Too early for Macron to claim victory?

 

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The polls were right…at last!

On Sunday, French voters became the latest electorate to vote out the forces of political orthodoxy and establishment in a western democracy. The first round of the French presidential election saw the candidates of the traditional left and centre-right parties, which have held power since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, cast aside in favour of the newcomer Emmanuel Macron, who gathered 23.8% of the votes, with the outlier Marine Le Pen scooping 21.5%.

Unlike other recent elections, pollsters got it right predicting that the socially liberal Macron and Le Pen, the candidate of the far right, would dispute the second round. While this is good news for both re-establishing the credibility of political polls and avoiding the worst case scenario of having two anti-EU populist candidates in the run-off (which was a possibility in a Mélenchon-Le Pen match-up) the results confirmed the weakening of the traditional left-right divide in favour of a pro vs anti-globalisation movement.

The markets were happy

Markets across the continent rallied on the back of Macron’s lead with the Euro hitting a five-month high against the US Dollar. French bonds were traded heavily and French bank shares rose nearly 10%.

Encouraged by what could be perceived as another sign of the return of political stability in Europe, following weeks after Dutch voters turned their back on the right-wing populist Geert Wilders last month, investors breathed a collective sigh of relief, indicating their confidence that the Eurozone will remain intact.

But…

While the enthusiasm of having a mainstream, pro-business and pro-Europe occupant in the Elysée Palace is justified, it might be a little premature to claim a sure victory for Emmanuel Macron on 7 May.

The first round is over, but it sets the tone for a fresh campaign in which both remaining candidates will try to attract voters who backed the conservative, socialist and far-left candidates on Sunday. And Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron could not be more different. The former is firm, even aggressive at times in her campaign speeches, while the latter is calm, balanced, often too accommodating of differing views in order to unite centrist support behind him.

In this new, head-to-head stage of the campaign, the differences between the two candidates is even more apparent. Marine Le Pen stands on a simple platform of cutting immigration; restoring borders and the franc; offering an in-out referendum on France’s EU membership. What we know regarding Macron is that he is internationally minded, pro-business and pro-Europe; he wants to reform the pension system, reduce the public sector and encourage social mobility.

And while no one doubts the conviction of Le Pen, many question Macron’s political platform for its broad scope and lack of detail.

Marine Le Pen is on the offensive to rally the supporters of the candidates who lost out at the first round. She has just announced that she is temporarily stepping down from the leadership of the Front National. This will allow her to change aspects of her manifesto in order to build broader appeal and demonstrate that she can be the president of all of the French people. Will this break from leading the Front National party make her more acceptable for wavering conservative and far left voters?
Another factor to consider will be the effect of the outgoing François Fillon and Benoît Hamon, as well as president François Hollande, pledging their support for Macron. Will it bolster support for him or backfire, exposing him out as the candidate backed by the establishment – something that Le Pen will surely exploit.

A decisive head-to-head round

A lot will depend of the face-to-face debate between the two candidates on 3 May. While many believe that Macron is the likely next president, Marine Le Pen is better placed to enter this head-to-head round. In televised debates throughout the campaign her assertive and dramatic style has put her in a more dominant position. But that style is also at odds with many French voters.

Emmanuel Macron is likely to do well if the debate centres on the economy, business reforms and the European Union. But if the focus is on immigration, identity and security – and it is hard to imagine that it won’t be a substantial part of the debate – Marine Le Pen is likely to take the upper hand. She is already attacking Macron for being weak on terror.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité…and other stories

Will pollsters be able to call the run-off right again? Two days after the first round, polls suggest that Macron will comfortably win on 7 May with at least 60% of the vote.

But this has been a divisive campaign, reflecting new divisions in western societies. In the past few months, even the conservative right referred to “banker” as a dirty word (in reference to Macron’s previous career), while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, after his defeat on Sunday, adopted a “ni-ni” stance, somewhat surprisingly refusing to back either candidate – highlighting the new divide in politics.

The French have always had a strong sense of, and commitment to, “la République”. The candidates of the established parties, eliminated on Sunday, have called their supporters to back the “républicain” candidate at the second round. This worked well in 2002 when more than 82% of voters rallied behind Jacque Chirac against Marine Le Pen’s controversial father Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But Marine is not her father, and she operates in a different political climate.

The divided French society, the exceptional circumstances in which the vote is taking place, and the way the recent Brexit and US election votes unfolded, suggest it is wiser to hold our breath until the run-off before opening the champagne. And any celebrations will need to be enjoyed with reservation as just a few weeks later French people will be called to vote again in the parliamentary elections.

All main candidates finished their defeat or victory speeches on Sunday with the phrases “Vive la République! Vive la France!” However, the two candidates who will be disputing the run-off offer very different visions for la République. It remains to be seen which one will prevail.

Anelia Fikiina

Anelia Fikiina

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