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The New Centre

Enda O’Doherty

“The political centre cannot hold,” wrote Fintan O’Toole in the opening sentence of his Irish Times column of April 16th. “If this was not already obvious, last Sunday’s [first-round presidential] elections in France have surely made it so.” How, one might ask, does that confident statement stand up after the second round of those elections, in which the political centre, in the shape of Emmanuel Macron, held the presidency, defeating its far-right opponent by a very comfortable seventeen-point margin?

In the interest of fairness let us move quickly to Fintan’s third sentence: “Even if Emmanuel Macron, who is certainly a centrist, is re-elected in the second round, it will be less because of what he is than what he is not: a crypto-fascist.” Leaving aside the implication – more political insult than demonstrable truth ‑ that Marine Le Pen is a “crypto-fascist”, we have here a statement with which it is certainly hard to disagree: many of those who came out to vote for Macron in the second round last Sunday (April 24th) did so with some reluctance but felt it was their duty to block the path to the presidency of Le Pen. But while it is legitimate to draw attention to this reluctance, doing so has actually very limited explanatory value in the absence of any consideration of constitutional and historical context.

Unlike most of the countries whose electoral processes we are vaguely familiar with, France does not have an election day but election days. To decide the presidency, we have had votes on April 10th and April 24th, while to elect the parliament whose support is essential to the president in implementing his policies we will have further election days on June 12th and 19th. This two-round process means that voting for the candidate you dislike least – voting while perhaps holding one’s nose – is absolutely baked in to the French electoral system. In the first round there is a large choice of candidates, someone to suit almost all political tastes; in the second round the choice will be much more limited – in a presidential election only two candidates go through – so one may have to either vote for the less undesirable choice or stay at home.

This situation presents itself in particularly stark form when one of the two candidates left standing in the second round comes from the political extremes. In the presidential election of 2002, the Gaullist (centre-right) candidate, Jacques Chirac, led the pack in the first round, with 5.6 million votes. The runner-up, however, was something of a surprise, not to say a shock: Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right Front National, who managed to pip the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, by less than 200,000 votes. In the period between the two rounds there was a vigorous mobilisation of a wide spectrum of public opinion and an online campaign organised by the left and far left urging their supporters to go to the polls and vote for Chirac “wearing gloves and with a clothes peg on their noses”. The left-wing vote in the first round had been 12.2 million, but only 4.6 million of this had gone to Jospin, with the rest divided between seven other candidates. In the event, Chirac won the second round by 25.5 million votes to 5.5 for Le Pen. He had found, by May 5th, 20 million political supporters that he didn’t have on April 21st. Perhaps not all of them found it necessary to wear clothes pegs into the polling station.

The next two presidential elections (2007 and 2012) were left-right contests in the second round. Centrist, communist and radical left voters switched their support in quite large numbers in the run-off to favour the candidacy of the socialists Ségolène Royal (2007, unsuccessful) and François Hollande (2012, successful). In 2017, for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic, neither the traditional centre left (Parti socialiste since 1969) nor the centre right (currently Les Républicains) made it to the second round. Facing the far right, represented by Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine, was the former socialist minister Emmanuel Macron, standing as a centrist and backed by a new purpose-built political machine, En Marche! As first-round voters for the left had lent their votes to the centre-right Chirac in 2002 so now they did to the centrist Macron, if not in quite such impressive numbers. Macron garnered 8.7 million votes in the first round and added on a further 12 million in the second, in spite of the refusal of Jean-Luc Mélenchon to offer any advice to his 7 million first-round voters on how to vote after his own elimination. In 2022 Macron actually increased his first-round tally from 2017 but his second-round bonus, from transferred support, was this time only nine million. For a considerable number of voters, it seemed, the gloves and clothes peg would no longer do the trick. Nevertheless, the end result was still anything but close, with Macron coming in 17 points ahead (he had been 32 points ahead in 2017).

Who were the main winners and losers in the 2022 presidential election? And what are the salient features of the new political landscape? Some of the features of 2022, it can be said, were already strongly in evidence in 2017, chiefly in the emergence of a new strong centre party and the obvious weakening of the centre left. In 2022 the centre has maintained its dominant position, while the centre left has further collapsed (PS 28.6%, 6.4% and 1.7% in the first presidential rounds of 2012, 2017 and 2022). A new feature of 2022 has been the accompanying collapse of the centre right: in 2017 François Fillon, in spite of allegations of petty corruption against him, won 20% of the first-round vote for Les Républicains; in 2021 Valérie Pécresse managed only 4.8%.

It would seem, from the virtual disappearance of centre left and centre right (the main theme of Fintan O’Toole’s column) that the centre left has yielded the ground to the far left and the centre right to the far right. This is pretty much how Fintan reads the situation. But to overemphasise the (undoubted) advance of the extremes is to forget that the political traffic has been moving in both directions – not just from centre right to far right and centre left to far left but also, and arguably more so, from centre right and centre left to centre.

A closer look at the winners and losers may help clarify this movement and perhaps suggest what shape French politics may take on in the future – though what we can say with most confidence about the 2027 presidential election is that we can at present have no idea who the contenders will be (Macron cannot run again) or what will be their relative political weight five years from now.

Most journalistic commentaries published so far have identified the political winners of 2022 as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Marine Le Pen and – with much qualification – Emmanuel Macron. In the face of this somewhat exaggerated qualification it may be necessary to remind ourselves that the candidate who won the election actually won the election, and quite decisively so in spite of the continuing growth in support for his opponent. Macron, in his first term in office, faced the revolt of the gilets jaunes, then the coronavirus epidemic, and finally the economic shock and threat to living standards provoked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In spite of all these difficulties, and perhaps the additional handicap of his being perceived by many voters as more hypertrophied intellect than human being, he won a second term – the first French president since 2002 to do so. Certainly a strong factor in this victory was the politics of his opponent. In a blog post from last month (“The Mould Broken” ‑ https://drb.ie/the-mould-broken/) I wrote: “In the current state of play of French politics, in any contest between the extreme right and someone else there is likely to be only one winner.” This was clearly true for the 2017 election and it is still true.

For the far-right Rassemblement national (formerly Front national), a progression over twenty years from 5.5 million votes (2002), to 10.6 million (2017), to 13.3 million (2022) is certainly a record to be happy about. However, as no president in the last twenty years has been elected with less than 18 million votes the party still has some way to go. Can RN make that progress? There are reasons to believe it cannot, at least without making further major changes to its political offer. First, though Marine Le Pen will still be under sixty in 2027 there has been speculation that she is not particularly keen to fight a third presidential election. And RN without her may not have quite the same appeal. Second, there is the persisting problem of the party’s limited geographical reach. The simple or simplistic version of this – the one that RN itself likes to put about – is that while the party may not be much favoured by the “cosmopolitans” in the big cities it is increasingly the automatic choice of “the little people” from the small towns and villages of France. This, however, is only partially true. RN support is quite dense in northern and northeastern France and also along the Mediterranean coast. It is, however, extremely thin in western France and across huge swathes of the rural south, regions that are equally distinguished by the presence of small towns and “little people”. Even more stark is RN’s urban deficit. There are forty cities in France with more than 100,000 inhabitants. In how many of these did Le Pen outpoll Macron in the second round? The perhaps surprising answer is none ‑ not one. Indeed the far right failed to win even a third of the votes cast in thirty-two of these forty cities. A party that is so patently unable to make a mark in such a vital section of France’s political demography would seem to have limited possibilities of expansion.

Another proclaimed victor has been Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (LFI). Certainly few of those studying opinion polling a month before the first round vote, when Mélenchon was featuring at from 11% to 14%, would have forecast his final score of 22%. Tactically, LFI ran an inspired campaign, particularly at the close when it hammered home the message that a vote for Mélenchon was the only vote utile (vote that counts) on the left and that there was now a real possibility that, against the odds, he could win through to champion left-wing values in the second round. That catchup certainly didn’t look like happening when the idea was first floated (with Mélenchon anything from five to seven points adrift of Le Pen), and of course it didn’t happen – but it quite nearly did. Mélenchon’s triumph, however, came largely at the expense of the rest of the left rather than of the centre or the right. An Ipsos poll taken a month before the first round showed the left apart from LFI (Trotskyists, communists, socialists, Greens) on 15.5%. In the actual vote on April 10th these parties totalled less than 10%.

Whatever qualifications one might think it wise to enter about the victories of the victors, the losses of the losers are more unambiguous. For the Parti socialiste, the result is an unmitigated disaster, though one that was announced a long way off, during the presidency of François Hollande (2012-2017). The PS has long been characterised by a level of internal factionalism and political egoism which those looking on from outside France find almost impossible to believe. Differing – usually only marginally differing – political philosophies are organised in currents (courants) and political clubs (cercles de réflexion) which then become the vehicles for the ambitions of individuals. The factional arm-wrestling is formalised in the clash of divergent motions (each seeking to define a “path to socialism”) at party conferences, after which the spoils are divided up according to the support each motion has received from delegates. The end result is that a vast amount of energy is directed inwards, with little left over to confront political opponents or engage with the electorate. A party which can win only 1.7% support in a presidential election might well think of dissolving itself, but this is unlikely to happen in the short term, at least partially because the national arena is not the only one in which the PS is engaged. Cities and regions are also important repositories of power in France and the situation for the PS (and the Greens) is less bleak here: eight of the ten most populous cities in France are currently run by the centre left (five by the socialists, three by the Greens). It is however hard not to conclude that if this current is to have any future in France at national level (the PS and Greens are eminently politically compatible) some kind of refoundation will be required: it might well be the Greens rather than the socialists who now constitute the larger element of this currently reduced political tendency.

Though the centre right, on 4.8%, did better than the socialist centre left, their humiliation may have been the greater. While Anne Hidalgo of the PS never really featured in opinion polling, mostly remaining stagnant on 2% or 3%, Valérie Pécresse scored as high as 20% in one poll last December and it was obviously the hope of her party that with Le Pen and Zemmour cancelling each other out on the far right she might pull ahead of both to face Macron in the second round, a contest in which – perhaps – anything might have happened. But that is not how things turned out. On the far right Le Pen regained her advantage over Zemmour, who nevertheless retained enough support to leave Pécresse with nowhere to go: her support began to dwindle and her candidacy looked less and less credible.

The centre right has arguably made errors in both the 2017 and 2022 elections, judging that the momentum in French politics now lay on the hard right and choosing candidates, or political programmes, which could – to a degree – tap into that shift. On both occasions much more centrist candidates were available to them (Alain Juppé in 2017, Xavier Bertrand in 2022) but they were not chosen. Bertrand in particular showed very promisingly in opinion polls but the party militants, apparently well to the right of their voters (the PS has had a similar if opposite problem), rejected him as a candidate. On one level this was a tactical decision, but a mistaken one: making some hard-right noises was assumed to be a smart electoral move, but it seems that electors to whom such positions appealed preferred the real deal to the opportunistically assumed stance. One should not however understate the difficulties the centre right and centre left faced. While the growth of the far right has certainly had a very negative impact on the centre right, it also faces the problem that for many of its supporters Macron is a fairly acceptable second choice. That is probably even more true for centre left voters, who started migrating to the centre in 2017 and have not since seen any reason to come back.

The most immediate political problem now facing President Macron is the legislative elections in June (two rounds). Will he be able to repeat his success of 2017 (361 seats out of 577 held by centrists) or will his opponents be able to impose “cohabitation” on him, with a prime minister from outside his own ranks? Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already suggested himself for such a prime-ministerial role and is seeking talks about tactical alliances with the PS, the communists and the Greens. To garner the requisite weight in parliament to make such an eventuality possible would, however, seem to require a political miracle (LFI won seventeen seats in 2017). It would need co-operation not just with other parties of the left (who arguably have little reason to trust Mélenchon or help him) but also a massive transfer of support from those who voted for the far right in the presidential election. What positions might they find they had in common? Anti-Europeanism might well be one.

The two-round process in legislative elections normally involves a good deal of horse-trading (you withdraw from certain constituencies and I will withdraw from others). Local political dignitaries (“barons”) and even the mayors of small towns can hope to be bought many fine meals between now and June. We can certainly expect Macron’s people to be as active as anyone else in building alliances. Indeed the centre, which has been assembled by migrants from both right and left, some time ago set up a number of complementary mini-parties, notably Territoires de progrès on the centre left and Horizons on the centre right, both to gather in new recruits and to (each) keep its own end up in the Macronist coalition. The manoeuvring between now and June in the constituencies will be fascinating to watch.

Should we be worried about France? In 2002 many French people were shocked that a representative of the far right (and a notorious antisemite), Jean-Marie Le Pen, could make it to the second round of the presidential election. So much so that 20 million of them crossed the floor to vote for Jacques Chirac. That once almost automatic “republican” reflex has certainly weakened since then. Many of those who voted for the radical left in the first round in 2022 responded to questions about their intentions in the second with readymade soundbites like “Macron and Le Pen, it’s like cholera and the plague: how could you choose?” Le Pen’s support has grown gradually over the years on the back of a perceived softening of the FN/RN’s political stances and a consequent “banalisation” for the voting public of extreme right politics, no longer perceived as being utterly beyond the pale. Marine Le Pen is not her father, at least not in political style, but her party’s policies are still anti-European (though perhaps a little Hungarian), xenophobic, culturally nationalist (envisioning a France that is self-sufficient, white and, if not exactly Christian then post-Christian). She also may have benefited in her presidential campaign from the rivalry of a far-right candidate (Éric Zemmour) who came across as noticeably more deluded, more nasty and particularly more full of antipathy to the French Muslim community than herself.

In its review of the television debate between Macron and Le Pen between the two rounds, Le Monde suggested that the former had scored on every point except possibly one. While the sitting president came across as “the man who has an answer for everything” (a bad thing apparently) Marine Le Pen impressed as someone with a better grasp of the texture of the lives of ordinary people, particularly those experiencing difficulties. Marine was “a listener”, while Emmanuel was too busy, too arrogant or too dismissive of those unable to comprehensively understand all aspects of a political or economic problem to waste his time on them.

Marine is indeed a listener and her party’s strategy (in essence pure populism) is to a large degree based on listening to people’s grievances and then relaying them to the wider electorate by megaphone. People (some people, that is) say they feel left out, unconsidered, left behind, regarded by the authorities (“the elite”) as being of no account; and the same goes for the places they live. “Understanding” such discontents is a full-time occupation for RN, as is having them accepted as not just inchoate feelings but indisputable political truths. Populism is a political practice that feeds on discontent, but it also feeds discontent. Is it dangerous? This is hard to say but I would suggest that the answer might be “in its current phase not extremely” – but let us keep on observing.

What would be dangerous would be if the growth of support for extremism, particularly on the right, continued to be ignored or not responded to. In the aftermath of the election, Olivier Véran, an impressive minister for health during the Covid crisis whose origins lie in the Parti socialiste, said that the government had “heard the French people’s message” and that there would now be “a change in method”. One would hope so ‑ but really one will have to wait and see. Many of the people who voted for RN in northeastern France for example come from regions which only ten years ago voted heavily for the left. With the eclipse of traditional industries (coal, steel and other manufacturing) they have seen employment opportunities shrink, their children in many cases move away and the alternatives that have replaced heavy industry – “services” and large-scale retail – offering new forms of low-paid employment which can often entail a bullying managerial culture that feels it has a free hand to oppress in the absence of the countervailing pressure of trade union power.

In spite of what is often written, the apparently terminal decline of France’s traditional political parties of centre right and centre left is as much due to the breakthrough and the evident political talents of the young and dynamic Emmanuel Macron as it is to the growth of the extremes. If, however, those political extremes are in a stronger place in 2027 than they are now, if the living standards of working class Frenchmen and Frenchwomen have not been improved and the prospects of their children do not look more hopeful, then Mr Macron, for all his talents, will have to be regarded as, on balance, a political failure.




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