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A new dawn in French politics

© Eric Cabanis, AFP | People stand in a voting booth before casting their votes at a polling station in Villefranche-de-Lauragais, near Toulouse, on April 23, 2017 during the first round of the French Presidential election.

After the implosion of France’s two principal political parties during the first round of its presidential election, we haven’t seen the end of the demolition.

A new day is dawning on French politics. In the final battle for the presidency, French voters have chosen two figures who incarnate not a clash between the left and the right but rather one between a “nationalist” vision on the one hand and a “Europeanist” or even “globalist” one on the other. The showdown will be merciless. In one corner, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who is calling for closing borders and withdrawing from European solidarity, attracts those who believe that France is losing its identity and its sovereignty. In the other corner, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who was the only candidate to proclaim his faith in the European project, brings together those who believe Europe protects us; those who accept, with confidence, the challenges posed by globalization and who have an open interpretation of French identity and culture.

The two major right-wing and left-wing parties that have alternated in governing France for the past 60 years will hereby watch this confrontation from the sidelines, uncertain as to whether they will survive it themselves.

The situation is most critical for what remains of the Socialist Party. Benoît Hamon, that party’s candidate, was caught in a stranglehold during this campaign between Macron’s En Marche! (Forward!) movement and far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive France: Hamon ultimately scored 6.36 percent of the first-round vote, good for fifth place, amounting to less than one-third of Mélenchon’s fourth-place score. The Socialist Party has been reduced to a few senior figures allied with Socialist President François Hollande and a handful of so-called insubordinates, or “frondeurs” in French parlance, who nevertheless consider one another sworn enemies. It isn’t even clear that what remains of the party will succeed in staying united.

Oddly, on Sunday night, some Socialist heavyweights, like Socialist junior minister Jean-Marie Le Guen and longtime Hollande associate Julien Dray, seemed to not express themselves like losers. It was as if Macron, a former economy minister under Hollande who quit to mount his own presidential bid, was still part of their political family. Incidentally, Socialist Party boss Jean-Christophe Cambadélis hurried on Monday morning to kick the moment for recriminations down the road, until after June’s legislative elections.

But another Socialist executive, the party’s leader in the lower-house National Assembly, Olivier Faure, is taking a different line. Faure is calling for the party to recognise a “collective error” in the Benoît Hamon debacle. It isn’t certain that “insubordinate” former Hollande cabinet ministers like Arnaud Montebourg and Aurélie Filippetti will accept the proposal by Hollande-ally Stéphane Le Foll to let Hollande’s current prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, muster the troops for the legislative battle. As for Manuel Valls, the former Socialist prime minister – who, after losing his party’s nomination to Hamon in January’s left-wing primary, broke ranks to back Macron even before Sunday’s first round – isn’t even trying to salvage what remains of the party. Valls calls the current state of play “the end of a cycle”. He appears to be flying the coop, making good on his prediction that there would be two “irreconcilable” blocs on the left.

Irreconcilable, they are – between, on the one hand, a radical current flirting more and more with a leftist extreme, and, on the other, a social-liberal current ready to work with the European centre-right. Mélenchon refused to call on his supporters to vote for Macron in the run-off to keep the National Front from taking power, a decision Cambadélis calls a “historic error”. Mélenchon’s stance could well hinder the far-left from capitalizing (not a word he likes) on his very strong election score to become the emblematic figure of a united and rebuilt left as opposition beyond this election cycle. If he doesn’t act responsibly, however, he could accelerate the left wing’s disintegration.

The future is slightly brighter for the conservative Les Républicains party. For one thing, its candidate, François Fillon, despite the damage that legal troubles inflicted on his bid, managed a decent score in the first round (20.01 percent). Considering that Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s 4.7 percent score can be explained as a sanctuary choice for voters who found it impossible to vote for either Fillon or Le Pen, the right side of the political spectrum is not in bad shape. It can hope to win the legislative elections in June – on the condition that it, too, reaches consensus over the line to follow.

The emergence of a centrist pole with Macron’s movement also forces the right to clarify its own stance: between the Europhobes and Europhiles – the euroskeptics and the eur-optimists – for one, but also on moral and economic issues. What is the connection between the socially ultra-conservative “Common Sense” current, which espouses a “neither-nor” (“ni-ni”) line in refusing to vote for either Le Pen or Macron in the run-off, and the socially liberal leanings of Les Républicains luminaries like former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin or former cabinet minister François Baroin? Or between the Christian Democrat Christine Boutin, who has said she will vote for Le Pen in order to keep Macron out of power, the Nicolas Sarkozy-era cabinet minister Nadine Morano, who refuses to call for supporters to vote for the candidate she persists in calling “Emmanuel Hollande” (as Fillon dubbed Macron during the campaign), and former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, who must be thinking he could have won this election (if he hadn’t lost the conservative primary in November) and who has called on Les Républicains to “revise the political line”? While rumour has it Sarkozy could announce he is voting Macron in the run-off, the ex-president has let 48 hours pass without saying anything.

As the two principal losers in this election, Hamon and Fillon, try to put their worn-out troops in some kind of order, the risk could be that everyone forgets that, before June’s legislative elections, a second round of the presidential contest is to be decided. Macron, in gathering his associates for a post-first-round soirée on Sunday night at La Rotonde, a chic brasserie in Paris’s Montparnasse neighbourhood, made his first mistake in too openly giving the impression he was celebrating a victory prematurely.

Marine Le Pen probably put together a poor campaign for the first round, but she still could have a very strong one before the second round: in attacking her adversary’s “weakling” credentials in the face of the danger of Islamist terrorism, as she has begun to do, or in trying to turn the vote into a referendum on “economically liberal globalisation”. The National Front candidate could continue to attract the swath of France that has trouble making its ends meet, that feels its identity is threatened, taking advantage of the left’s disarray and the part of the right that has been eliminated. Abstention will be her great ally.

This article has been translated from the original, in French.

Date created : 2017-04-25