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Defence, democracy, demonstrations and the disaffected: The lessons Macron must learn from his victory

The spectre of Marine Le Pen has been banished - at least for now - but there is plenty for the re-elected president to focus on

Photo: Louise Delmotte/Getty Images

France can breathe out. Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected. He is therefore the first president of the Fifth Republic, after Charles de Gaulle in 1965, to win a second term without having gone through a period of coalition.

When you see the results of the second round – nearly 59% for Macron, 41% for Le Pen – it looks like an easy win. However, serenity was not the feeling most people will associate with this campaign.

It has been conducted in unprecedented times. War is raging on the doorstep of the European Union and NATO. The aftershocks of Covid are still being felt. France has the presidency of the Council of the EU amid debate about its future direction. And now, there are lessons from the campaign for him to digest.

Foreign policy and defence are now key issues for the French

This is usually the forgotten part of presidential elections. Global balance, peace, national defence budgets, nuclear deterrence and NATO’s integrated command are generally mentioned in the candidates’ manifestos but are rarely the subject of bitter debate.

The question of Europe has so far crystallised the differences between globalists and nationalists. This was the case in 2017, when Macron and Le Pen faced off for the first time. The far right candidate then wanted to leave the euro zone and submit the European question to a referendum. She wanted a “European Alliance of Nations” rather than a Union, unable, she said, to protect our borders and resist “migratory submersion”.

This year, Le Pen expressed her wish to leave the integrated command of NATO and to operate a strategic rapprochement between NATO and Russia “once the war is over”, she specified. Her pro-Putin stances worked heavily against her during the campaign, with Emmanuel Macron scoring heavily on her loan from a Russian bank, her “admiration” for Vladimir Putin and her support for Viktor Orban, Putin’s best supporter in the EU.

The French, flabbergasted by the images of the massacres in Ukraine, are devouring the expert TV, print and digital analysis of the conflict. A nation has discovered for itself a passion for armaments, international treaties and games of alliances.

Even if some social categories – the least integrated, the least educated – did not attach the same importance to Ukraine and its ramifications, most voters weighed up the credibility of the candidates on the issue of foreign policy and defence. It was one of the surprises of this election, and Macron will be mindful of the weight it carried.

Macron must tackle a democratic crisis

There were more abstentions and blank or otherwise invalid votes in the second round of the presidential election than ever before: 17 million French people – one in three of us – did not wish to choose between the president and the challenger. This strike at the ballot box has grown steadily at elections over the past 15 years.

In the presidential election of 2007, three years after the “no” vote in the referendum on the European constitution treaty, the level of participation reached a record 84% in the second round.

But the following year, the same treaty – barely watered down – was adopted by parliament. This was viewed as a betrayal for many who concluded that their vote ultimately no longer mattered.

It was the beginning of a cycle of distrust of politicians, disaffection with parties, and a crisis of representative democracy. Especially with the question of the voting system. How can Marine Le Pen, twice a presidential finalist and able to command millions of votes, have only a handful of deputies in the National Assembly? Many parties therefore are calling for proportional representation to be used in future parliamentary elections. 

Voters have also indicated that they want to be involved more closely in presidential decisions. The gilets jaunes demanded a Citizen Initiative Referendum (RIC), a call picked up by not only Le Pen’s far right National Rally but by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left La France Insoumise (Indomitable France). Emmanuel Macron’s preference is for citizen assemblies to discuss and propose changes to how social issues are handled.

The system is out of breath. The re-elected president – who has once again assumed vertical power – must now, perhaps reluctantly, find answers to this demand for horizontality.

Keep watch on the polarised

In 2017, the eruption of Emmanuel Macron – never elected before, not even as a municipal councillor – caused a big bang, an unprecedented alignment of planets. The new president talked of his election as an act of “breaking and entering”.

Five years later, a young head of state – he is 44 – has achieved the dual feats of being re-elected and of playing a major role in the political recomposition of this old country. France has waved goodbye to the traditional parties of the left and right. Macron defines himself as being on “the far centre”. 

Think back to The Sixth Sense, the film where Bruce Willis moves, thinks and talks until the final scene where he realises that in fact he has been dead all along without ever knowing it. This cinematographic reference has been used a lot in France to discuss the fate of two candidates, the Socialist Party’s Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, and the Republicans’, Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region. Between them, these candidates barely tallied 6.5% of the vote. Their parties have been erased on a national level, even if towns or regions have a majority of elected officials from the Socialist Party, PS, or from the neo-Gaullist party, LR.

The polarisation of France, the arrival of populist and radical movements on the right and left, threatens the “big tent” of the centre, which is pro-European, pro-business, liberal on societal issues and committed to secularism.

A block of the far right, embodied by Marine Le Pen: populist, sovereignist, in favour of “national priority”, opposed to immigration and in favour of a very tough security policy. A block of the far left and ecologists, embodied by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in favour of taxation of the very rich, a big rise in wages for the poorest, ecological planning and the advent of a Sixth Republic. Each of these blocks brought together between 10 and 12 million voters.

This signals an eventful election aftermath. Will those frustrated with the result, or the choice of Macron or Le Pen, take it to the streets, whether through industrial disputes or protests in high schools and universities.

This is a tired and deeply divided country. As after a trauma, will the country be affected by PTSD? Will we suffer phases of depression that alternate with phases of violence? This is the worst-case scenario, not the most likely, but it is a future that remains very possible.

With the general elections due in two months’ time, what will France look like by the end of 2022?

Delivering for a desperate generation

In the days following the first round, at the Sorbonne – France’s temple of knowledge and humanism – and in prestigious schools like Sciences-Po (the equivalent of London’s LSE), students who had voted for the first time in their lives, occupied their classrooms and lecture halls. Their slogan was “Neither Macron nor Le Pen”, and angry with the identity of the two finalists, they therefore went on strike against the second round.

This is not just an anecdote, but a signal that democracy and its rules are no longer accepted by a meaningful minority of the younger generation. The son of a presidential candidate, the socialist Anne Hidalgo, announced on Twitter that the young should refuse to vote in the second round and above all “not to recognise the legitimacy of the next President-elect”.

With – as they see it – the climate emergency being ignored by those in power, the divorce between generations seems complete. The young increasingly believe that their future cannot be left in the hands of the Boomers. In their transformed version of citizenship, voting is just one way to participate – along with taking part in demonstrations, and even refusing to vote. Nearly one in two of those under 25 abstained during this second round.

The future of Emmanuel Macron’s new mandate also depends on this question. His appearance on the evening of the second round, under the Eiffel Tower, surrounded by young girls and boys, seemed to demonstrate his desire to put youth back at the heart of his new project.

But even in his moment of victory, there was not the least of the many paradoxes of this election: what helped push the ‘young’ Macron over the top this time was that he won 85% of the votes of those aged 65 or over.

Valérie Nataf is a writer and broadcaster, most notably for the French TV station TF1

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