The French presidential election: Voting between Scylla and Charybdis

On 23 May French voters headed to the polling stations in the first round of the presidential elections. This initial vote selected the two candidates – Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen – who will go on to face off in the second round on 7 May. Based on the latest polls, liberal centrist Macron is likely to win around 60% of the final vote, with Le Pen, leader of the isolationist National Front party, getting around 40%.

While many in the press have interpreted this as a victory for globalism over nativism, this fails to account for the other forces that produced the result, and particularly the sense of weary endurance felt by a large section of the population. Just like the “never Trump” and “never Hillary” voters in the recent US elections, large sections of the French population were not voting for a candidate that they liked, but rather voting strategically in an attempt to bar the path of the one that they disliked most. 

According to a survey carried out by Opinionway, 45% of Emanuel Macron’s supporters and 21% of Marine Le Pen’s said that they were voting strategically, rather than out of conviction. In another telling statistic, 61% of Macron’s supporters and 26% of Le Pen’s said that they did not expect to see their lives improve if their chosen candidate won.

The result is that abstention rates in the second round of voting are likely to be extremely high. While both candidates’ campaigns appeared to stall somewhat following the first round of voting, the abstentionists have displayed surprising energy. Grassroots movements have sprung up behind the #SansMoiLe7Mai (#WithoutMeOnMay7) hashtag and the “Ni Macron Ni Le Pen” (Neither Macron Nor Le Pen) demonstrations held in various cities.

This has important implications for the legislative elections to be held this July.

The Battle for Parliament

Under the current French Constitution, parliamentary elections are held shortly after the presidential elections. This means that if voters feel that they have been lumbered with a sub-par President, or one who is likely to try to abuse his executive powers, they can limit the scope of his action by subsequently electing a parliamentary majority from an opposing party, leading to a period of “cohabitation”. 

The possibility that the electorate may wish to do this did not occur to the framers of the constitution, and cohabitation is generally seen as a worst-case scenario by politicians of all parties. Voters, however, quickly came to cherish this opportunity to exercise power. Even when faced with a president whom they fully support, many in France like the idea of a Parliament that will be able to serve as a check on his ambitions. The sentiment is all the stronger when the President inspires little enthusiasm – as is the case now. It is virtually certain, therefore, that voters will ensure that whoever wins the presidential elections will have to deal with a parliamentary majority from an opposing party.

However, this does not necessarily guarantee five years of political gridlock. MPs have grown more pragmatic since the days of the first cohabitation under President François Mitterrand, when cabinet meetings frequently consisted entirely of prickly silence. Members of the political class on both the left and the right have already called upon their supporters to transfer their votes to Macron, and a certain proportion have already declared their willingness to work with him in government.

This eagerness to compromise is not necessarily shared by voters, however. Many supporters of the main parties have remarked with bitterness that their party elites seem to be showing more enthusiasm for Macron than they ever did for their own candidates. Similarly, there has been much grumbling about the role of the media, which has been accused by voters on all sides of having waged a concerted campaign in favour of Emmanuel Macron and against his rivals. Once again, shades of the US election are to be seen in the resentment felt by those who perceive the press as trying to force them towards a particular candidate.

The New Divide

All of this implies that France’s incoming batch of MPs – whatever their parties – will probably manage to find a way to live with their new President. However, this is unlikely to be welcomed by the people at large.

If MPs fail to put up a sufficiently spirited opposition to the executive power it will reinforce the growing public perception that the key division in French society is not that between left and right, but rather between the ordinary citizens and an increasingly out-of-touch elite. As Antonio de Lecea, EU Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy put it, “All advanced countries are facing in different ways the disenchantment of those left behind by technology and globalisation. It was clear in the US and the UK. It has been clear in the recent elections in Spain and the Netherlands where in the end however the more mainstream parties prevailed. In some countries, elements like youth unemployment or corruption, add to this perception of ‘us versus them, the establishment’.”

Faced with a choice between two unpopular candidates for the presidency, and with anti-establishment sentiment at an all-time high, the idea of wide-reaching constitutional change is growing ever more popular. In a recent poll only 10% of respondents said that they wished to keep the Constitution in its present state. The sentiment can be summed up by a joke doing the rounds on the internet: a mocked-up election poster featuring Léodagan de Carmélide, a character from the comedy show Kaamelott, and his slogan: “Burn it all down and start afresh”.

On average, France’s previous Constitutions have lasted just twenty years and six months. At the ripe old age of 59, the current one could well be heading into its twilight years.

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