April 12, 2022

Watching Emmanuel Macron hard on the campaign trail in the Northern France rust belt yesterday morning, mere hours after he’d scored a surprisingly decisive top place in the first round of the French presidential election, a question sprang to mind. Had his earlier decision to stay aloof until the last minute actually helped him score almost 28% of the vote on Sunday, four points ahead of Marine Le Pen?

Paris wisdom said his statesmanlike pose, maintained for months, had been too risky, and helped forge a harmful image of a President unable to connect with le peuple. On the other hand, seeing the man himself on a walkabout in the once-thriving mining town of Denain, unable to hit the right tone to reassure locals protesting his vow to raise retirement age to 65, it was obvious he was doing himself no favours. “One needs to start with the real in order to progress to the ideal,” he told an angry middle-aged voter, in the gotcha! voice of a clever philosophy student in his tutor’s study.

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You can’t deny Macron’s courage (or hubris): in Denain, Marine Le Pen received almost 42% of the vote; followed by the hard-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon with nearly 29%. Macron himself got a measly 15%. How tactically useful could it be for his run-off results to show up at the heart of his opponent’s constituency? It looked as if the President, who as a teenager dreamt of going on the stage, was now acting the part of the gritty local candidate — just as he overplayed the persona of the world diplomat capable of winning over Vladimir Putin in his Moscow lair a month ago.

On the other hand, half of any victory is self-belief; and after reducing France’s two historical mainstream parties to genuine bankruptcy, Macron may be right in thinking that he is the only one who can lay to rest the Curse Of The Windshield-Wiper Five-Year Presidencies (Right, Left, Right, Left) of the twenty-first century. Ever since Jacques Chirac amended the French Constitution in 2000 to whittle down by two years the old Septennat (seven-year) terms, no Fifth Republic president has won a second term in office.

The main thrust of his campaign is “Well, who else is there?” (“You’re not going to vote for the Fascist/Stalinist, are you?”), and he took great care to remain in sole possession of the field. Early after his 2017 victory, he picked compatible personalities among both the Républicains (his first PM Édouard Philippe, for instance) and the Socialists (see former Lyon Mayor Gérard Collomb), and sat back to watch the fissures on either side deepen.

François Hollande’s Economy Minister for a year and a half, Macron nominally came from the Socialist Party, although he’d never joined (you don’t need to be an MP to become a Minister in France). He started off by betraying Hollande himself, swearing he would never run against him. Fast forward five years and the Socialists ended up committing seppuku-by-Hidalgo: the detested Paris Mayor scored 1.7% on Sunday, managing to get even worse results in some arrondissements of the capital. The Républicains, Nicolas Sarkozy’s own party, did little better. Their candidate Valérie Pécresse, a clear case of Capax imperii nisi imperasset — a woman everyone liked the idea of, whom an early poll even gave as run-off winner against Macron 52-48, until she actually started campaigning — fell to 4.8% of the vote.

In both cases, having failed to reach 5%, their respective parties are left having to fork out almost all campaigning costs, instead of receiving an €8 million refund. They currently do not have more than a few thousand in their coffers, and face annihilation. (Pécresse, who’s well-off but not remotely to Akshata Murty levels, actually advanced €5 million of her own money for her campaign, and will feel the bite; an attempt to start crowdfunding was met by jeers on social media yesterday.)

In both cases, too, Socialists and Républicains alike have seen a future without them — and it hurts. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Jeremy-Corbyn-like figure of France’s hard Left, was expected to do well, but not to come within hailing distance of the run-off, whatever his boasts during his long, rousing rally speeches. (He is a great tub-thumping orator, capable of both brutality and classical references in the same sentence.) Nationally, he got only 400,000 fewer votes than Marine Le Pen, having surged in the last few days as normal Left-wing voters suddenly decided not having a candidate would be unbearable. Mélenchon was once an unremarkable junior minister of Socialist PM Lionel Jospin, before he embarked on his journey to the Castro-Chavez-and-Putin fan club.

His progress, like Macron’s surprising surge, is due to an old reflex applied for the first time to the first round, le vote utile, best translated as “making one’s vote count”. Surveys show that up to 40% of voters made up their minds on whom to vote for during the final weekend. A significant proportion of those literally made their choice in the isoloirs, the privacy booths separated by flimsy curtains at the polling stations, where citizens are required by law to vote, having picked a minimum of two paper ballots each bearing each candidate’s name, then sliding the one they want into the official little blue envelope provided. (Both Zemmour and Mélenchon ran by far the best digital campaigns, but Mélenchon’s voters are much younger and much more likely to hit TikTok, Twitch, Telegram and WhatsApp: they frantically encouraged followers to proselytise their families until the last minute.)

Mélenchon has now positioned himself firmly to take up the leadership of the traditional Left for the legislative elections in 40 days’ time, which should give him a crucial hold on local Socialist networks and grassroots, far stronger than the national party. Corbynisation may not be what they wish for, but they want to disappear even less.

As for the Républicains, they face an imminent two-thirds/one-third split. On one side, there are the moderates who will vote Macron in the run-off, thereafter vanishing within the La République En Marche blob. On the other, a smaller rump of hardliners from the South and from the Right of the Sarkozyste wing, such as former Party leader Laurent Wauquiez and Nice MP Eric Ciotti, who are angling for a decidedly Right-wing party — the Union des Droites, theorised by Zemmour — that would give them a clear identity and a shot at the presidency in 2027.

Politics is never simple and French politics can be especially Byzantine. At first sight, Eric Zemmour himself, a newcomer who rose and fell to 7% of the vote after nudging 18% three months ago, should only have a marginal influence in shaping the hallowed Union. But Zemmour managed to revive a French national conservatism that until then had lacked both theorists and follow-through. In his concession speech on Sunday night, in front of about a 1,000 fired-up militants, he immediately said that he wasn’t about to start negotiating conditions for his run-off vote: whatever differences he had with Marine Le Pen, he now was looking to France’s future, and would cast his ballot for her on 24 April. (Marine’s own niece, Marion Maréchal, had also announced on TV that she would vote for the aunt she had left for Zemmour. Eric Ciotti and Laurent Wauquiez, the Républicains, have themselves refused to call for a Macron vote.)

Zemmour’s unconditional endorsement looked very elegant, but it is also a shrewdly constructed trap for Le Pen. Rally after rally, he used to call out by name all of the “friends” he foresaw joining one day the future Union des Droites: from LR, the National Rally and others (he knows them all from his 30 years as political journalist). And every time, he ensured their names were applauded. Throughout, Marine herself walled herself in ominous silence. It is known that at National Rally Central, there are no words harsh enough for the Zemmour defectors: “traitors” and “bastards” are the printable ones. Nor does Marine want to share her glory with anyone; or worse, dilute her party, which from her father’s early days has been run more like a family concern than a political organisation. Any tall poppies got fired. Even her niece, elected the youngest French MP ever in Vaucluse in 2012 under the National Front banner, chafed against the restrictions her aunt put to her independence. As for theorising a new ideology, Marine, no great book reader, would rather spend time with her cats.

This is not the way to build a big-tent ruling party, and the expectation is that even a Marine Le Pen who scores 49% to Emmanuel Macron’s 51% in two weeks’ time will spoil her opportunities afterwards. Meanwhile, Zemmour’s Reconquête will ally itself to the new-look Républicain rump and fight the June legislative elections in a new configuration in which she can only count on eight incumbent MPs. Of course, the landscape may change again should Le Pen actually win (bookmakers currently give it a little under 20% likelihood); but it’s almost impossible for the coalition-unfriendly National Rally to win a majority of MPs.

As for Emmanuel Macron, he is considering this devastated political landscape, which he wrought, smugly. He has made a desert and calls it peace: the vote utile, he feels, probably with good reason, will favour him. About one third of Zemmour voters are predicted to vote for him rather than for Le Pen; so should one good third of Mélenchon ones, the traditional Socialists, who when push comes to shove can’t face the possibility of her election. (To complicate things, another third of Mélenchonistes — the ones Emmanuel Macron met yesterday in and around Denain, whose parents and grandparents once regularly voted for the Communist Party — say in polls they would rather vote for her and her generous platform of salary raises and benefits).

And finally, nobody knows the abstention rate. Once again the French are faced with what they see as a miserable choice forced on them. If they pass on the isoloir, it will only be a matter of time before they take to the streets — and the true cost to France of the Macron-made desert will finally become clear.