En Marche! to May 7 and Beyond
April 24, 2017
A Collective Sigh of Relief…and Shock
You could hear a collective exhale on Sunday as French voters—who all along accurately expressed their feelings to pollsters among a crowded field of diverse presidential candidates—now face a head-to-head contest between a so-called globalist, centrist, pro-European Emmanuel Macron and an unyielding, anti-European, self-described “patriot” in far-right leader Marine Le Pen. A look at the electoral map of France reveals a country divided nearly right down the middle.
However, this sigh of relief must be immediately followed by a collective gasp at the total collapse of France’s two traditional parties. The center-left received 6 percent of the vote; the center-right 19 percent. France’s left has shattered, and Marine Le Pen is now a growing and credible political force in France who will not go away. A fractured electorate coupled with the defeat of the Socialists and Les Républicains parties reveal a drastic shift in electoral patterns whereby the traditional left-right political divide has given way to the nationalist-globalist chasm. We have no idea how France will be governed in the future in the absence of parliamentary majorities by the two traditional parties. The old system has been destroyed, but the new system has not yet begun to take shape.
The nature of the contest from the first round to the second is now fundamentally different. A large field of 11 candidates, the first round represented an opportunity to voice policy ideas and express ideological positions. The second round will be focused on keeping the extremes out, as was shown by the many endorsements Macron received almost immediately after results were announced on April 23, in which people on the left and the right (except far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon) called on their supporters to vote against the far-right on May 7—and, by extension, for Macron. It is nonetheless notable that several high-profile leaders on the right, including François Fillon’s supporting right-wing platform Sens Commun, have not given any voting guidelines so far.
Media interest in the May 7 second round of the election may or may not fade following the intense focus of the unprecedented and uncertain first round. Many presume Macron will win despite questions about his strategy to govern. As one news headline suggested, the “coronation” of 39-year-old centrist Macron has begun. Surely, everyone knows that Marine Le Pen cannot win…but this is where the danger may lie.
Possible Danger Signs
Statistically, it is highly improbable, if not impossible, for Le Pen to win on May 7. We are stretched to see how Le Pen could reach 40 percent of the vote. However, three scenarios would have to unfold nearly simultaneously for such an unlikely outcome to occur.
Scenario one: Voters also believe that Le Pen cannot win, assume Macron has the vote, and thus see no need to disturb their pleasant Sunday to vote, forcing a very abnormally low voter turnout that would work to Le Pen’s advantage. The candidates’ May 3 televised debate would also have to be catastrophic for Macron and showcase an incredible performance by Le Pen to sway public opinion in any meaningful way. Macron has typically performed well in debates.
Scenario two: Although not highly publicized, Russian influence operations against Macron during the first round were quite substantial, ranging from false allegations, cyber attacks, and incorrect polling data to aggressive social media trolling. We anticipate more activity against Macron and in support of a Le Pen victory. In a close race (which we believe will not be the case unless scenario one fully unfolds), it could make a difference.
Scenario three: The possibility of another major terrorist event in France on the scale of the November 2015 attacks prior to May 7 cannot be discounted. Last week’s discovery of a major cache of weaponry in Marseille combined with what appears to be some organized lone-wolf attacks against police has everyone on edge. Although the limited attack on the Champs Elysées did not alter the election results, sadly France is growing accustomed to small but nonetheless tragic and shocking terrorist events. But a major event could be a potential tipping point for an emotional public response to the French state’s inability to protect French citizens that could reinforce Le Pen’s tough anti-immigration, law-and-order message against Macron’s message of societal unity.
Getting What You Wish and the Way Ahead
If polling is as accurate for the second round as for the first, Emmanuel Macron will be the next president of France on May 7, and Europe may have managed to suppress its rising populism and nationalism—for now. Macron has been described as a talented “televangelist” for he preaches the gospel of a pro-reform, pro-European France but does not have a clear political way forward to fulfill this vision. Of neither the political left or right, Macron’s electoral success has been based on: (1) not being a member of the recognized political elite and (2) being a blank slate upon which many can project their political hopes.
Because we have no idea how an inexperienced and young French president with no party base will lead France and begin to reform it—as he has promised to do—over the next 12 days both the center-left and center-right political forces will seek to influence Macron to articulate their preferred political responses. Macron’s blank political canvas technique will no longer suffice, making the May 3 debate interesting, as will be the two rounds for the French National Assembly on June 11 and 18. Although Macron has been fielding candidates for the legislative elections, it is unclear whether his movement can be transformed into legislative success in the French system. Because legislative elections are driven by local issues and local leaders, much will depend on En Marche’s ability to attract powerful local figures across different political spectrums. On the other side, the center-right Les Républicains, currently a stronger political organizing force than the left, will seek a legislative majority and perhaps political cohabitation. Le Pen will also seek to gain parliamentary seats (National Front currently holds just two seats), and she increasingly attracts younger voters to her cause.
In the end, there are only two ways to address rising populism and nationalism: suppress it or confront it by addressing its grievances. If a Macron presidency is an effective way of addressing these forces and reforming France, it will be a significant contribution to strengthening both France and Europe. If he, like his predecessors, fails, his election will have temporarily suppressed populist impulses but as a consequence may unleash these forces fully in 2022, at which point Marine Le Pen will be the only remaining “outsider” patiently waiting for her time to come.
Here's more from Heather Conley on the French elections via the CSIS Podcast:
Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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