Euroskeptic support, too great an emphasis on his plans for a European project risks demobilizing crucial sections of the electorate. Similarly, plans to relax French employment law and business taxation to give companies greater incentive to base themselves in the country will encounter fierce resistance from unions if legislated, but may equally turn off potential support from the hard left over the next fortnight.
Mr. Macron’s presidential program looks to revive progress made to a greater or lesser extent by previous presidents on France’s place in the world, its prosperity and its European leadership. Ms. Le Pen’s program represents a path to an isolationism that, despite its frequent reference to the country’s lost “greatness”, has never characterized France’s outlook. In rejecting this impoverished vision of national identity, a Macron majority would at least give the opportunity for France to prosper once again, domestically and internationally.