Solon Ardittis / May 2017
Rarely in French political history had there been such a confluence of favourable conditions for the election of an extremist and populist candidate in a Presidential race: A lingering EU migrant crisis, the soaring recurrence of actual and prevented terror attacks throughout the country, increasing segments of French society feeling disenfranchised, a growing voters' fatigue with worn-out manifestos by self-seeking traditional parties, and a stagnating national economy, have all been essential ingredients for a majority vote in favour of Marine Le Pen on 7th May. Yet, with slightly less than 34% of the ballots in the decisive round, the level of appeal for the far-right’s credo has demonstrated that such ingredients were no longer as potent in contemporary politics as they might have been in the past. Not only that, the almost unanimous predictions by French political pundits about the likely election of Marine Le Pen, or one of her National Front successors, in the next Presidential race in 2022, also appear to be ill-founded.
There are at least five reasons for this.
First, during this year’s electoral campaign, more than in any other French political race in the past, the National Front has clearly exposed some of its most fundamental weaknesses and programmatic flaws. A striking case in point has been the party’s proposals for an early exit from the Eurozone, and possibly from the European Union. In addition to failing the test of scientific scrutiny about their feasibility and viability, such proposals have also been continuously amended, retracted and resurrected on an almost daily basis throughout the last few weeks of the campaign, in reaction to comments and criticism by political and civil society actors, and by the media. Other examples have abounded, including the National Front’s overtly pro-Russian stance and close ties with President Putin, in addition to the party’s unabated promotion of ‘fake news’, mostly imported from abroad, about its opponent throughout the campaign. Mention should also of course be made of the on-going judicial investigation of National Front MEPs for misappropriating their European Parliament’s subsidies. All of these developments, coupled with Marine Le Pen’s disastrous performance at the Presidential debate with Emmanuel Macron three days before Election Day, have no doubt dented the National Front’s aura among many of its supporters for a number of years to come.
Second, the poor track record of local councillors from the National Front in the handful of cities and regions where they had been elected in past elections has also been brought to light with increased discernment during this Presidential election. Issues of mismanagement and drastic reductions in subsidies for charities and cultural activities, in particular, have been uncovered and duly documented throughout the campaign. As importantly, there has been a recrudescence of extremist, including Holocaust-denying statements from some senior party figures, suggesting that the party was still bedevilled by the ideological heritage of the National Front’s founder and Marine Le Pen’s father and that all efforts in recent years to ‘de-demonise’ and mainstream the party’s political lines might have been seriously damaged.
Third, the National Front’s inordinate dogmatism in the field of immigration, and the poor policy devices it has continued to promote in order to curb, and possibly suppress, future migrant inflows, have been firmly challenged in the course of these elections. Proposals such as the establishment of internal border controls within the Schengen area, when France has already reinstated such controls several months ago under Francois Hollande’s Presidency, and when most of the convicted terrorists and suspects to date have held French or European nationalities, have clearly failed to gain traction among French voters. Also, Marine Le Pen’s main proposal in the field of immigration policy during her final debate with Emmanuel Macron, namely to increase the number of customs officials (rather than that of actual border guards), and her rejection of her opponent’s more sophisticated proposals for increased transnational intelligence gathering and prevention mechanisms, have no doubt discredited the National Front’s stance and vision in this key policy area. As crucially, by winning the French elections with more than 66% of the ballots, Emmanuel Macron, a strong supporter of Chancellor Merkel’s compassionate immigration policy, has also shown that French voters might, after all, be a lot less haunted by issues of immigration and borders than had been surmised by the National Front.
Fourth, the recent election has confirmed that there was indeed a ‘glass ceiling’ beyond which the National Front was not able to gather any additional votes and support. Even if the ceiling appears to have gained a few percentage points compared with previous elections, it remains way too low to predict any majority vote for the National Front in the foreseeable future. The planned relabelling of the party’s name and the planned establishment of a coalition with like-minded parties is unlikely to affect this equation, particularly when an internal ideological conflict between left and right-leaning senior party members has been mounting over the past couple of years.
Lastly, Macron’s election has demonstrated that French voters were increasingly favouring a more eclectic political offer, particularly one that transcended traditional partisan divides and established political practices. Evidence of this was provided by the ousting, as from the first voting round, of France’s two traditional parties in the centre-left and centre-right. Although there is little doubt that Macron has been a candidate by default in the decisive round, his score in the first round still suggests that his innovative and almost politically uncommitted offer has appealed to large segments of the voting population that did not feel represented by traditional parties anymore.
For all these reasons, and subject to the newly elected President showing sufficient resolve to engage in a range of crucial reforms, it is likely that the relative momentum gained by the National Front during these elections will be seriously affected in the months and years to come. This, however, assumes that the political divide between traditional left and right-wing parties will be maintained after the parliamentary elections to be held in June of this year, despite on-going discussions about a number of political alliances, and that the National Front will not emerge as the only opposition party and therefore as the only recourse for dissatisfied voters in future elections.
While it is of course too early to predict the extent to which the French elections are likely to affect the rise of extremism and populism elsewhere in Europe, they have at least shown that there was no political dynamics that could not be deflected in the right circumstances and that traditional political assumptions and prophecies are perhaps increasingly ill-fitted to contemporary politics.