Four days prior to the second-round election on May 7, the two remaining candidates for the French presidency conducted a televised debate. Marine Le Pen opened with the following tirade:
Electing Mr. Macron means choosing savage globalization, Uberization, economic uncertainty, the war of all against all, economic pillage of major social groups, asset stripping of France and communautarisme … The French have been able to see the real Macron in this second round: benevolence has given way to slander, the studied smile turns into a smirk in the course of his meetings, the enfant chéri of the system and the elites has let fall his mask.1
Emmanual Macron’s initial response was measured. He accused Le Pen of lacking in “finesse d’esprit.” By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour debate however, the ferocity of his attacks matched hers:
Your political project lives on fear and lies. They are what animate you, they are what animated your father over the decades; they are what has animated the extreme right in France. I do not want any of it in our country. The France that I want is better than that. It will not be divided. But to achieve it, we must escape from a political polarization that you have helped create. You are one of the products of the status quo you denounce. You thrive on the status quo. You are a parasite.2
Le Pen’s overture was an ad hominem attack that, with a few modifications, could have been a Trump campaign speech attacking Hillary Clinton. In return, for someone wanting to heal wounds in the French body politic, Macron’s tirade against her had the feel of Clinton’s denunciation of intolerant “deplorables.” If exploitation of “fear and lies” is one pole of French politics, what is at the other pole? As an iconic representative of the cosmopolitan elites that Le Pen attacked, Macron might have at least hinted at the sins of the Parisian technocrats who have run France for the past half-century. He lectured Le Pen on the incoherence of her proposals; he did not “feel the pain” of her supporters.
Ultimately, the French opted, 66 per cent against 34 per cent, for the enfant chéri over the parasite. Like many in the French political elite, Macron is a graduate of the École Normale d’Administration, a technocrat who had never previously run for office. During the campaign, Le Pen’s strength was to articulate deeply held frustrations of native-born French who feel abandoned. While Macron made tepid claims to understand her supporters, he remained at the level of the earnest liberal wanting everyone to be reasonable. He remained excessively vague on how to reform the country.
And the country needs reform. Unemployment and immigration are two examples. To tackle the decades-long persistence of a disastrously high French unemployment rate, among the young and immigrants in particular, requires German- or U.K.-style relaxation of the labour code. It is an understatement to say that this will be controversial. Will Macron dare to touch it? On immigration, Macron has acknowledged the failure of immigrant integration. His proposals, which turn on better education starting at the primary level, make sense. But it is far from clear whether he can make progress on this dossier without controversial initiatives such as a dramatic limit on immigration, especially from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Imposing tough border controls would violate the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates border controls among most European Union (EU) member countries and a few non-EU countries. An immigrant who enters a Schengen-member country has the right in principle to move freely to any country in the Schengen zone.
At time of writing (the day after Macron’s second-round victory), Macron’s immediate hurdle is the general election in June for the French National Assembly. His own political party, En Marche, created over the last year to support his campaign, lacks local political roots and may win few parliamentary seats. The National Front will make gains over the two seats it currently holds, but “ganging up” by its opponents in the legislative second round will limit its potential. Given public hostility to the outgoing Socialist President, François Hollande, the Socialists will not fare well. The legislative winners may well be the Republicans, the centre-right party, whose éminence grise is former President Nicolas Sarkozy – in which case Macron will wind up in effect cohabiting with a National Assembly dominated by Hollande’s predecessor.
France is déjà vu all over again
The results of last June’s U.K. Brexit referendum, last November’s U.S. presidential election and the April 23 first round of the French presidential election share obvious similarities. In all three, more than 40 per cent of voters in effect rejected core institutional arrangements that had seemed subject to electoral consensus for over a quarter-century. At the core of current populism is the argument that free trade and large-scale immigration have led to stagnant incomes for most of the native-born and unacceptably rapid change in the ethnic composition of communities. The two dimensions, stagnant incomes and fear of lost identity, are related inasmuch as immigrants are perceived not only to be culturally alien but also to be lowering wages among native-born citizens with low formal education.
Geography matters in this discussion. In the cosmopolitan cities – in London, Paris, New York and San Francisco – the majority have overwhelmingly rejected populist candidates. The populists, in general, have succeeded in regions beset by declining industries, below-average education levels and above-average unemployment.
In examining the recent French election, we can start with the map showing the winners in the first round by department. In the centre of Paris, a friend observed, Marine Le Pen could not get herself elected dogcatcher. She garnered 5 per cent of the vote. With the exception of Seine–Saint-Denis (about which more below), Macron headed the polls in the eight departments encompassing Paris and its extensive suburbs. On the other hand, Le Pen led in nearly all departments of the north and northeast, and in the Midi (south). In addition to most of the cities, Macron prevailed in departments in the west and southwest.
Unique among countries beset by populist revolts, in France left-wing populism inspired by a long tradition of Marxism has proved nearly as prominent as right-wing populism inspired by long traditions of cultural nationalism. In the first round, the four leading candidates realized popular votes within a narrow range: 19.6 per cent for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left populist leader of a newly founded party, France Insoumise, a competitor to the French Socialist Party; 20.0 per cent for François Fillon, winner of the primary organized by the centre-right Republicans; 21.3 per cent for Le Pen, candidate of the National Front, founded by her father; and 24.0 per cent for Macron, head of the newly founded En Marche.
Random events and small shifts in turnout could readily have generated a second round – a runoff between the first and second ranked candidates – from any combination of two among the four leading candidates. Several months ago many predicted a runoff between Fillon and Macron or Fillon and Le Pen. Unfortunately for Fillon’s electoral prospects, a weekly left-wing satirical paper, Le Canard Enchaîné, revealed massive abuse of his expense account as a member of the National Assembly over the last decade.
Mélenchon nearly doubled his vote in the final month, most of his votes coming from Benoît Hamon, hapless winner of the Socialist Party primary, who ultimately received only 6.3 per cent of the vote. Had Mélenchon’s rise commenced earlier, he might have shifted even more votes from Hamon, and ranked first or second. A hypothetical shift of three percentage points from Macron to Mélenchon would have sufficed, all else unchanged, to generate a runoff between Mélenchon and Le Pen.
Worth noting, the French presidential election has once again illustrated the famous Arrow “impossibility theorem.” Kenneth Arrow is an American economist who demonstrated formally that any electoral system can be gamed. There is no guarantee that a voting system will generate the outcome favoured by a plurality.
The trouble with French Islam today
A number of years ago Irshad Manji, a liberal Muslim originally from Vancouver, wrote a book called The Trouble with Islam Today. Her thesis was the loss of critical thinking among current Muslim leaders and the retreat of many into a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, one that is deeply suspicious of Western culture. Islam in France is currently undergoing its own trials, related to the problems Manji identified but in a specifically French context.
The first large-scale Muslim immigration to France came from the Maghreb in the 1960s. At the time, France was enjoying its trente années glorieuses following World War II. Its economy was growing rapidly and this first wave found employment and integrated reasonably well. Many had had close contact with the French during the decades of colonialism; some had sided with the French against the liberation movements. Subsequently, they were joined by many from francophone sub-Saharan ex-colonies. No official statistics exist but estimates place the present share of Muslims at 10 per cent or more of the French population.
It is an understatement to note that Muslims are less integrated today than half a century ago. Why? Some blame discrimination on the part of the French, too rigidly attached to notions of laïcité. Some blame an overly generous welfare state that provides few incentives for the poorly educated to take low-paying jobs. Some blame a rigid labour market that makes it impossible to fire, and hence employers do not hire. And some blame the rise of conservative political Islam as an ideology inviting Muslims in France to reject Western culture. I give some weight to all of the above.
Le Pen’s insistence on strict laïcité and her call to extricate France from the Schengen accord in order to impose strict immigration controls are anathema to most Muslims. Fillon also adopted a “tough” stand. On July 14, 2016, a jihadist in Nice drove a large truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86 and wounding well over 100. Following the attack, Fillon published a short book entitled Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique (To Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism). The title reveals the plot: France must be tough in response to political Islam, whether it be the Islamic State or terrorists within France. This is a dossier on which Macron has said little. Which left an opening for Mélenchon.
Mélenchon is a product of French Marxist tiers-mondisme, a tradition that includes celebrities such as Jean-Paul Sartre and has been maintained by papers such as Le Monde Diplomatique. To his credit, Mélenchon has not minimized the misogynist features of political Islam; instead, he has consistently articulated the social demands of the Muslim community. The result is that he captured well over half the Muslim vote. Mélenchon did well in departments and cities with large Muslim diasporas.3 The one department in the Parisian region that Macron did not win was Seine–Saint-Denis, in the northeast of Greater Paris. It has a majority Muslim population and Mélenchon won a plurality. Similarly, in France’s second city, Marseille, the Muslim share of the population is high, and Mélenchon prevailed. However, overall in Bouche-du-Rhône, the department encompassing Marseille, Le Pen prevailed. The Midi is a region where Muslim-French relations are tense. Not surprisingly, the majority in Nice voted either for Le Pen or Fillon.
Were this a “normal” election, a victory of 66 per cent to 34 per cent would indicate stability, a solid majority and a “loyal” opposition. But in the age of mainstream versus populist and Muslim alienation, this is not the case. One symptom of malaise is the exceptionally high percentage of spoiled ballots, votes blancs (ballots submitted with no candidate selected) and nonvoters. Most foreign observers, understandably sympathetic to Macron, are projecting onto him their proposed policy solutions and minimizing the difficult institutional reforms required to realize them.
… and across the Channel
In early June, shortly before the French legislative election, the British will vote in a snap general election called by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. There is currently no British equivalent to Macron. Instead, the Conservatives are en route to winning a resounding victory and continuing their “Brexit means Brexit” strategy of rapid withdrawal from the EU. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is en route to presiding over Labour’s worst defeat in three decades.
Nigel Farage, the most prominent proponent of Brexit, is to Marine Le Pen as Jeremy Corbyn is to Mélenchon. Both Corbyn and Mélenchon view the EU as an institution whose primary purpose is to persuade the working class to accept rampant free trade. Both leaders have tiers-mondiste sympathies: they support the agenda of the immigrant diasporas in their respective countries. Both passionately dislike the legacy of the major centre-left parties in their respective countries.
Corbyn is the dog that didn’t bark in the 2016 U.K. referendum debate. Nominally, Labour supported Remain, but Corbyn’s heart was not in the fight. (Four decades earlier, at the time of the first referendum on U.K. withdrawal, he had argued for Brexit.) Conscious that Labour supporters are divided between many in the Midlands and north who support Brexit and those in the south, in London in particular, who want to remain in the EU, he mumbled.
The bitter conflicts within Labour ranks over Leave versus Remain and over the legacy of the Blair-Brown government have produced disarray analogous to that among the French Socialists. U.K. local government elections took place a few days prior to the second-round election in France. Labour fared disastrously, losing a large number of local councillors. For the Conservatives it was a resounding success in terms of councillors gained. Their hard drive to exit the EU has co-opted the majority of Farage’s supporters in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) as well as many Labour supporters.
As a member of David Cameron’s cabinet, Theresa May nominally supported Remain in the referendum campaign. But, like Corbyn, her heart was not in it. Upon Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, she won the internal struggle for party leadership. Tactically, she has outmanoeuvred both UKIP and Labour, and the disarray within Labour has given the Conservatives a very large lead in the polls. The five polls conducted so far in May give them an average 18-point lead over Labour.
French and English political institutions are in disarray. Macron’s victory gives France a reprieve, but it is far too soon to relax. In the U.K., May is a brilliant tactician able to win battles against immediate opponents within and beyond her party, but her “Brexit means Brexit” strategy dooms Britain to a cramped marginal status.
One of the few high-profile voices to make the case for continued British participation in the EU and resurrection of the centre-left is Tony Blair. It is unlikely that he will be able to replicate the role of Churchill, condemned to political purgatory in the 1930s for his early aggressive hostility to Hitler. Blair’s reputation has been severely tarnished by accusations of his having manipulated parliamentary support for the U.S. military removal of Saddam Hussein. Nonetheless, Blair deserves some credit: he recently contributed the majority of his wealth (£10 million) to found a new foundation on behalf of centre-left politics in Europe.
As Napoleon reputedly said, on s’engage, et puis on verra.
1 My translation of the debate transcript reported in Le Monde on May 3: “M. Macron est le choix de la mondialisation sauvage, de l’ubérisation, de la précarité, de la guerre de tous contre tous, du saccage économique, notamment de nos grands groupes, du dépeçage de la France, du communautarisme. Les Français ont pu voir le vrai Macron dans ce second tour : la bienveillance a fait place à la médisance, le sourire étudié se transforme en rictus au fur et à mesure du meeting, l’enfant chéri du système et des élites, a tombé le masque.” Communautarisme refers to inward-looking group identity, at the expense of identification with France as a whole.
2 My translation of the debate transcript reported in TF1 on May 3: “Votre projet, c’est un projet qui vise à vivre de la peur et des mensonges. C’est ce qui vous nourrit, c’est ce qui a nourri votre père pendant des décennies, c’est ce qui a nourri l’extrême droite française et c’est ce qui vous a fait vous. C’est pour ça que je n’en veux pas pour notre pays. Parce que la France que je veux, elle vaut beaucoup mieux que ça. La France que je veux ne sera pas divisée. Mais pour cela, il faut sortir d’un système qui vous a coproduit. Vous êtes la coproduction du système que vous dénoncez parce que vous en vivez. Vous êtes son parasite.”
3 According to a poll reported in Libération on April 25, 55 per cent of Muslims supported Mélenchon. Other polls indicate an even higher share.