The mainstream media’s narrative: Emmanuel Macron has captured the politics of hope and swept aside far-right populism. But is the republic really on the move, or are they just going along with it?
If you had googled “En Marche” 15 months ago not much would have come up.
It was little more than a gleam in the eye of Emmanuel Macron, then economy minister in Socialist Manuel Valls’ cabinet.
This was not a great time to be a socialist.
The party’s president François Hollande had become one of France’s least popular presidents ever.
His plans for the economy and employment drove people to the streets in protest and when terrorism flared in early 2015 he seemed unprepared and out of his element.
The far-right Front National, once a figure of national scorn, was gaining ground by appealing to those same French worries over terrorism and immigration.
Speaking plainly of people’s fears for losing their country and openly questioning Islam’s place in it, FN’s Marine Le Pen was emerging as a real contender in the presidential elections. The populist wave was about to crash on the fifth republic.
Out of the shadows stepped Macron.
Sophie Pornschlegel, project manager at Das Progressive Zentrum in Berlin.
Already an independent though still in government, Macron founded En Marche! as a grassroots movement in April 2016.
Everyone could see he was thinking of the presidency.
Hollande, Macron’s boss, threatened him with the sack if he didn’t “follow the rules”.
Macron eventually responded with “You can’t fire me, I quit!” and resigned from government in August 2016 to prepare his presidential bid.
Less than a year later Emmanuel Macron is president of France.
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) May 7, 2017
His newly-minted party La République En Marche! is the biggest political party in France, won a landslide in yesterday’s second round of parliamentary elections.
With nearly all votes counted Macron’s freshly formed party, alongside its MoDem allies, won more than 300 seats in the 577-seat National Assembly.
However, the winning margin is lower than some expected, with turnout down from 2012.
By embracing the politics of hope and calling out the far-right for what it is, a young centrist has captured the nation’s heart.
Or at least that’s the easy narrative.
A closer look at Macron’s path to the Palace Elysee shows a man as much blessed by the disarray of his rivals and an election system that favours momentum as his own winning qualities.
A republic on the move?
Macron’s rise is certainly unprecedented in recent French history.
Joseph Downing, Marie-Curie fellow at CNRS Marseilles.
“It’s something that’s not been spoken of as significant as it really is, because Macron is a bit of a centrist.” says Dr. Joseph Downing, Marie Curie fellow at CNRS, an academic research centre in Marseille.
The fact that he’s really come from a standing start to set up his own movement, to take the presidency and then go on, it seems, to have a landslide victory in the parliamentaries as well: for France this is massive. This has never happened before like this.
The four contenders
To really understand Macron’s rise, and why his successful gamble was so unprecedented, you first have to look at the political environment he emerged from.
After Hollande announced he would not seek re-election, the Parti socialiste fielded former education minister Benoît Hamon. He tried to shake his party out of its stupor with a series of measures more radical than it was used to, including universal basic income and a tax on job-killing automation, but it was not enough to convince voters they could get anything done. Benoît Hamon came in fifth in the first round of presidential elections with just over six percent of the vote.
On the far-left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, or France unbowed. Mélenchon came out of nowhere, galvanising the disaffected and working poor on a radical platform of wealth redistribution, but his campaign was too far to the left for most of the country to stomach. Jean-Luc Mélenchon came in fourth with 19.5 percent.
On the center-right, the UMP party who had ruled under Nicolas Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012 had rebranded as Les Républicains and elected François Fillon as their presidential candidate. The party had rebranded partially to distance itself from Sarkozy’s corruption, but both frontrunners for the nomination were themselves mired in it. There was just too much corruption in the party. François Fillon placed 3rd with barely over 20 percent.
And then there was Front National, the only other party to reach the second round (French elections run on a two-stage system wherein if no party takes 25 percent the top two parties go into a runoff against each other).
The very embodiment of liberal Europe’s fears of far-right populism, FN’s leader Marine Le Pen had done a tremendous job of shedding the outright racism of her father, founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
She found a way to appeal to voters with a “tell it like it is” attitude towards immigration, integration and terrorism, no doubt boosted by the awful scenes at Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and in Nice.
Marine Le Pen received over 21 percent of the vote, putting her in second place and ensuring her way to the next round and a shot at the presidency.
It’s harder to pin down Front National’s eventual failure to claim power than it is with the other three.
Before we go further, however, it is important to note that each party mentioned above represented at least one vice too unpalatable for a wide section of voters, be it corruption, economic protectionism, nationalism or legislative paralysis.
Saying Macron was the least bad of a bad bunch might be too reductive, “bad” too subjective, but by dodging all save the most tepid labels (inexperienced, too close to bankers) Macron managed to avoid being ruled out by any section of the electorate wide enough to disqualify him.
The rise and fall
So why did Front National’s momentum fade in the second round of presidential elections?
Again, the easy narrative is that after an electric campaign and masterful dominance of the pre-election debates, Macron tore off Le Pen’s genteel mask of respectability and showed her for the dangerous nationalist she was.
But CNSR’s Downing thinks part of Macron’s success is that while Front National certainly have a base, they never had the potential for growth they and the media thought.
The people that vote for extreme parties, by the very nature of them being extreme voters, they do turn up. They go out and vote, and so if there is a large amount of voter apathy, it’s kind of skewed. They look like they’re getting a greater proportion of votes because no-one else has turned up, rather than them actually themselves being a massive constituency.
Put another way, ideological support for Front National, a party that emphasised the urgent need for action, is such that supporters are much more likely to turn out than those of other parties, which means the first round results represented a purer measure of how much support the party had nationally.
The results between presidential rounds bear this out somewhat: between the two votes, Front National increased their share of the total vote from 21 percent to 33 percent, roughly an extra 3m votes. Emmanuel Macron’s share went from 24 percent to 66 percent, or around 12m votes.
While Front National gained more votes in a two-party showdown than in the open market, Marine Le Pen was too unpalatable to the majority of those who had first supported other parties.
In the first round of parliamentary elections, with voters once again free to choose from a much larger stable, Front National received just 13 percent of the vote while La République En Marche! increased their share to 28 percent.
You don’t protest twice
Sophie Pornschlegel, a French/German policy analyst and project manager at think-tank Das Progressive Zentrum in Berlin, thinks Front National may also have suffered, and Macron benefitted, from two symptoms of there being not one vote but four. The first symptom is in the nature of the protest vote.
I think around ten percent of Marine Le Pen voters are real extreme-right voters, but the rest is more of a protest vote, and they already protested during the presidential elections. They didn’t need to protest again, so they didn’t go to the legislative elections.
The second factor Pornschlegel sees contributing to Macron’s success is a confluence of the structure of french elections encouraging voter apathy and the population’s desire for an efficient government.
““You had a high turnout for presidential elections, because France is a presidential system where the president has many powers and is seen as the most important figure in politics. But then a month later you have to go and vote again twice. So you have to go to the polls four times in one year. And to be fair, people just get fed up.”
This effect could have worked in Macron’s favour, Pornschlegel says, by giving even his less enthusiastic supporters an added incentive to vote in the parliamentaries: making sure he had a majority in parliament “so he can rule for the next five years instead of having some kind of chaotic government” that can’t effectively implement an agenda.
Because Macron won the presidential elections, people voted for him in the parliament to make sure there was a unity of government.
Though Downing says it can be very hard to tell what voters are really thinking – whether they are voting on an issue, a personality, or for a unity of government – there is one commonly held sentiment that unites a majority of voters, that things are just stuck.
“There’s a lack of dynamism on pretty much every level of society, whether it’s the job market, economic growth, people’s opportunities, any kind of change or bureaucratic reform; even how long it takes to start a business. People look around and see everything’s so slow. And it could well be that they see this as a way of breaking that deadlock. If he came in (as president) and didn’t then get control of the parliament, then he really couldn’t have done anything.”
Whereas now, if he does win a landslide in these elections, he really does have the opportunity to take up some of the more challenging elements of reform he promised as a presidential candidate.