April 24, 2017 — Paris, France
The first round of the French presidential elections yielded an historic result: for the first time since the Fifth Republic was launched neither of the traditional mainstream parties made it to the second round.
The two candidates chosen in primaries of the right and the left, François Fillon and Benoit Hamon, were eliminated.
This seismic shock is the result of an accumulation of factors: the succession of broken promises by the leaders; the multiplication of scandals; the apparently permanent threat of terrorism and the cultural insecurity that comes in its wake (triggered most immediately by the attack on the Champs Elysées, where a young police officer was killed); and the growing feeling that the affairs of Europe are being run without the participation of its peoples but at their cost. All of this foreshadowed the weakening of the old political leadership.
Incapable of responding, often too passive in the face of Islamist intimidation, and deaf to their compatriots’ concerns about the future of France in Europe and in an increasingly globalized world, the establishments of the left and the right suffered sharp rebuffs. In 2012, combining their scores, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy garnered 56% of the vote. On Sunday, François Fillon and Benoît Hamon totaled only about 26%, thirty points less.
The success of Emmanuel Macron, who was unknown to the French people three years ago, and whose party “En Marche” (Forward) was created only a year ago, strikingly illustrates the new situation. His triumph testifies to the French peoples’ desire to go beyond the left-right divide that has governed politics for decades.
This dissatisfaction with the old establishment has also allowed the extremes to grow at its expense. Ironically, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the extreme right, for the second time in 15 years, was propelled into the second round of the presidential elections, as Marine Le Pen finished second, with a record high, for her, of more than 7 million votes, or 21%. And far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon attracted more than 7 million voters, almost 20% of the total. Together, the extreme parties picked up more than 42% of the vote.
Macron has already secured the support of Benoit Hamon and François Fillon, and has a good chance of being elected President on May 7. But nothing is certain, and no scenario should be excluded, including that of a Le Pen victory.
Indeed, unlike her father, Marine Le Pen has the potential to attract supporters outside her narrow ideological camp. Not only will many of those who backed nationalist candidate Nicolas Dupont Aignan (he received 4.7% in the first round) throw their support to her, but Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s electorate may feel similarly inclined, following his campaign that included hostility towards the European Union and French participation in NATO, and harsh attacks on the media, representative democracy, and the “system.”
Another thing that Mélenchon’s campaign shared with Le Pen’s was a certain ambiguity on the question of antisemitism. Leaders in her party have been convicted on several occasions for incitement of racial hatred and some have promoted nostalgia for the Vichy regime, while his has overlooked or justified antisemitic incidents, notably during the Gaza war of 2014. Indeed, Mélenchon’s refusal, so far, to call on his party to vote against the extreme right shows how extremes converge and makes it difficult to rule out a surprise Le Pen triumph when voters return to the polls.
More than ever, France is divided and angry. The electoral map shows a social and physical divide. While Le Pen did well in cities with fewer than 20.000 inhabitants, Macron had the upper hand in the bigger cities. In Paris, for example, Macron got 35% of the vote while Le Pen won 5%. There was a similar polarization of social classes, with Le Pen and Mélenchon getting much of the lower-income vote and Macron the higher. The underlying anger and resentment across France cannot be underestimated.
On May 7, the French electorate will be voting on a virtual referendum to decide on democracy and the future of their Republic. They will have the choice between two visions of French society, two markedly different scenarios of France’s future in Europe and the globalized world.
Liberalism or populism. Internationalism or isolationism. Entrepreneurship and the start-up generation, or return to the old France and the trades of yesteryear. Defense of European ideals or the abandonment of the European Union. Transatlantic relations or departure from NATO. Promoting a diplomatic balance of powers or granting unconditional support to Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad.
France is at a crossroads.Many will be watching, wondering, and hoping.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen is director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Europe Office.
This article was originally published on Huffington Post France.
Photo By: Peter