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What Does It Take To "Win" a Divided Country?

What Does It Take To
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

What is perhaps most remarkable about the 2022 election, is that Emmanuel Macron is the first president of the Fifth Republic to be reelected without being in a cohabitation. In the past, cohabitations have allowed outgoing presidents - like François Mitterrand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002 - to blame all their failures on the prime minister of an opposition party. François Mitterrand won in 1981 over Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, while Nicolas Sarkozy was defeated in 2012 by François Hollande, who, with record records of unpopularity, gave up running in 2017. Emmanuel Macron's performance is all the more unprecedented given that he has had to defend a track record that included, among other things, the Yellow Vest crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Collecting almost 18,800,000 votes and 58.5% of the vote, he clearly beat his rival, Marine Le Pen, with a 17-point gap and a difference of almost 5,500,000 votes. However, unlike in 2017, his victory has not been met with unilateral enthusiasm among his supporters, and he will certainly not enjoy a state of grace. The proof: according to an IPSOS survey, 46% of French people report experiencing "negative feelings" post-election, and 77% predict "unrest and tension" in the near future. Whether Emmanuel Macron has convinced the public of his presidential capability remains open to question (and much heated debate). As a result, there are several reasons for concern with regard to the president’s second term, as well as the state of French democracy.

The relentless rise of abstention

During the election’s second round, abstention increased above 28%, the second-highest record after the historic rate in 1969, when more than 31% of voters chose to abstain. That year, the second round pitted the neo-Gaullist candidate Georges Pompidou against the Senate president, the centrist Alain Poher. After obtaining 21.3% of votes in the first round, Jacques Duclos, the leader and candidate of the then-powerful Communist Party, had called for abstention because the two remaining candidates were, in fact, "two peas in a pod".

During the election’s second round, abstention increased above 28%, the second-highest record after the historic rate in 1969 with more than 31%. 

This year, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, who gathered more than 22% of the votes in the first round, called for a barrage against Marine Le Pen. He did not, however, explicitly ask his voters to designate their ballots to Emmanuel Macron instead. As a result, 24% of his voters abstained, 17% voted blank or null, and 42% chose Macron. These abstentionists have joined the increasingly diverse range of citizens who refuse to exercise their civic duty for various reasons: disinterest in politics, disgust for it, or refusal to choose between the two competitors.

According to IFOP, the deciding factor for 55% of those who chose to abstain was that no candidate defends or represents their ideas. The majority of abstainers are French men and women from working class backgrounds and with a low level of education, and young people, with 41% of 18-24 year olds choosing to abstain. In addition, more than 6% of French people voted blank and more than 2% cast invalid votes. In this respect, 2022 represents a turning point. Twenty years ago, Jean-Marie le Pen's surprise qualification for the second round of voting caused indignation in France and a strong mobilization of the electorate. Voter participation, which was less than 72% in the first round, jumped 8 points 15 days later. In 2017, during the second round, the race between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen produced contrasting results. Then, abstention was 25.4%, three points higher than in the first round. Five years later, combating abstention is even more important. Now, for many French people, Marine Le Pen represents a candidate like any other, and is no longer synonymous with a danger to democracy. This attests to the success of her famous "de-demonization" operation, with the aim of transforming her personal image.

The unprecedented results of the extreme right

Despite Macron’s win, his opponent recorded the best score in the history of the French far right. With more than 41.5%, the party gained more than 2,6 million voters, while Macron lost 2 million. The two electorates are totally different. That of the outgoing President ranges from the youngest to oldest citizens: 61% of 18-24 year olds voted for him and 71% of those over 70. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, is stronger among 50-59 year olds, according to an IPSOS survey. Macron's voters tend to live in the West of France, the Ile-de-France region, the East and Occitanie, primarily in big cities (an emblematic example is Paris which voted at 85% for him). 

They belong to the upper classes of society, earn more than 3,000 euros per month, and are typically graduates. On the other hand, 57% of employees, 67% of workers, and 64% of the unemployed have preferred his rival, as well as 56% of those who earn less than 1,250 euros per month. The same is true for inhabitants of rural areas and small and medium-sized towns. Marine Le Pen, who is consolidating her position in the south-east of France, the north, and the deindustrialized east, is also making progress in the eastern periphery of the Paris region as well as in the south-west, and is making a breakthrough in Corsica and overseas regions.

Despite Macron’s win, his opponent recorded the best score in the history of the French far right.

Moreover, these two electorates are culturally and ideologically different. President Macron's political identity can be found in the values he embodies: optimism, dynamism, acceptance of the market economy, openness to Europe and the world, and tolerance with regard to social issues. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen is characterized by pessimism, fear, anger, distrust of institutions, politics and elites, but also of others, specifically foreigners, Europe, and globalization, hence the aspiration to reinforce the idea of "national preference". These two visions of France stand in opposition, and no longer understand each other. Worse still, they distrust each other.

Antagonistic approaches, respective rejections

In his speech to supporters on the evening of Sunday, April 24, Emmanuel Macron said he was aware that his election did not mean full support for his program. Indeed, 42% of his voters primarily did so in order to prevent his opponent from winning, while 46% of those who voted for Marine Le Pen did so to oppose Emmanuel Macron. This second round was therefore a confrontation between two antagonistic approaches, as well as two respective rejections. Emmanuel Macron, for his part, has taken note of the nation’s divisions, and claims to have heard the people’s expectations. It has not escaped him that voters’ main motivation was not so much the war in Ukraine, but first and foremost health, followed by the raising of wages and purchasing power. Between the two rounds, Emmanuel Macron made many promises on social issues as well as on ecology, a theme that the youth is particularly sensitive to. He is therefore expected to achieve many things in his second term, though he has little room to maneuver. Firstly, for financial reasons that affect France's credibility: public debt and deficit are soaring. Second, for political reasons: left-wing measures on social issues will make more right-wing supporters uncomfortable, while his environmental policy, based on a mix of nuclear power and renewable energies, will hardly convince environmentalists. However, these issues will be important pillars for the new campaign for the nomination of the National Assembly that is set to begin in a few weeks. The elections of June 12 and 19 are, however, very uncertain.

The perilous stage of the legislative elections

The abstention rate for the legislative elections on June 12 and 19 could be very high, as participation is always lower than for the presidential elections - a trend that has been growing over the past decades. The traditional parties, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, whose candidates, Valérie Pécresse and Anne Hidalgo, were defeated in the first round of the presidential election, have fewer elected representatives and a territorial base that is less solid than before. Nevertheless, these parties remain present in France’s political scene, and the deputies of the current legislature will no doubt seek to be re-elected, mobilizing all their networks. However, these parties are divided on which strategy to adopt: should they try to defend their long-standing political identities, or should they ally themselves, and if so, with whom? 

Mélenchon intends to not only assert himself as the undisputed leader of the left, but also to set himself up as the main opponent of Emmanuel Macron.

In addition, some Republicans may be tempted to support Macron, while others will lean towards the extreme right. Similarly, some socialists will try to rally the Macronians, and others La France Insoumise. The latter’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is calling on voters to "elect him as Prime Minister". Strictly speaking, this makes little sense; citizens vote for deputies rather than the future occupant of Matignon. He declares that he wants to enlarge his "Union populaire" movement on the terms of the radical left. He seems to want to undermine his potential allies, the Greens and the PCF, who will undoubtedly also be torn apart over which attitude to adopt.

With the Socialist Party in particular, the current negotiations are grounds for concern. Mélenchon intends to not only assert himself as the undisputed leader of the left, but also to set himself up as the main opponent of Emmanuel Macron. This competition is, however, far from being won. The legislative elections, like the municipal and regional elections, put La France Insoumise at a disadvantage, as it has relatively few roots in French territories. In addition, the total votes for left-wing candidates in the first round was less than 32%, a particularly low score.

Zemmour, Le Pen: the future of the extreme right

On the other side, the far right is also facing leadership problems. Marine Le Pen, eager to become the main rival of the President of the Republic, has refused any alliance with Eric Zemmour's party, Reconquête! Doing so would, however, help structure this new formation. Despite emerging as the leading far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen has undeniable weaknesses. She has once again lost the battle for the presidency, "the eighth failure of the Le Pen family", as Eric Zemmour ruthlessly put it. The enlargement of her electoral base does not appear to align with her actual possibilities of reaching the Elysée. A large proportion of the French people consider her to be close to them, able to understand their problems and expectations, without any comparison to Emmanuel Macron, but also lacking in her ability to hold the office she is seeking. Furthermore, the Rassemblement National remains a party with little presence in the territories.

A presidential party in need of consolidation

Finally, La République en Marche will have to make strategic choices. Will it run alone, even though it is not a solid party that has no local presence, or will it form alliances with other centrist parties, and if so, on what basis and in what way?

For voters, the legislative elections appear to adhere to three contradictory logics: to give a majority to the new President to allow the President to act, or, on the contrary, to prevent him from acting on almost all of his powers; and finally, to take into account local realities. But it is even more complex this year. More so than in 2017, a significant process of political decomposition and recomposition is underway. France’s two traditional parties will strive to save themselves from extinction. The three political poles, those of the radical left, the radical right and Macron’s so-called "extreme center", appear to be strong, but are in truth weak and above all unstructured. Nevertheless, it seems implausible that one of the two opposition poles will win and impose a cohabitation on President Macron, as Jean-Luc Mélenchon might wish. But what type of majority will La République en Marche have, absolute or relative? And if Macron does obtain a Parliament that is ready to support him, what will he do with its support? Will he fulfill his promises with regard to social policies and ecology, as well as consultations, negotiations and compromises?

One thing is certain: if the Rassemblent National and La France Insoumise parties obtain a parliamentary representation that is far removed from what they represent in the country, the democratic malaise threatening this country may escalate to the point of no return. This malaise, which coloured the words of Mélenchon when he called Macron the "most badly elected" president in the country’s history, questions the legitimacy that is derived from the ballot box. In addition, the evening of the second round bore witness to violent demonstrations by groups of young people, discrediting the principle of the elections and calling for revolution. Within this context, Emmanuel Macron is faced with the urgent and challenging task of rebuilding French democracy.


Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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