Elections simplify. The complex realities of millions of lives, events and forces are channelled into simple choices. In France that means a second round that offers a binary alternative, this spring, between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The result—58.6% in favour of the sitting president—will please few beyond his supporters, but is probably acceptable to the majority of voters.
Elections simplify. But we should be wary of how we interpret those simplifications. Reality remains complex.
The British media has been seized by its regular shudder at the idea that France might be governed by the far right, and it will continue to thrill with the idea that Marine Le Pen achieved her highest vote yet. She did, but that’s too simple. Le Pen has changed the National Front, now renamed Rassemblement national (RN) to signal that change, to be more palatable to conservative voters. She has changed her image too, presenting herself as an ordinary person who understands the everyday difficulties many people face. The result is a party that holds a raft of incoherent positions, whose implications are dismissed. Thus it no longer argues for leaving the European Union (Brexit is not an encouraging precedent), but its policy of preference for French citizens in employment and public services is impossible within the EU. In many ways, RN has more in common with Boris Johnson’s Conservative party than with the conventional far right. Nationalist populist is probably a better description of the losing candidate today, a French version of an unhappily common phenomenon. (The extremist, Eric Zemmour, stood in reaction to that shift in the RN and achieved just 7% in the first round despite—or because of—insatiable media attention.)
The deeper complexity is that this election is another symptom of the realignment of politics that has been underway since the financial crash of 2007, but whose roots lie in the end of Soviet Communism in 1989, and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. The ideological competition between left and right that dominated 20th century no longer explains how the citizens of democracies understand their situation, not how they frame the political choices they make. One story of the 2022 French Presidential election is the appeal of Marine Le Pen in rural areas—places where immigration is insignificant. Many people who live away from successful and attractive cities like Bordeaux, Lyon or Nantes feel left behind, to use Theresa May’s resonant phrase. There is little of that prosperity in the Morvan, where I live, and the future-facing France of Emmanuel Macron can seem very distant to people who need fair work and decent public services. Le Pen presents a much more familiar persona, and makes easy promises that respond to immediate needs. A large proportion of her 2022 electorate cannot be described as far right: they are people whose interests have not been fairly considered.
Elections clarify. There are four large groupings in France today (and perhaps in many similar countries too). The winners, at least for now, are Macron’s voters: often well-educated, living in cities and optimistic about a future where they feel they can do well. Those who do not share that optimism include the nationalist-traditionalist strand to which Marine Le Pen appeals, and the collectivist-ecologist grouping who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, bringing him within 400,000 votes of replacing Le Pen in the second round. The growth of these three camps has destroyed the parties that had for decades contested power in France: the Republicans and the Socialists. Neither achieved even the 5% that brings state reimbursement of election expenses. But there is a fourth grouping, on which France’s future will depend: 28% of the electorate did not vote yesterday, and another 8.6% went to the ballot box specifically to vote against both candidates. In effect, 35% of the electorate reject the future offered to them by the political class.
President Macron has five years in which to find how to start healing this country’s deep divisions. In 2027, he cannot stand again: it is doubtful that Le Pen and Mélenchon will do so either, although for different reasons. The reconfiguration of democratic politics in France will be confronted and shaped by different actors. The choices made by people in those four loose, unstable groupings will be of historic importance, not only in France, but across the democratic world, where similar uncertainties face electors everywhere. There will always be those who promise simple solutions to complex problems, and sometimes those solutions exist. The challenge for all those who prefer living in democracies is to know which ones are radical, promising breakthroughs and which open only onto dead ends.