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Aftermath of the French Presidential Election by Hélène de Lauzun

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Aftermath of the French Presidential Election

The French presidential elections, held on the 10th and 24th of April, resulted in the seemingly triumphant re-election of the incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, who was granted 58.6% of the vote. Yet the country has never been so fractured. In many ways Emmanuel Macron’s victory is misrepresentative of any triumph whatsoever.

The new mandate begins in violence and tension. As soon as the results were announced, demonstrations broke out all over France, led by far-left activists. Two demonstrators died on Sunday evening, April 24th, killed by police officers in self-defence after the demonstrators had refused to comply. The victory leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of millions of French people, who did not want Emmanuel Macron, abstained from voting, or only reluctantly voted him back into office in the expectation of revenge—on the Right as well as the Left.

Emmanuel Macron’s victory is the result of an unprecedented ideological mobilisation, which has shown the capacity of the dominant political and media system to occupy the field without relinquishing their stronghold on a particular narrative. After April 10th, as soon as the results of the first round were known, a campaign of denigration against the candidate Marine Le Pen was aggressively dispensed with a rare intensity. The press was unleashed at the last minute against Marine Le Pen; she had been relatively spared until then, while Éric Zemmour was the main focus of their attacks. Her programme, her measures, which until then had been the object of polite disinterest on the part of the newspapers, were scrutinised, dissected, and criticised down to the last comma. The front pages of almost all the press organs followed one another relentlessly to explain how dangerous Marine Le Pen was, and the immense risks that France was running if the voters entrusted her with the reins of power. 

The outrageousness was often observable, as was the dishonesty. The former Miss France 2012, Delphine Wespiser, who appeared on various television programmes and had the misfortune to state her preference for Marine Le Pen, had her contracts terminated. Opponents of Marine Le Pen have used and abused the argument of authority. Petitions, declarations, and official tributes have accumulated to summon the whole of civil society against them: artists and sportsmen, who usually keep quiet and are content to reap their juicy salaries—which they sometimes take abroad to escape the severity of French taxation—have raised their voices and moaned about the possible victory of a fantasised fascism. Former Nobel Prize winners in economics were persuaded to dismantle the measures proposed by the candidate of the Rassemblement National. The official campaign control commission tried to ban the “profession de foi” distributed by Marine Le Pen to French people’s mailboxes on the eve of the second round, on the grounds that it manipulated the figures on national security and immigration—even though these were official figures communicated by the government. 

In the last few days, European and international leaders performed their little tunes, choreographed to condemn, in turn, the fascist threat. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz supported Emmanuel Macron; the Portuguese and Spanish leaders brandished the appalling memory of Salazar and Franco; former Brazilian President Lula, who retired from politics years ago, wreathed himself in Emmanuel Macron. What an irony, when we remember how much Marine Le Pen had to suffer from the accusation of “foreign interference” in her party and campaign. The barrage has been constant, intense, systematic. The word “brainwashing” has its place here. A gigantic indoctrination campaign has taken place, supposedly to save democracy—by the same people who a few weeks ago criticised Viktor Orban for his excessive control of the media to his advantage.

Until the end, Emmanuel Macron refused to campaign. In the two weeks preceding the second round of the election, he chose to cancel the mainstream television programmes that were supposed to allow him to face the French and present his measures. The reason is very simple: by virtue of the principle of equal speaking time, his refusal to take part in these programmes led to the automatic cancellation of Marine Le Pen’s appearance on television, in order to guarantee that she would not speak more than he did. Two crucial appointments were thus cancelled in quick succession, the programme Elysée 2022, on the public channel France 2, and the popular programme Face à baba on the private channel C8. 

Faced with such an offensive that could be described as Putin-like, how can we be surprised by the result obtained by the candidate of the Rassemblement National? The famous debate that pitted her against Emmanuel Macron on April 20th was the one and only opportunity for the two candidates to confront each other. The event was far too insufficient to destabilise a candidate who benefited from the aura of the president in power, and the limits of Marine Le Pen’s performance were all the more striking. 

Following these elections—which demand that international opinion reacts to the locked nature of the political discussion—the horizon of French political life appears very dark. The next deadline is in about a month and a half. It is the legislative elections, to renew the 577 deputies who make up the National Assembly. President Macron will then have to compose a government according to the party that wins the majority in these elections. His party, La République en Marche, is almost certain to win a majority, if not an absolute majority. From then on, he will have no counter-power—for five long years. 

The political parties are actively organising themselves to prepare for the legislative elections. On the Left, many contacts have been made to promote alliances between parties. Fabien Roussel’s Communist Party and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise are studying the possibility of joint candidacies. The Socialist Party is also open to a rapprochement with La France Insoumise, despite the fear of disappearing. 

The system of party financing in France is not favourable to alliances for legislative elections because parties receive public funds in proportion to the number of votes they obtain in the first round of the legislative election. It is therefore in the interest of the parties to present a candidate each in order to hope to receive funds, and to reserve alliances for the second round, which has the effect of dispersing votes. 

On the Right, the problem of alliances is even more acute. As soon as Marine Le Pen’s defeat was announced, the Reconquest candidate Éric Zemmour called for the union of the national camp, but in very inadequate terms: he called for rapprochement while virulently explaining that the name of Le Pen was leading France to defeat for the eighth time. This was not a very clever way of getting into the good graces of the Rassemblement National. The next day, the president of the party Jordan Bardella ironically commented on this call, which he said had all the appearances of a “forced marriage proposal.” The vice-presidents of the Reconquête party Marion Maréchal, Guillaume Peltier, and Nicolas Bay also called for the union. But for the Rassemblement National, these calls for concord ring hollow after a campaign made of invectives and betrayals, Marine Le Pen having been almost systematically targeted by Zemmour, even more than Macron. Nothing has been done to prepare the future intelligently. 

Rassemblement National’s hesitation towards unity with Reconquête can be explained in the light of the last few weeks; however the strategy of isolation is equally as questionable. Instead of a union of the Right, the Rassemblement National continues to prefer a “union of patriots” which appears to be more and more fantasised. This union of patriots is supposed to allow the cleavage between the Right and the Left to be overcome. This credo is a legacy of the period when Florian Philippot was Marine Le Pen’s adviser in 2017, and it appears that the Rassemblement National has not really managed to abandon it, to the point where it has become part of its identity. 

The language of “union of patriots” is certainly attractive on paper and promises a broad gathering, but in reality, it has never worked, and has not led to any electoral victory for the Rassemblement National. Between the two rounds, Marine Le Pen chose a line that made her hope that Jean-Luc Mélenchon voters would rally under her banner. The facts have cruelly contradicted this approach. Except in the overseas territories where the political logic is very specific, the Mélenchonists refused to support her and massively chose Emmanuel Macron—and the large left-wing family from which he comes—at about 40% according to the analyses of the vote transfers

The Right-Left divide is not dead in France, despite the appearance of the victorious centrism that Emmanuel Macron would embody. In fact, it has never been so alive. In opting to privilege a “union of patriots” rather than a “union of the Rights,” Marine Le Pen forgets she must seduce a whole part of the electorate that used to vote for Les Républicains and is not satisfied with Macronism. No gesture, no element or tactic seems to be emerging to win them over. For the moment, Éric Zemmour’s calls for union, which are certainly clumsy and self-serving, but indispensable if the right wants to weigh in against the omnipotence of the head of state, have been ignored. We can hope that the negotiations are just beginning. 

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).