What did the French vote for?

 

Emmanuel Macron was elected on Sunday to serve as the 9th president of France. With 65% of the vote, Macron defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the run-off election to succeed François Hollande.

The previous statements make the French presidential election seem as if what has transpired was nothing more than run of the mill French politics, resulting in the usual transfer of power from one leader to another. It has been anything but that.

Consider the following:

  • Hollande, the incumbent, has reached such low levels of popularity that he polls in the single digits (in comparison, President Trump’s popularity sits in the 40s) and chose not to run for re-election, a first since the Fifth Republic was inaugurated in the 60s.
  •  The leading parties that have dominated French politics since World War II, the Socialists and the Gaullists placed fifth and third in the first round, respectively.
  •  Le Pen, the candidate of the far right National Front, had more in common with the far leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France insoumise than with Macron, the centrist candidate, and Francois Fillon, the candidate of the traditionally conservative party.
  •  Fillon, who placed third, won the support of the traditional conservative party by winning the votes of self-identifying Catholic voters in a country that has strongly embraced secularism and public identification with a religion is rare, before falling in the polls in the wake of a political scandal.
  •  Macron, an Economics Minister in the Hollande government and investment banker, would resign to launch an independent candidacy and be the first independent candidate to make it through to the run-off.
  •  Macron, who has never held elected office before and was little known in French politics as much as three years ago, would at the age of 39 win the presidency.

Except for scandal bringing down a political front runner, no part of this election has conformed to the recent trend of French politics. It is as if French voters, having perused the pre-approved political script, refused to green light the film.

That Macron emerged the winner after having reached the second round is unsurprising: the National Front has struggled to grow its share of the vote totals when it has performed well enough to reach the run-off in the past. The bigger question concerns what the election means for France’s future and European politics more broadly. In the past decades, France has struggled, as many developed economies have, with slow growth, higher unemployment, and increased inequality as some regions and cities of France have grown more quickly than others in a globalized economy. Tensions over immigration and the integration of Muslims, mostly immigrants from North Africa, into French society has periodically erupted, including most recently over the so-called “Burkini” Ban in the summer of 2016. Terrorist attacks in Paris and in Nice over the past few years have heightened security fears.

None of which seems to fully explain the anxiety and discomfort of a country that has developed an obsession with ideas of decline. Just last year, déclinisme formally entered the French vocabulary.

It does not seem probable that Macron’s proposed policies of abolishing the 35-hour work week and fiscal tightening will do much to alleviate tensions when the average monthly rent in Paris ($3350) exceeds the average monthly wage ($3000). Nor does it seem any more likely that Le Pen’s proposals to restrict immigration, lower the retirement age, and renegotiate France’s treaties with the European Union would have lessened social tensions between groups competing over access to France’s extensive network of public housing. French voters have apparently little confidence that this election will lead to greater change, with only 65% of eligible voters participating and roughly 4 million voters casting a blank ballot.

It seems as if France’s existential problems exceed the capacity of public policy to deal with, though that’s never an excuse to slack off on policies that promote equality, justice, and prosperity. Rather, it seems that France like many western countries, especially the United States, suffers from a solidarity deficit in which many fail to understand and identify with the hopes, dreams, and difficulties of their fellow citizens and of those who live outside of their national borders. Politics, rather than serving to bring people of many nations together, serves as an ever-stricter social marker and source of separation between peoples.   

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In his recent TED Talk, Pope Francis, alongside calls for a “revolution of tenderness”, explicitly urged the conference attendees to embrace solidarity. He said:

How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.

As France wrestles with questions of identity, equality, and prosperity, it would do well to heed Pope Francis’ advice and embrace a wide-ranging solidarity as a first step to confronting its 21st-century reality.

It is too soon to say, even after Macron’s victory over Le Pen, that this election amounts to a major political realignment in French politics. In five years, it may be that the major political parties of the past century rediscover their core voters, sideling Le Pen’s National Front. Or it may be that this election has broken the old divisions between Left, Center, and Right in French politics and that newer, more modern coalitions will form around Macron, Le Pen, and other politicians outside of the traditional parties. In any case, we can hope that Pope Francis’ call for solidarity and a revolution of tenderness is heard in France and, indeed, around the whole world.

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