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French presidential elections 2022 Emmanuel Macron victory

The French presidential election: Macron’s strange victory [long read]

In this series of blog posts, the historians Michael C. Behrent and Emile Chabal have teamed up with award-winning French journalist, Marion Van Renterghem to offer an in-depth look at the stakes, issues, themes, and big ideas that underpin the 2022 French electoral cycle. In the second of their three-part series on this year’s French electoral cycle, the authors look back at the results of the presidential election. Read part one here.

After the Fall of France in 1940, historian Marc Bloch famously spoke of France’s “strange defeat” by Germany. Emmanuel Macron’s victory on 24 April might just as appropriately be called a “strange victory.”

On the one hand, Macron received 58.5% of the vote in the second round, beating the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who received 41.5%. By any reasonable democratic standard, this is a decisive margin of victory. Furthermore, Macron managed to break a cycle of single-term presidencies, becoming the first French president since 2002 to be reelected. This is a major achievement given the depth of anti-incumbency feeling in most Western democracies. 

On the other hand, France’s renewed endorsement of Macron was decidedly tepid. Le Pen significantly improved her score compared to last time: it went up by over 7% and 2.6 million votes. For a candidate who represents a party long considered beyond the democratic pale, this is an extraordinary accomplishment. 

Moreover, if one considers Macron’s victory, not in terms of votes cast, but of registered voters, his score falls to 38.5%. Voter turnout was 72%, which was lower than the second-round turnout in 2017 (74.5%) or 2012 (80%). By this criterion, there is truth to the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s claim that Macron is the most “poorly elected” French president since Pompidou in 1969. 

Macron therefore begins his second term with a clear mandate, a broad geographical base, and a wide range of support across the centre of the political spectrum. But there is plenty for him to worry about. His anticipated reforms—particularly his plan to raise the retirement age—will elicit a strong reaction from a disillusioned left. And a new union of left-wing parties alongside the persistent challenge of the extreme-right mean that the opposition to his policies is likely to be more structured than during his first term.  

Why do so many people dislike Macron?

Many commentators and journalists have remarked on the fact that Macron has provoked an unusually intense amount of personal animosityIn many respects, this is surprising. Except for Chirac’s reelection in 2002, Macron’s second-round percentages in 2017 and 2022 are higher than any other winning candidate since 1965. His government is premised on an inclusive strategy, drawing figures from the centre-right and centre-left. While Macron has been chided for his arrogance and his authoritarian conception of executive power, few have questioned his competence. Indeed, he retained impressively strong approval ratings throughout his first term.

So where is this perception of “Macronophobia” coming from?

“While Macron has been chided for his arrogance … few have quested his competence. … So where is this perception of ‘Macronophobia’ coming from?”

The answer lies in a unique combination of personality and context. Were it not for Macron’s unusual background and character, and the singular moment in which he burst onto the political stage, it is unlikely that he would have provoked such hostility.

To begin with, Macron suffers as much as he benefits from his destruction of traditional party politics. For decades, the left-right spectrum gave shape to political competition in France. But its obsolescence has made it possible to incur hostility from both sides simultaneously. As a result, the left can accuse Macron of being the “president of the rich,” while the right can denounce him as a progressive globalist or internationalist. 

Macron has also reactivated a new form of class politics, with all of its attendant emotions. Many French voters suspect Macron of looking down on them. This is the man who openly spoke of the difference between “people who succeed” and “people who are nothing.” 

These suspicions are given credence by Macron’s economic agenda. Although his economic policies often resemble the “third way” of social-democratic leaders such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, he is strongly identified with his prior career as an investment banker and his decision, as president, to eliminate France’s wealth tax. His decision to impose a carbon tax triggered the gilet jaune revolt, in which Macron was cast as the tool of high-income and less car reliant urbanites. Combined with the now almost complete conversion of Le Pen into the candidate of France’s working-classes—polls suggest about 66% of workers voted for her this year—Macron has found himself firmly on one side of France’s polarized class politics. 

Yet these structural factors are only part of the explanation for Macronophobia. To plumb its depths, one must consider the phenomenon’s political-psychological underpinnings. A key element of the antipathy to Macron can be illuminated by a theme explored in Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes’s recent book The Light that Failed, which examines populist politics, particularly in Eastern Europe. 

Krastev and Holmes argue that support for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice Party is motivated by resentment at being compelled, for decades, to imitate foreign models—specifically, the liberal capitalist model championed by the United States and western Europe. The origins of populism, they maintain, lie “in the humiliations associated with the uphill struggle to become, at best, an inferior copy of a superior model.”

A very similar dynamic exists between Macron and many French people. Macron is superior to his peers. He is intelligent, articulate, and good-looking. He was raised in a well-off family, yet still managed to strike off on his own. He was admitted into a grande école and secured financial independence by working as an investment banker. He achieved all this at a young age—and then became France’s youngest president, at age 39. 

“Anti-Macron feeling … results both from the political structures in which he operates and the sense that he expects people to copy a model that has worked for him.”

He implicitly encouraged the French to follow in his footsteps. As economics minister, he famously scolded a t-shirt wearing protestor, who happened to be unemployed, that “the best way to buy yourself a suit is to work.” Early in his first term, he appealed to the French to become a “start-up” nation. More generally, his political programme has consisted in a series of economic reforms aimed at liberalizing the French economy and proving that France can “win” at globalization.

Anti-Macron feeling, then, results both from the political structures in which he operates and the sense that he expects people to copy a model that has worked for him, even if the latter is unattainable to those who lack his qualities (and luck). He represents meritocracy’s dark side: in giving everyone the chance to succeed, it makes failure worse, because it seems personal and deserved.

Seen this way, the gilets jaunes crisis was not simply a revolt against a carbon tax, but a reaction to the holier-than-thou superiority implicit in taxing a deprecated form of transportation—the automobile—upon which many people depend. The resentment arising from the imperative of imitating, if not Macron personally, at least the model he is tied to, dovetails with the country’s new iteration of class politics.

Macron’s road to parliamentary dominance

Since 2002, legislative elections in France have been scheduled immediately after presidential elections, so that voters have an opportunity, which they have generally exercised, to give the president a majority in parliament. This is what happened in 2017, when Macron managed to translate his presidential victory into a parliamentary victory (32% for candidates aligned with the president on the first round, 49% on the second). 

This feat was all the more impressive given that Macron created his party out of thin air, specifically to provide him with a parliamentary majority. Members of the traditional centre-right party, Les Républicains—at least those who did not defect to Macron—were the main opposition party, with the far-left La France Insoumise (LFI) and the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) coming in well behind. 

The most likely outcome of the 12 and 19 June legislative elections is that Macron’s party—now re-baptised Renaissance—will remain the dominant force in parliament. Macron himself did relatively well in a very large number of constituencies, which provides a strong base for a parliamentary majority. 

“[Macron] represents meritocracy’s dark side: in giving everyone the chance to succeed, it makes failure worse.”

The big question, however, is who—or what—will be his main opposition. After the disastrous performance of the centre-right presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse, Les Républicains have struggled to muster up much momentum, and they remain deeply divided between those who are willing to work with Macron and those who are not. With their electorate torn between the centrism of Renaissance and the far-right politics of Éric Zemmour’s party, Reconquête, we can expect them to do poorly.

This would leave only the left, which, in contrast, has elicited a sudden rush of enthusiasm provoked by an unexpected electoral alliance between all the main parties of the left. The Nouvelle union populaire, écologique et solidaire—or NUPES—has brought together for the first time in decades the moderate Parti socialiste (PS) and the Greens (officially known as Europe-Écologie-Les Verts, or EELV), alongside LFI and the French Communist Party (PCF). 

The agreement means that only one NUPES candidate will stand in each constituency, thereby concentrating the left vote. It is a strategy that has significant electoral potential, although its exact strength is difficult to estimate. If current polling is to be believed, NUPES could gain between 100-150 seats. This would be far too few to gain a majority, but it would be a major headache for Macron. 

As for the RN, its prospects are more mixed. France’s first-past-the-post electoral system gives it few prospects, though the fact that Le Pen won a majority in 30 out of 101 departments in the presidential election’s second round suggests her party should get more seats than before. If the RN succeeds in getting more than 15 seats, it can form a parliamentary group. This would, at least, be a first step in transforming itself into a parliamentary force. 

In short, while the parliamentary mathematics remain heavily tilted in Macron’s favour, the upcoming legislative elections have been made much more unpredictable by the left’s ability to put aside its differences and campaign on a united platform.

The exhaustion of the Fifth Republic

One of Mélenchon’s rallying cries during the presidential campaign—and one now taken up by the new NUPES alliance—was his call for a “Sixth Republic.” The implication was that the institutions of the Fifth Republic have become so dysfunctional as to be no longer fit for purpose. This is almost certainly an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless clear that they are undergoing something of a stress-test in the current electoral cycle. 

A major issue is the electoral system. In many ways, the first round of the presidential election is one of France’s best political barometers, as voters choose from a wide field of candidates, knowing that they almost certainly will not have to make a final decision until the second round. Yet a wide discrepancy exists between presidential first-round results and the relative power and influence of these political forces in democratic decision-making. 

The discrepancy between first-round results and the make-up of the French National Assembly is particularly striking. Despite winning nearly 20% of the first-round vote in 2017, LFI managed to secure only seventeen députés. Similarly, despite winning 21.3% of the first-round vote—and 34% in the second round—the RN wound up with a paltry six députés. The fact that parties with real democratic legitimacy do not play a robust role in parliament explains, in part, why street protests like the gilets jaunes or frequent waves of strike action are so quick to take hold.

“[The] divergence between national and local politics has intensified the feeling of disconnection between those at the top and bottom.”

At the same time, while the Fifth Republic was always intended to be a presidential system, it seems to be becoming even more so. Macron’s preference for “vertical” decision-making, and the fact that parliamentary elections immediately follow presidential elections means that there is little in the way of contested politics. The National Assembly is seen to be a mere rubber-stamping mechanism for the president. This tendency has only been exacerbated by the emergence of parties-for-candidates, which have little independent structure or purpose beyond supporting a presidential candidate. While voters were more forgiving of “vertical” politics when the Fifth Republic was established in the late 1950s, they find it much harder today to tolerate what is regarded as an overtly authoritarian approach to governing. 

These multiple problems are evident in the radical detachment between national and local politics. None of the four top candidates in the 2022 presidential elections can claim any real local power base. The RN and Reconquête have virtually no representation at the local level; LFI has done a little better, while Macron’s party dominates parliament but holds no French regions and few municipalities. Instead, local politics remains dominated by the main centre-right and centre-left parties, both of whose candidates were thoroughly beaten in the presidential election.

This divergence between national and local politics has intensified the feeling of disconnection between those at the top and bottom. While no major Western democracy has solved the problem of how to create a representative system that can capture the complexity of contemporary societies, the French Fifth Republic no longer seems able to cope with the political processes to which it gave birth. 

The politics of divisive centrism

In our first instalment in this blog series, we said that this presidential election cycle was unusual in that the result was a foregone conclusion. There was a moment when it looked as if an upset might be on the cards—especially with Mélenchon’s strong performance, which came within a hair’s breadth of consigning Le Pen to the first round—but our analysis turned out to be correct. This was a predictable election that gave a predictable result. 

“The paradox of Macron’s politics is that, by … transcending the left-right divide … he has made French politics more unstable rather than less.”

And yet there is a strong sense that France is, more than after any other recent presidential election, on edge. This may simply be a consequence of economic anxiety, international uncertainty, and distrust stemming from the pandemic. But it may also suggest a more fundamental dislocation of political and social life. The paradox of Macron’s politics is that, by achieving his goal of transcending the left-right divide and creating a broad centrist movement, he has made French politics more unstable rather than less. His presidency has created more opportunities for extremist contestation, and it has entrenched many citizens’ feelings of being alienated from the political elite. 

This should serve as a warning. After all, even modern France’s greatest president, Charles de Gaulle, faced sustained opposition by the end of his reign, which culminated in the nationwide protests of May 1968. Could Macron’s second term presage something similar?

Featured image by Jacques Paquier via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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