FOR those who thought the French presidential election might be a tired re-run of the 2017 one, with the predictable outcome of a Macron victory: like the pre-election polls, how wrong could they have been? The earthquake that Sunday’s first round has provoked has already destroyed the equivalent of the UK’s Conservative Party, who tanked with less than 5 per cent of the national vote, meaning they are now bankrupt, and their candidate, Valérie Pécresse, has been left with a personal debt of 5million euros.
Meanwhile Emmanuel Macron, on a walkabout in a Marine Le Pen stronghold on Monday, found himself face to face with a dental nurse who accused him of muzzling and locking up children during the Covid lockdowns, to which he – the man so often accused of being part of an out-of-touch elite – replied, ‘You don’t live in the real world, Madame.’ In another twist a few hours later, his ‘flagship’ policy of raising the retirement age from 62 to 65 came up for negotiation. He might now make it 64. Or not change it all. As Marx said: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.’ (Groucho, that is.)
Where does this leave Le Pen and her chances of becoming president? Both she and Macron (who, once you have added up the support from the runners-up who have already pledged allegiance to one or other candidate, are pretty much on level pegging) now realise that the only mine left to be excavated for votes is Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing Union Populaire. Mélenchon, who was criticised for his ambiguous response in 2017 when he refused to say if people should vote in the run-off for Macron or Le Pen, decided to be unambiguous after Sunday’s results came in, repeating four times: ‘Not a single vote for Le Pen!’
Except the old Mélenchon (and to be fair, probably the current one) knew that he does not own the voters who support him, the vast majority of whom are not paid-up supporters of his party but voted for him as the closest to a bona fide left-wing alternative on offer, with perhaps the best chance of winning. The French are not used to tactical voting, looking down on it as unprincipled. But ordinary French people are desperate for change, and will do anything to get rid of Macron.
That was the message loudly proclaimed on social media on Monday: ‘Tout sauf Macron’ (anything but Macron). That is not to say people don’t care who replaces him. It’s just that they are willing to ‘think the unthinkable’ in order to rid themselves of their turbulent president. In a fascinating Figaro report on the Mélenchon voters who were ready to hold their noses and vote Le Pen, ignoring their preferred candidate’s advice, one said: ‘I’ve reached a point where voting for the Far Right troubles me less than letting Macron continue what he’s doing.’
This rejection of Macron suggests a potential open goal for Le Pen. But nobody is naive enough to believe that people are going to transfer their votes to her without swallowing something hard and jagged. However much she has watered down her politics (no longer calling for a withdrawal from the euro, placing distance between her and those opposed to gay marriage) she is still toxic to a significant number of voters who see her as a chip off the old block, her father the notorious Jean-Marie, and too close to her more conservative niece, Marion Maréchal, who supported Eric Zemmour in the first-round campaign.
However desperate times seem, for many, to call for desperate measures. Le Pen is now someone who projects a reassuring, almost maternal image, someone who has fought and lost and come back, who is fallible but resilient, who listens to people, and who, more importantly, has a programme that resembles that of the French Communist Party circa 1981. She has changed the name of the Front National, and has excised its original Thatcherite economic strategy for a statist, interventionist policy that would hardly embarrass our own Boris Johnson. For a country enamoured of public power’s tax-and-spend capabilities, Le Pen looks as if she’s willing to write plenty of cheques.
Moreover, what used to be hailed as the cardinal sin of nationalism, ‘economic patriotism’, particularly since March 2020, is now the mainstream point of view. Not even Macron is willing to defend the ‘economic liberalism’ of which he was such an advocate when he was elected. So, on this issue, there is little to tell between Macron and Le Pen, and the head-to-head televised debate that saw him in 2017 run rings around her over the issue of the economy is unlikely to be repeated in exactly the same way.
While it seems unlikely that the middle-class students and the woke anti-racist activists who make up a significant proportion of Mélenchon’s electorate will be putting their slip in the ballot box for Le Pen on April 24, it remains to be seen how many of them will decide to vote for Macron just to stop her getting in. The days of the ‘Republican Front’ against ‘fascism’ are over. Macron had initially hoped he could count on it to sweep him back to power. He quickly and astutely realised and admitted that those days were over. Instead, the talk on the streets and in the bars of France is now no longer of stopping the march of the Far Right, but of stopping the En Marche of Macron.
The French really do live in des temps intéressants.