On May 7, France came through, saying a decisive “no” to racism, xenophobia and fascism, when it elected Emmanuel Macron as president with around 66 per cent of the vote. The world, and especially Europe, heaved a collective sigh of relief, praising the country where human rights were born for rising admirably to the occasion and blocking the far right National Front’s ascension. In France, the reaction was more muted, one of tired relief at having stemmed the tide of nationalism, at least temporarily, mixed with a “now what” attitude.
However, a third of French voters remained totally apathetic to the results of an election they either abstained from (12 million) or rejected by blank/spoiled ballot papers (4 million). In the past weeks, at demonstrations and on social media, the dilemma of having to choose between Macron and Marine Le Pen had been repeatedly compared to being obliged to choose between “the plague and cholera”. The disenchantment that characterises the popular mood is palpable. Public disillusionment with self-serving politicians on the left and right, all drawn from the elite, and acting to further their vested interests, is widespread. This anti-establishment backlash already resulted in the rejection of the Socialist Party and the right-wing Republicans, with neither making it to the run-off.
France’s political landscape has been changed dramatically by this election that has sounded the death knell of the Socialist Party — now on the verge of implosion as one by one, its prominent members are leaving. The Republicans, though still on their feet, have a lot of work ahead to win back the people’s confidence. The far-right (National Front) and the far-left (Rebellious France) with their radical positions, anti-globalisation and anti-Europe stance have emerged as strong forces.
This is the France the centrist Macron, the future president, has inherited: A sharply-divided country where economic, social and cultural fissures run deep. Far from the landslide victory that many newspaper headlines credited him with, Macron’s victory is not as comfortable as it first appears. Out of France’s 47 million registered voters, only 44 per cent voted for him, with 56 per cent having either voted for his rival (22 per cent) or abstaining/voting blank (34 per cent). A post-election poll for France Television revealed that 43 per cent of those who voted for Macron did so only to block Le Pen, with a mere 16 per cent supporting his programme, and a paltry 8 per cent, his personality. Thirty-three per cent voted for him for the political renewal he represents.
Nonetheless, 39 year-old Macron, who had never fought an election prior to this one, and whose one-year-old party, En Marche (On the Move), does not have a single seat in parliament, is poised to take over as president of the world’s fifth largest economy. If Macron is to exploit the full potential of the French presidency to fulfil his manifesto promises, including pro-business labour reforms, trimming public expenses and reducing unemployment, his party needs to forge a parliamentary majority in next month’s legislative elections. This is going to be his immediate challenge. Sixty-one per cent of those polled in the above-mentioned survey declared they were averse to giving him an absolute majority. Macron has declared his party would contest every seat. En Marche would have to strike the right balance in its choice of candidates — fresh blood, yet not totally inexperienced, while avoiding recycling candidates who migrated from other parties and are too ideologically marked.
The second challenge would be to heal deep divisions and dispel doubts about the future. Macron’s win represents a vote for globalisation, secularism, an open Europe with the free movement of goods and people, LGBT rights, immigration and the right to political asylum. However, Le Pen was able to garner approximately 11 million votes with her xenophobic, anti-immigration, closed borders, anti-Europe vitriol: One in three French voters who actually voted chose Le Pen. She was able to more than double her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, score in 2002, by presenting a dark, foreboding view of France and preying on people’s fears and anxieties.
In his victory speech, Macron made a significant promise to the French when he said that he would “restore optimism to France”. If indeed the future president succeeds in making France upbeat again, it not only implies that he would have righted the economy but that he would also have helped build a bulwark against the extreme ideologies that thrive on pessimism. Hopefully, this is one promise he will keep.