A tight contest

April 30, 2017

As all eyes are now focused on the second round of French presidential election, it remains an unpredictable affair

A tight contest

French presidential election’s first round was held on April 23 against the backdrop of a polarised electoral field and the rising anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment. The backdrop was further muddied by the rise of Trumpism and the eruption of terrorism as the salient issue when a known Muslim criminal-turned-terrorist was shot by the police after he had felled a policeman. The terrorist incident served the far-right candidate well. Without wasting a minute, Marine Le Pen duly upped her rhetoric on immigration and Muslims.

April 23 election was by far the most polarised with 11 candidates stretching from far right to far left, with Eurosceptic tendency forming a considerable political platform. On the left spectrum, of the four candidates two major candidates were Benoit Hamon of the French socialist party and Jean Melenchon, of his own newly formed France Unbowed. The right was populated by Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front and Francois Fillon of the Republican Party. In between the left and right was perched Emmanuel Macron, centrist in his politics, and head of the new movement End Marche (Onwards) set up a year ago.

The contest was billed to be a tight one with three or four front-runners scoring a slice of the vote within five percentage point of each other. The result showed this prediction to be correct with Macron bagging 24.1 per cent, Marine Le Pen 21.30 per cent, Francois Fillon 20.01 per cent and Jean Melenchon 19.58 per cent of the vote. The rest of about 10 per cent of the vote was distributed among minor candidates ranging from far left to centre right and Eurosceptic tendency. The result propels Marine Le Pen and Macron into the second round of the election on May 7.

The result shows up many interesting trends. Candidates posing to be outsiders (though some of them were part of the established parties previously) bagged more than 65 per cent of votes. This vote was spread among the trio of Le Pen, Macron and Melenchon. This shows how deep and wide the distrust with the established political elite and parties runs among the French electorate.

Though both Melenchon and Macron have been attached to the established political elite for long, they thought it politically wise to launch their own political parties to separate themselves from the established political order. Jean Melenchon, previously associated with the socialist party, fought election from the platform of a new formation called France Unbowed as did Macron from his own En Marche platform.

For the first time in French history, there are no major party candidates in the second round of the presidential election.

The election result was interesting for its Europe-wide reason too. Prior to the election, there was a widespread view abroad that vote for Marie Le Pen would show the depth of anti-EU sentiments in France, a founding member of the European Union. Marie Le Pen’s good showing and the presence of many Eurosceptic candidates showed the extent of anti-EU sentiments which Macron would be fool to ignore in the second round of elections.

Le Pen has an anti-EU, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and anti-globalisation platform. She has wrapped all these themes into her broader agenda of anti-elite and established politics. Macron, on the other hand, is socially and economically liberal with a strong pro-European orientation. Le Pen has accused him of being hysterically European and thus by extension not a sufficiently patriotic French.

On economic issues, Macron is likely to carry forward Hollande’s reform agenda -- of relaxation of labour laws and reduced public spending. Part of his appeal also derives from his youthfulness very much like Justin Trudeau of Canada. At 39, Macron is the youngest of all contenders.

The biggest story of the election is the collapse of both established parties of the left and right. For the first time in French history, there are no major party candidates in the second round of the presidential election. While the right wing Republican Party scored a decent tally of 20 per cent, it was the socialist candidate Benoit Hamon who got hammered with only 6.3 per cent of the vote, the worst ever performance by the Socialist Party’s candidate.

The candidate of the Republican Party, Fillon started out on a high note but he was sunk by scandal over giving job to his wife and daughter in his parliamentary office. He never recovered from this blow and its aftermath electorally.

All eyes are now focused on the second round. Macron seems well-set to win the second round since he chalked up endorsement from Fillon and Benoit Hamon. There is an urgent sense among the political classes that a united front needs to be shored up against the threat of the far-right. So much so that Melenchon is being criticised for taking time to endorse a candidate in the second round. Though Macron sounds triumphant, giving the impression that the presidency is in his bag, the commentators are urging no letup in the campaign as there are considerable pockets of Eurosceptic and far-right and right wing votes which can still go the Le Pen way, thus boosting her appeal.

The last time her father, the Le Pen senior, was in the second round of the French presidential election in 2002 he managed only 18 per cent of the vote. Since then, his daughter has worked assiduously to broaden her party’s appeal by softening her stance on anti-Jewish racism while ratcheting up her anti-Muslim racism. This tack seems to be working.

There are strong indications that she would fare better than her father and is likely to get between 30-40 per cent of the votes in the second round. This would be path-breaking for the far-right and a tragedy for France and Europe and minorities inside Europe. Sensing this, Marine Le Pen has gone on the offensive by wrapping herself as the representative of all French people.

In a clever and astute move, she has temporarily stepped aside from the presidency of her party to reach out to the wider public. This makes the second round an unpredictable affair.

A tight contest