Complacency threatens Macron in France’s unhappy democracy
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Hailed as a victory for hope, Emmanuel Macron’s strong showing in the first round of France’s presidential election belies the deep frustration and despondency expressed by voters, many of whom vow to shun the decisive run-off against Marine Le Pen.
It is often said of France’s two-round presidential election that it allows voters to choose first with their heart and then with their head. But for many taking part in this year’s momentous election, picking a candidate has proven to be both a heartbreaker and a headache.
The rock star’s welcome that Macron received from swooning fans at his “victory” party on Sunday jarred with the lack of enthusiasm displayed by a large number of voters who cast ballots in his name. In Paris, where a third of the vote went to Macron, many felt they had been "taken hostage" and "pressured by opinion polls" into casting a "useful” but “half-hearted” vote for the former economy minister.
Laura Buathier, a 27-year-old web designer, and her friend Alexis Bodet, 29, summed up the general mood in Belleville, a bastion of the left in eastern Paris. While he voted for leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon “with his heart”, she backed Macron “out of fear”, desperate to avoid an unpalatable run-off between two candidates she could not bear.
Buathier added another, pragmatic reason for her choice. Unlike Mélenchon, she believed Macron could “cobble together a ruling majority” after parliamentary elections in June. “After all, does he not agree with everyone?” she teased, referring to depictions of the moderate centrist as a crowd-pleaser whose platitudes and vague policy statements are, his critics claim, designed to irk no-one.
Voting by default
“Pragmatic” is how Macron likes to define his business-friendly, socially liberal platform. Pragmatism is also what has drawn swathes of voters to rally behind his “neither right, nor left” pitch – a remarkable feat in a heavily polarised and politicised country.
Macron has undoubtedly succeeded in eliciting quasi-religious devotion from a segment of his fan base, which has been slickly choreographed and amplified by the En Marche ! (Forward) movement he created barely a year ago. But he has also been the main beneficiary of the so-called “useful vote”, helped by the perception that he was the likeliest candidate to defeat Le Pen.
Bertrand Delanoë, the former Socialist mayor of Paris, summed up the new imperative in justifying his call to rally behind Macron rather than the Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon. He said backing Macron meant “giving maximum strength in the first round to the candidate who can beat Le Pen”.
The fact that all polls pointed to the far-right leader qualifying for the second round meant many voters on both sides of the political divide felt compelled to give up on voting with their heart. “In order to avoid a disastrous outcome, it is not just a case of tempering one’s beliefs, but actually renouncing them,” wrote Le Monde’s editorialist Gérard Courtois. “This evidently contributes to Macron’s success, but equally to the frustration of a large number of voters who feel doomed to vote by default.”
In theory, voters who dithered at length in the first round should have fewer qualms in the run-off, where the two remaining candidates could hardly be more different. Macron is passionately pro-European, Le Pen is a fierce Europhobe. He is outward-looking, she wants closed borders. The former preaches tolerance, the latter stirs up division. One oozes optimism, the other feeds on pessimism. For progressive voters, or indeed anyone who abhors extremism, the choice should be crystal clear.
And yet on Sunday, many disgruntled voters rushed to say they would either shun the polls or cast a blank ballot on May 7. In the swanky and deeply conservative 16th arrondissement (district) of Paris, where 60% of voters stood by their scandal-plagued champion François Fillon, a fuming Régine Benamarn said there was “no way” she would vote in the second round. The 55-year-old pharmacist railed against a “revolting campaign of slander by the media”, whom she accused of rooting for Macron.
Others questioned the legitimacy of casting “useful votes”, which 43-year-old teacher Stéphane likened to a “scam”. “Time and time again we are urged to fall into the same trap,” said the Mélenchon voter, for whom the presidential election “isn’t the be-all and end-all of political life”. He said he was “ready to risk a Le Pen victory and take the fight to parliament and the streets of France”, adding: “Le Pen’s voters have something to say, we should listen to them.”
Claims that Macron, in contrast, has precious little to say are a recurrent theme among critics of the former economy minister. According to a Harris Interactive survey, only 31% of French voters have a clear idea of what policies Macron would pursue once in office, well below his main rivals. The vacuity of his victory speech on Sunday appeared to comfort suspicions that the telegenic political upstart is lacking in substance.
In a country where oratory is especially valued, Macron’s purported inanities and rock-star antics – such as shouting himself hoarse at Messianic rallies, swearing to his audience that he loves them – have become a subject of mockery. They are even less tolerated of a professed theatre and poetry lover who has attended France’s top schools and touted his proximity with the late philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
Librarian Laura Antonietta, 47, found Macron “singularly lacking in historical knowledge, wit and rhetorical prowess”. Instead, she claimed the political upstart displayed the “arrogance and flippancy of a parvenu”. “Whether they’re good or bad, at least the other candidates defend certain ideas,” added Loup Bosch Y Palmer, 33, a musical therapist by vocation “and salesman by necessity”. He accused the political novice of “seeking to please everybody”, warning that a Macron presidency would give free rein to the manipulations of big business.
Both said they would show up at the polling station on May 7 out of civic duty, but would cast blank votes so as not to give in to “blackmail”.
‘Hold-up of the century’
Criticism of the former economy minister often borders on personal animosity, reflecting frustration at Macron’s apparently successful attempt to cast himself as a critic of the very “system” that produced him. Health Minister Marisol Touraine, a former colleague of Macron’s, has described his astonishing rise to the threshold of power as the “hold-up of the century”.
With the sting of defeat still fresh, it is hard to tell whether the numerous threats to abstain in the second round are mere bluster. On Tuesday, polls still gave Macron a 20-point lead over Le Pen. They also estimated that Macron would pick far more support from the Fillon and Mélenchon camps than his rival. On paper, the maths point to a landslide for the former investment banker.
But analysts and politicians are urging caution, mindful of the insurgent mood that has swept across Western democracies, and of the fragility of Macron’s electoral base. In urging Socialist voters to rally behind Macron on Sunday, Touraine, the health minister, warned that the presidential frontrunner "must listen to the many voters who made a choice devoid of enthusiasm, a choice by default".
A world under siege
So far, Macron has given little indication that he plans to follow the advice. His victory party at an upscale Parisian brasserie evoked damning comparisons with Nicolas Sarkozy’s notorious bash upon clinching the presidency in 2007. He spent the next day strategising for the June parliamentary elections and drawing up his future government. Amid the celebrations, his supporters talked of the May 7 run-off as a mere “formality”.
Meanwhile, Le Pen has wasted no time. By dawn on Monday she was back on the campaign trail in France’s blighted post-industrial north, blasting Macron’s brasserie celebrations as evidence of his collusion with Parisian elites. The far-right leader, who likes to cast herself as the unlikely champion of France’s downtrodden, is clearly relishing the prospect of a showdown with the globalisation-loving former banker in bespoke suits.
On Tuesday, just 24 hours after stepping into the fray to endorse his former economy minister, President François Hollande felt compelled to reiterate his call on voters to rally against the far right. He lamented the “lack of awareness of what happened last Sunday”, with the National Front securing its best-ever result at more than 7.7 million votes.
The fact that Le Pen came second behind Macron has been hailed as a victory for hope and optimism in the future. It has been greeted with a collective sigh of relief among EU leaders, who dreaded the prospect of Le Pen topping the polls. But if one adds up the first-round tallies of all the candidates who either wished to quit the EU or had serious qualms about its “neoliberal” slant, the result is a country split in half.
“Macron is the survivor of a world under siege, not its triumphant hero,” wrote Dominique Reynié, a professor of political science at Sciences-Po Paris. And judging by his premature celebrations on Sunday, Reynié added, France’s president-in-waiting “does not appear to have grasped the depth” of voters’ discontent.