This evening’s French Presidential election result will have serious repercussions, and not only for France. A fortnight ago, 40 per cent of the contest’s first-round vote went to two candidates for whom committed euroscepticism was a defining characteristic: Marine Le Pen, who progressed to today’s final; and the hard-left Jean Luc Mélenchon, who did not. The new President will ignore that sentiment at his — and many others’ — peril.
France’s 47 million-strong electorate is choosing between Le Pen — who, symbolic resignations aside, represents the Front National (FN) — and the “neither right nor left”, “establishment-non-establishment” Emmanuel Macron, who quit the Socialist Party (PS) last year, in order to set up his action group, En Marche!.
Polling has constantly suggested that Macron would be the eventual victor, and that remains extremely probable — regardless of a last-minute leaks campaign, which French electoral rules leave him (and Le Pen) unable to comment upon. But inevitable claims that his likely victory equates to a “neoliberal” or “remainer” turning point will be mostly unsubstantiated and uninformed.
Rather, if Macron wins, it will be largely in spite of himself: he will have been elected to prevent Le Pen having been. He became the candidate most capable of blocking her success, but is otherwise seen by many — not least as a “continuity-Hollande” option — to be lacking in the substantive policy approach needed to address the deep-set economic and social problems France faces.
Over the coming years, as the EU attempts to cope with further challenges to its control in Europe, how well could Macron prove able to hold his divided country together? A strong Europhile, his endeavours to show understanding of the French electorate’s growing feelings of discontent have not, as yet, been convincing. How might Le Pen – or any FN successor — react to, and capitalise on his inadequacies?
Whilst, quite understandably, a sufficient proportion of France appears to see Macron as the significantly less bad Presidential choice, his election would not mark the end of the unsettling rise of FN — Le Pen is expected to do substantially better this evening than her father did in 2002.
Neither will tonight mark the end of immediate French electoral fever: the legislative elections in June are set to bring more changes and chances. The system favours two-party results — and those two parties would previously have been assumed to be PS and the centre-right Les Republicains. Both of those parties’ primary-selected candidates fared badly in the first round of the Presidential contest, however. It will be difficult for whoever wins today to attain a much-needed reliable majority in the Assembly, but French politics is reshaping, rapidly.