Arun Kapil | Macron’s Empty Shell · LRB 26 April 2022

There was general relief, in France and further afield, on Sunday, when Emmanuel Macron was projected to win the second round of the French presidential election. The polls in the final week of the campaign all showed him opening up a 10 to 14 point lead over Marine Le Pen – especially after last Wednesday’s debate, in which he was thought to have the upper hand – but worries had set in during the latter half of March among hard-headed analysts as well as inveterate hand-wringers.

The Ukraine factor helped Macron at the outset of the war and then began to wear off, leaving his deficiencies – including arrogance, condescension and a lack of core political values – in sharper focus. Le Pen’s under-the-radar campaigning in la France profonde was proving effective; she seemed finally to have ‘de-demonised’ her image and that of her party, now known as the Rassemblement National (RN). The candidacy of the even more right-wing Éric Zemmour made her look moderate by comparison. The polls tightened, bringing her within striking distance of 50 per cent. But Macron’s 17-point victory in round two on Sunday is wider than any poll had projected.

It was obvious after round one on 10 April that everything hung on the followers of the radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who reached 22 per cent in a late surge as mostly moderate, strategically minded left-wing voters defected from the other left candidates, all of whom finished under 5 per cent. Mélenchon (who took nearly 70 per cent of French Muslim ballots according to an Ifop poll) came close close to pipping Le Pen for second place in the run-off.

In 2017, 50 to 60 per cent of Mélenchon’s voters transferred to Macron in the second round, with all but a handful of the rest abstaining or nullifying their ballots. But five years of neoliberal macronisme made it tougher for the left this time, and the anti-system protest vote that fell in behind Mélenchon looked very much as though it would go to Le Pen. The urgent need to appeal to Mélenchon’s voters in the run-off inflected the debate: the ‘four I’s’ – immigration, insecurity, Islam, identity – gave way to issues that preoccupy the left, with climate and the environment moving up the agenda for Macron, while for Le Pen opposition to his proposed pension reforms shared pride of place with constant reminders of the soaring cost of living.

After round one Mélenchon urged his supporters not to give a single vote to Le Pen but he did not advise them to vote for Macron. According to Ipsos, Macron took 42 per cent of the Mélenchon vote, with 41 per cent casting invalid ballots and 17 per cent voting for the candidate of the far right. There were stronger transfers from other candidates, including the ecologist Yannick Jadot and Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains (as the party of Chirac and Sarkozy now styles itself).

Macron’s landslide victory is scarcely a ringing endorsement: in total, 48 per cent of those who voted for him, according to a Harris Interactive poll, did so to keep his rival out of the Elysée – a truth he acknowledged in his Sunday night victory speech at the Eiffel Tower. And the 28 per cent abstention rate – the second highest in the history of the Fifth Republic for a presidential second round – means that he was elected by a mere 38.5 per cent of registered voters; only Georges Pompidou in 1969 was elected with less.

As much as a third of the electorate – across the political spectrum – strongly disapproves of Macron’s performance in office, or of him as a person, but in spite of this loathing his approval ratings have not been bad. For a few months in 2018-19, at the height of the gilets jaunes movement, they dropped below 30 per cent, but his steadier overall showing in the mid-thirties to mid-forties makes him a more popular president than François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy or Jacques Chirac during his interminable second term.

And while half of the votes that went Macron’s way were cast to block Le Pen, Harris Interactive suggests that the paramount consideration of 43 per cent of Le Pen voters was to prevent a second Macron term. The notion that 40 per cent of the French electorate is now given over to radical right-wing populism is simply not true. Le Pen’s voters are not comparable to the fanaticised Trumpist base of the Republican Party.

Legislative elections are scheduled for 12 and 19 June. The advent of the five-year presidential term in 2002 (down from seven) has squeezed the electoral calendar, with the legislatives arriving hard on the heels of the presidentials and voters generally awarding a majority to the party of the candidate installed in the Elysée. This has meant a significant increase in the power of the executive and the effective transformation of the National Assembly into a rubber stamp for presidential policy, enforced by hand-picked prime ministers, who do as they’re told.

Maybe not this time, however. For one thing, Macron is the first president to be re-elected since the two-term limit entered the constitution in 2008. He is to that extent a lame duck – a novelty in France – which is bound to diminish his authority over his prime minister. For another, it is not a foregone conclusion that Macron’s empty shell of a party, La République en Marche, and its centrist allies will gain a majority of legislative seats. There is a strong desire among the disparate parties of the left, now in survival mode, to field a single candidate in every constituency. If the imperious Mélenchon can contain his hegemonic impulses, it may just happen. The same is true on the extreme right: if Le Pen can overcome her animosity towards Zemmour, his new party (Reconquête!) and hers could also agree not to compete against one another. In June Macron may well be deprived of a majority in the National Assembly.

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