To Save la République, Macron Can't Ignore the LeftRoundup
tags: far right, French history, Emmanuel Macron, Marine LePen
Moshik Temkin is a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His books include The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2011) and Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership in History (forthcoming).
This month’s French presidential election is giving off a strong sense of déjà vu. As in 2017 and 2002, a center-right presidential candidate (this time, current president Emmanuel Macron) faces off in the second round against a far-right candidate (Marine Le Pen) in a showdown widely seen as a broader referendum on republicanism, laicité, and democracy.
Under France’s electoral system, a candidate must gain more than 50 percent of the overall vote to win the election, either in a first round against multiple candidates or, if needed (and it is usually needed), in a second-round runoff between the two top candidates of the first round. This means that, on the one hand, voters are making their choices based on strategic as much as ideological calculations (what the French have come to call “le vote utile”), but on the other hand, France thankfully avoids such outcomes such as Donald Trump becoming president while losing the popular vote and having an approval rating of only roughly 40 percent on the day of his victory. For better or worse, every French president takes, or retakes, office having gained the votes of more than half the electorate, avoiding the sort of legitimacy problems that afflict U.S. or British democracy, for example.
Five years ago, then 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, a former minister in the government of Socialist president François Hollande, emerged, deus ex machina fashion, to gather enough votes from disaffected supporters of the imploding Socialist Party and the traditional center-right to propel himself into the second round and soundly defeat Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally), the newly rebranded version of the far-right party originally led by her estranged father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Twenty years ago, in 2002, it was that father, more straightforwardly fascistic and antisemitic, who shocked polite society and the wider world by advancing into the second round, where he was trounced by the sitting president, Jacques Chirac. Then, as happened in 2017 and is happening now, French elites and their counterparts abroad called on the French citizenry to reject the extreme right and to keep the fascists out of power, and framed the vote for the center-right candidate as a vote for tolerance and the Republic over reaction, hate, and racism. Then as now, most analysts and media commentators, and many experts, refused to confront why this dynamic was happening in the first place.
This time around, specifically, the French electorate is being forced to choose between Macron, a president who is strongly loved by his base (older and wealthier voters, people in the corporate sector) and largely disliked (or barely tolerated) by every other group of voters, and Le Pen, who crushed her rivals on the right and, according to polls, has a higher chance of winning the presidency than she did five years ago.
How did France arrive at this point, where a woman broadly seen as a fascist politician stands at the brink of victory? Many analysts believe that this is the scenario Macron was hoping for during the past five years: a duel he believed would serve him well—a head-to-head contest against an anti-Europe xenophobe who is not particularly good at debating, that would once again allow him to present himself as the responsible choice, the adult in the room, the voice of sanity protecting France from extremism and chaos. Macron—who barely campaigned at all for the first round and refused to participate in a debate, attempting to portray himself as “above the fray”—may turn out to have been right, and polls still show him winning in the second round, though hardly as decisively as he did in 2017.