France – Of volcanoes and earthquakes: Looking back on the first round of the presidential election

The danger of hyperbole is bound to be present following the qualification for the second round of Emmanuel Macron (24.01%) and Marine Le Pen (21.30%) in the French presidential election. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the candidate representing the mainstream republican Right (understood as comprising both the Gaullist and liberal-conservative traditions) did not win through to the second round; and while the Socialists failed in 1969 and 2002, the candidate they supported has also usually fought the run-off (in 1965, 1974, 1981, 1988, 1995, 2007 and 2012). Exit the two main governmental parties of the Fifth Republic – at least on a first superficial reading. While the parliamentary elections might reverse the fortunes of the main players, the absence of the governmental left and right from the second round is sufficiently remarkable to withstand the accusation of hyperbole. Already, in an earlier blog I argued that the unwritten rules of the Fifth Republic were being sharply called into question by the 2017 election . But this was nothing compared with the seismic shift of 23rd April. Though predicted by the polls, the exclusion of the candidates from the two historic governing parties of the Fifth Republic – Hamon for the Socialists and Fillon for LR – is likely to have major consequences. At the very least, it demonstrates a disaffection with party and the candidates designated by the primaries. Is this damage asymmetrical? Is the potential damage to the PS more existential than to the Republicans? It is still – just – too early to say. Both LR and PS are sorely divided, however and the construction of pro-Macron poles in each movement is likely (possibly producing formal schisms). The situation is further blurred by the strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (19.66%) and his unwillingness openly to support the ‘globalist’ Macron against the nationalist Le Pen.

An earthquake? The metaphor is rather labored and has certainly been used frequently to refer to the FN, from the initial breakthrough in the 1984 European elections. A volcanic outburst might be more accurate. But what type of Volcanic eruption? A brutal Vesuvian eruption sweeping all aside in its wake? A Pompeii-style outburst, overwhelming, yet preserving remnants of the pre-existing order for the observance of posterity? A smouldering and spluttering Everest, ever-threatening to erupt, but contained within its mountain range? There is evidence to support each of these positions.

The first position implies a tabula rasa, a starting over again. This ambition is expressed by the En Marche! candidate, regularly repeated in the media. Rather paradoxically, this does not express itself for Macron in terms of a rejection of the Fifth Republic (there is no bombastic call for a 6th Republic, the project valued by Mélenchon and Hamon), but a reversion to one of the oldest traditions of the regime, in the form of the presidential rally. The references made by Macron himself to the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 were highly indicative of his ambition, but also of a certain political style that is presented as being compatible with an early interpretation of the Fifth Republic. En Marche! bears some similarities with the UNR of 1958: it frames itself both as cross-party (picking the best talents), and anti-party (the regime against the parties accused of undermining governmental authority and being self-serving); it places itself as being neither left nor right; it operates as a presidential rally to support an individual diagnosed as having exceptional qualities. The danger for the EM! candidate is that, once elected, he will dispose of few of the instruments to implement his political programme and will lack de Gaulle’s historic legitimacy. Converting the try will require a majority elected in the name of the President, a presidential majority. The failure to achieve this outcome will be lived as a failure- even though Macron has acknowledged that with a base of 24% he does not have a majority to govern then country by himself. Let it be said in passing that there is an unresolved tension: between the acknowledgement that 24% on the first round would not provide a sufficient base to construct a new presidential majority and that a reformist coalition would be necessary; and the refusal to allow joint membership (of EM! and the PS, for example) in the belief that EM! can provide the majority to support the President.

The Vesuvian eruption also implies a realigning election, in the sense of Pierre Martin, in the French version of realignment theory . A realigning election represents first a moment of rupture, a radical break with the old order that takes the form of a paradigm shift; this is then followed by a realignment around new issues, in all probability channeled by new political organisations. The first round of the 2017 presidential election has the appearances of a radical break; the traditional governmental parties (PS and LR) obtaining barely more than one-quarter of first round votes (26.29% to be exact), down from well over one-half (55.81%) in 2012. On the other hand, the electoral verdict in 2017 is not totally unexpected. Recent presidential contests have taught us to expect the unexpected. In 2002, the announced second-round contenders (Chirac and Jospin) did not, in fact, win through to contest the run-off. In 2007, the third candidate Bayrou almost broke the mould; but his 18.57% were not quite enough to swing the election. In 2012, Hollande was elected on a carefully constructed anti-Sarkozy ticket, which papered over the profound divisions within the PS and amongst the left in general that greatly harmed his presidency. Hollande’s deep unpopularity prevented the outgoing President from standing as a candidate for re-election, itself an unprecedented sign of political disaffection.

There is a good case that 2017 might represent a decisive break with the old order. The two second round contenders were well-positioned in terms of the two key defining features of the 2017 campaign: the rejection of existing parties (notwithstanding their effort to reinvent themselves via the primaries); and a clear position in terms of the progressive/nationalist cluster of issues. The 2017 provided stark evidence of the deep distrust for all the established political parties, which translated into the fact that only one in four electors voted for the candidates invested in the Socialist and Republican primaries. Three of the leading candidates embraced the populist appeal of rejecting party: Mélenchon, Macron and Le Pen. Mélenchon (19.66%) surfed on the rather populist, anti-party theme of la France insoumise – France’s radical, revolutionary tradition adapted to the digital age. The crisis of the Socialists was particularly acute during the 2012-2017 presidency; the first round sanctioned Benoit Hamon, one of the leaders of the frondeurs whose come -uppence took the form of a humiliating 6.3%. For LR, Fillon’s failure to win through to the second round (20.01%), after a campaign laid low by scandal, was not really a surprise.

The 2017 campaign also produced symbolic positioning in terms of boundaries, borders and space, centred around the cleavage between ‘mondialists’ and patriots, in the formulation of Marine Le Pen. Macron positioned himself as the only unreserved pro-European, the one candidate calling for closer European integration as an instrument to assist economic modernisation and promote social justice. While rejecting the accusation of being ‘naïve’, moreover, Macron insisted that France could not simply ignore the reality of economic globalization. Liberal in terms of social mores and respectful of plural French identities (hence more accommodating towards French citizens of immigrant origin), Macron also appeared as liberal in the economic sense in that he seeks to reform labour law, encourage business innovation and investment and make France fitter for purpose in embracing the challenges of economic globalisation. Marine Le Pen’s programme was almost exactly opposite: an ‘intelligent’ protectionism (taxation on imported goods), tough restrictions on immigration, and a referendum on future membership of the euro/EU. These positions were reflected in the respective electoral support bases of the two candidates: Macron leading in the metropolises (Paris, Toulouse, Rennes, Lyon); Le Pen ahead in la France péripherique . The centrality of the cosmopolitan/ nationalist cleavage cut across traditional lines of cleavage and blurred still further the boundaries between left and right. The positioning of J.-L Mélenchon is particularly significant in this respect; as a resolute opponent of Brussels and European integration, but also defender of diversity. Melenchon’s reluctance to call explicitly upon his electors to support Macron on the second round run-off was a further nail in the coffin of the Republican Front (the alliance against the FN) and, indirectly, the traditional logic of left-right bipolarization.

The second position – the Pompeii analogy – might be more accurate. The existing world has been overwhelmed, but vestiges remains in the ruins. Though seriously shaken and divided, the Republicans (LR) ought to live to fight another day. One of the paradoxes of the 2017 electoral series is that it might conceivably end with a new cohabitation, a LR premier called to head President Macron’s government after the parliamentary elections. For all of the anti-party rhetoric, EM! is shaping up as a presidential rally, rather than a structured movement. The difficulty in finding enough EM! assessors to man the voting booths on the second round on 7th May is one indicator of this, as is Macron’s refusal to publish the list of EM! Candidates before the presidential election. If Macron is serious about only candidates with the EM! label being able to contest the parliamentary election, he is likely to face serious obstacles from the other players: Mélenchon’s France insoumise, with or without the Communists; the PS, with or without Hamon (tempted by a realignment with the EELV) or Valls (tempted by Macron); the Republicans (LR), possibly shorn of pro-Macron reformist wing; and the FN (Marine Le Pen coming first in 216 or 566 constituencies in mainland France). In a five-space reality, few candidates will be elected on the first round, though the 12.5% of registered electors needed to progress to the second round will limit the number of triangular and quadripolar contests. In short, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of the parliamentary elections. This matters, because the 2017 parliamentary contest is unlikely to be a mere ‘confirmation election’, inclined by the institutional logic of the quinquennat to confirm the choice of the decisive presidential contest.

In a third interpretation, the volcano might produce tremors, but not fundamentally overhaul the existing partisan supply. The eventuality of a fourth cohabitation, with a resurgent LR imposing a government on the recently elected Macron, cannot be excluded. The return of the parties would be the ultimate turn to this strangest of election campaigns.

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