Ipsa scientia potestas est
20 November 2017 19:13 (South Africa)
World

French presidential election: Two-thirds of voters opt for sanity as Macron wins big

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: Supporters of French presidential election candidate for the En Marche!' (Onwards!) political movement Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) celebrate at the Carrousel du Louvre after Emmanuel Macron won the second round of the French presidential elections in Paris, France, 07 May 2017. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the final round of France’s presidential election, with exit polls indicating that Macron is leading with approximately 65% of the vote. EPA/YOAN VALAT.

The final round of the most recent French presidential election is now history and Emmanuel Macron, a political neophyte, has decisively beaten veteran rabble-rouser Marine Le Pen and her Trump-style National Front. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first look at the election and decides the French have something else to be proud of, besides poetry, music, art and cuisine.

Unlike some other recent elections and referenda (just as examples, say, the Brexit referendum and the Trump election), on Sunday 7 May, the French overwhelmingly voted for sanity, rationality, and a full recognition of reality. The first exit polling projections (as well as initial vote totals reported out) gave Emmanuel Macron 65.9% of the vote, versus just 34.1% for Marine Le Pen, as the polls closed at 20:00. Instead of handing Le Pen the keys to the republic in order to begin wrecking it, French voters took a chance on Emmanuel Macron instead. Within an hour or so of these initial results, Le Pen had already conceded defeat and the rest of the EU could begin to breathe again.

The French were, it would seem, more sensible and less fearful of the future than either the Americans with the 2016 presidential election or the British Brexit referendum. Next up are Britain and Germany’s turns in national elections. Perhaps the French results will have an impact.

The new French president is an untested politician who ran under the banner of his newly formed party, “En Marche”, rather than for either of the two heretofore-main political parties in France. This had been his strategic choice, given his reading of the mood of the electorate, even though he had served in the socialist government of the current president, François Hollande, and he has, admittedly, derived a significant share of his economic and public policy ideas from more centrist perspectives. To think of Macron as a French version of Bill Clinton’s political triangulation would seem to have some appeal.

Macron appears to have parleyed his real world economic and financial experience in both the public and private sectors – and a careful (although some say rather too-cautious), comprehensive grasp of France’s place in Europe’s future – to make the convincing case that France should gamble on him, rather than the harsh, negative, grim, crabbed message of his opponent. Faced with a choice between Macron and Le Pen, the voters gave him a two-to-one majority in the second and final round of their presidential election, after having decisively and successively rejected the far right, the far left, and, now, the far out national populists.

Two weeks earlier, Macron had come in first place in a crowded field that, besides the National Front’s Le Pen, had also included representatives of the standard Gaullist, the moderate socialist and the hard-left socialist parties, as well as a gaggle of other lesser candidacies. In this first round, the election had already shattered previous precedents under the Fifth Republic’s framework.

This time, after that first round of voting, neither of the two remaining candidates vying for the presidency represented the usual centre-right or centre-left strands in French political life – the two sides that had largely monopolised electoral politics in France since 1958, with the advent of the Fifth Republic. (In 2002, it should be noted, Jacques Chirac had crushed Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front, by a four-to-one margin, but that was the only exception to the general rule of centre-right/centre-left contests over the past half-century.) Oh, and just by the way, in President-elect Macron, the French now have their youngest leader since Napoleon had his hand in his waistcoat.

Macron had served as an economics minister for socialist President Hollande for two years. (Given his dismal standing with the electorate, Hollande had even declined to go after his own party’s nomination this time.) Before that brief stint in government, Macron had earned a serious fortune working for the Rothschild’s investment banking firm, after degrees from two of the country’s premier universities - Sciences Po and the National School for Administration. And, yes, as the world also knows, he had married his high school sweetheart – the then-married drama teacher who is just shy of being a quarter century older than he is.

In the final two weeks of this presidential election, Le Pen had laboured tirelessly to tar Macron as soft on terror, yet softer still on the perils of immigration, and similarly weak and flabby on job creation and job and income protection. Moreover, he was, by her description, thoroughly wishy-washy on the protection of that unique French national identity in opposing the waves of globalisation threatening to overwhelm France.

Preliminary analysis of the voting, as expected from the first voting round and then subsequent polling data, had shown that Macron would be strongest in and around Paris, as well as in regions like the largely prosperous and more cosmopolitan areas of south-western France that include much of the country’s hi-tech industry, as with Toulouse and its aerospace industry hub. Young people were rallying to his call as well in significant numbers. Amiens, his home town, and other parts of the northeast, however, were not Macron country, given their circumstances as the rough French equivalent of the American rust belt or the UK’s battered Midlands industrial towns.

But, despite his major win, at least at present, Macron is a president without a parliamentary base – something that is going to make Macron’s efforts at governing France rather complex. So far at least, he has no deputies in France’s National Assembly, and his new party is desperately working to assemble candidates to stand for election in the nation’s constituencies, as well as recruit sympatico deputies from other parties to join with him under En Marche’s banner. Failing a majority, Macron must fall back on creating a parliamentary coalition government – a rather unknown version of governing under the Fifth Republic.

A majority of French voters were ultimately unswayed by Le Pen’s divisive vision of an increasingly defensive France at war with immigrants; her stance in growing opposition to France’s membership in Nato; her readiness to pull down the European Union by contemplating a Frexit; the possible adoption of a go-it-alone new Franc as opposed to the Euro; a recognition that some parts of the French governmental hold on the national economy (57%) and its rigid labour law structures, and a France in an embrace of the authoritarianism of Putin’s regime in Russia. The French voters may also have been troubled by a realisation that much of Le Pen’s campaign apparently, ultimately, was funded via “loans” from Russian banks.

In the issue that came out just prior to the voting, in urging French voters to consider their decision carefully, The Economist had argued of the choice French voters were poised to make:

Though his manifesto lacks detail, Mr Macron offers reform, realism and a chance of a more dynamic France. He would loosen the job-killing labour code, trim the gargantuan state a little, reboot Franco-German chumminess and strengthen the institutions that hold the euro zone together.

Ms Le Pen, by contrast, offers bigotry mixed with make-believe. Vote for her, she suggests, and the state will shower you with goodies, paid for largely by being less generous to immigrants. She promises earlier retirement, bigger pensions, a short working week, tax cuts and a top-notch hospital on your doorstep. In her belief that French people can prosper by working less and consuming more public services (although government already spends 56% of GDP), she has much in common with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who won a fifth of the vote in the first round last month. Her flyers stress this point, hoping to poach his supporters or persuade them to stay at home rather than vote for Mr Macron. Ms Le Pen is also reaching out to mainstream conservatives. To woo followers of François Fillon, a former prime minister who also won a fifth of the vote in the first round, she has borrowed some of his lines about France’s unique place in the universe and downplayed some of her more alarming policies, such as quitting the euro and perhaps the European Union itself.

To voters of all stripes, she promises protection. Against the possibility of being laid off, if they have jobs. Against foreign competition. Against crime: she would add 40,000 prison beds, put 15,000 more cops on the street and let them shoot first if they feel threatened. Against terrorism: she would close mosques suspected of radicalism and deport foreigners suspected of jihadist ties. And against having unfamiliar neighbours: she would cut net migration from around 65,000 people a year to 10,000. She contrasts her own patriotic platform (‘Choose France’) with the rootless cosmopolitanism of her opponent, a former Rothschild banker. Echoing an old barb from President François Hollande, she says that ‘the enemy of the French people is still the world of finance, but this time he has a name, he has a face, he has a party.’”

Le Pen’s challenge also drew on a deep strain of French politics that stretched back through history. This included a kind of clericalism in opposition to the evils of “cosmopolitanism”; an antipathy towards foreigners that also tapped into a sub rosa anti-Semitism that reached back to the Dreyfus affair and the more recent holocaust denialism of Le Pen’s father and some of her current supporters; and an anger over the lost glory of France’s imperial position and cultural ascendancy in Europe.

Nevertheless, the incoming Macron presidency will need to govern with the realisation that a serious chunk of the French electorate espoused a major disagreement with all of the – still faintly muzzy – ideas he has campaigned on. And that disagreement is in opposition to the fundamentals of the modern French state that is a core part of a common European sensibility. Accordingly, successfully reaching out to these voters will be a serious task – and a hard one – for the untested Macron.

Right at the end of the campaign, it was revealed that the Macron campaign had been hard-hit by a computer hack that released vast amounts of e-mails and other documents to the public. Besides denouncing this cyber assault, the Macron campaign begged voters to discount all of this information, arguing that, among other things, interspersed with actual documents, there were also fake documents purposefully designed to smear his campaign. Fortunately for Macron, perhaps, the release of information from the hacking came only just before the actual election. As a result, this hacking appears to have had little impact on voter choice, say analysts.

Going forward, Macron must quickly create a cabinet that transcends the rather limited circle of people now closely allied to him in his new party. Similarly, he must solidify a slate of candidates for the National Assembly and he must shore up alliances with ideologically similar deputies after the election, assuming he does not gain a clear majority of the country’s parliament after the two-step process for that voting. And he must somehow constrain Marine Le Pen in her ambitions to assert the right to be the official opposition, even if she has but few deputies in the nation’s parliament.

Macron will, however, find, at least among France’s EU partners, a reservoir of support that derives from his embrace of the pan-European project. But, how he will get along with Donald Trump, Theresa May and Vladimir Putin – well, those will be some very interesting developments. DM

Photo: Supporters of French presidential election candidate for the En Marche!' (Onwards!) political movement Emmanuel Macron (not pictured) celebrate at the Carrousel du Louvre after Emmanuel Macron won the second round of the French presidential elections in Paris, France, 07 May 2017. Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the final round of France’s presidential election, with exit polls indicating that Macron is leading with approximately 65% of the vote. EPA/YOAN VALAT.

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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