Fifteen years ago, when the racist, xenophobic Jean-Marie Le Pen made it past a splintered and disheartened left into the second round of the French presidential election, the near-universal reaction in the country was shock and horror. This year, when his daughter did the same, the reaction was more of a resigned shrug. Marine Le Pen had actually led in the polls for much of the past few years, and the result was expected. Indeed, for many observers, the principal reaction to the first round of the election has been a massive sigh of relief that “the center has held,” although for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither of the two major parties (the Socialists and the Republicans) have a second-round candidate. Now, centrist Emmanuel Macron, who briefly served as economics minister for Socialist President François Hollande, is overwhelmingly favored to win in the second round on May 7. The blood-dimmed tide, it seems, will not be loosed.
But make no mistake. For the left there is not that much to applaud in the first-round election results. Le Pen’s first-round success confirms that the National Front will remain an important force in French politics for the foreseeable future, and that its Islamophobic, anti-Europe positions will continue to exert a gravitational pull on politicians from more respectable parties (as was the case, notably, with former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and François Fillon, the scandal-tainted losing candidate of the Republicans this time around). The fact that politicians from across the spectrum have endorsed Macron against Marine Le Pen in the name of the the “republican front” that crushed her father in the second round in 2002 does not alter this dynamic.
Marine Le Pen has made some efforts to “de-demonize” the party, but also continues to send dog whistles to her father’s more rabid followers—recently asserting, for instance, that France bears no responsibility for the deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps by its wartime collaborationist government, and that Algeria benefitted from French colonization. You do not have to scratch the surface of the National Front’s leadership very hard to find barely-reconstructed neo-Nazis. Meanwhile, on Sunday, most left-wing voters deserted the innovative but uncharismatic Socialist Benoît Hamon for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a brash populist whose movement “La France Insoumise” (“Unsubmissive France”) contains elements of the old Communist Party; Mélenchon has held up Hugo Chavez as a role model and hedges on Vladimir Putin, echoing the Kremlin line on many issues. Some of Mélenchon’s proposals, such as a 100 percent marginal tax rate on all incomes over 400,000 euros, had an obvious visceral appeal to left-wing voters, but would have proved massively divisive and near-impossible to implement (when Hollande tried to introduce a 75 percent top rate after his election in 2012, the measure was shot down by the Constitutional Council).
And then there is the likely next president. Emmanuel Macron is what Americans would call a cultural liberal, who supports gay marriage and is willing to condemn his own country for its past imperialist ventures. But on economic matters he is much more of a technocrat and free-marketer (his resume includes the ultra-elite École Nationale d’Administration and the Rothschild Bank) who will do little to redress growing inequalities or guard against the effects of globalization. The presidential election will be followed in June by a parliamentary election, and while Macron has already gained the endorsement of leading Socialists (including former Prime Minister Manuel Valls), his economic positions will make it impossible for much of the left to support him. Much of the traditional Socialist base of teachers, civil servants, and union organizers frankly despises him. The result could well be a formal split in the Socialist Party created by François Mitterrand in 1971, with a centrist rump joining with Macron’s new En Marche movement and other centrists like François Bayrou to form some sort of new, Blairite “Third Way” party. Hamon’s miserable 6 percent showing (which more or less match Hollande’s miserable approval ratings) has already sounded a likely death knell for the Socialists, whose membership has fallen drastically over the past few years. But can its left-wing elements find common ground with Mélenchon, the Greens, and other, smaller left-wing parties? Can they form a substantial bloc that will support Macron on condition that he take seriously his professed admiration for Scandinavian social democracy? Nothing is less clear.
So what will the next few years hold? Assuming Macron is able to cobble together a parliamentary majority, he may well push ahead with attempts to loosen a range of economic regulations, notably the substantial protections French workers presently enjoy against layoffs, in order to promote more entrepreneurial dynamism. But there is no guarantee that he can succeed. When the conservative administration of President Jacques Chirac attempted to implement such measures in 1995, it was met with massive protests and strikes, as was the current Socialist government when it pushed through the “Loi Travail” last year. Chirac finally retreated, and his Prime Minister Alain Juppé resigned. The Hollande government succeeded in imposing its more modest slate of reforms, but at a political cost whose magnitude was confirmed by the Socialists’ dismal performance yesterday.
Macron is youthful and attractive, and makes a compelling personal contrast to the lumbering, long-serving “elephants” from the Socialists and the right-wing Republicans who have dominated French politics for many decades. Some observers think he may manage to blunt opposition to deregulation with ambitious worker-retraining programs and stimulus spending (which, in turn, will require a renegotiation with Germany of France’s place in the Eurozone), and gain support through sheer charisma. Perhaps. But French workers are nothing if not stubborn in defense of their social protections, and may quickly doom his efforts. And unlike Benoît Hamon, who offered a detailed and well thought-out program that included a basic income and a strong shift towards renewable energy, Macron campaigned with a much higher proportion of platitudes to specifics. He also has little administrative experience, and has never before held elected office. It is all too easy to imagine that within a year or two he will run out of ideas, his youthful appeal will look tattered and tarnished, and that he will follow the dismal example of President Hollande, whose approval ratings fell so far that he became the first president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic not to run for reelection after his first term. If France remains in a condition of political paralysis and economic stagnation, popular discontent will be all the more bitter because of the hopes that Macron raised.
Already in the first round of the election this year, more than 40 percent of French voters opted for populists on opposite extremes of the political spectrum, Le Pen or Mélenchon. It was not at all inconceivable that Mélenchon could have surged past Macron and won a place against Le Pen in the second round, which would have made a Le Pen victory a serious possibility. If Macron indeed follows Hollande’s path into despondency, then this possibility will continue to loom threateningly over the French political scene, turning more realistic with every passing month. If the French liberal-left cannot work with Macron, it will need to overcome deep divisions to present a plausible alternative while channeling the popular frustration that has already made a Le Pen, for the second time, the second-most popular politician in France. Mélenchon, while popular, does not fit the bill: he is as divisive as they come, and his positions on Europe and Russia make him anathema to a large proportion of the electorate. But is there anyone else on the horizon who might accomplish the task? The answer is not clear.
David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton. He is the author of five books, including the prize-winning The First Total War, and writes regularly for a number of journals and magazines.