In two weeks time, the second round of the French presidential elections will pit the top two contenders in the initial round: the first a political blank slate, a candidate affiliated with no party, no current, and no particular ideology; the second the leader of the racist right, which even a few years ago wouldn't dream of being a major player.
Assuming that the first-round losers mobilize against the far-right candidate and behind the young Macron, it will be enough to give him an easy victory—and an unexpected chance to head a great power and the world’s sixth largest economy.
As usual, commentators rushed to spin the results to suit their own preoccupations. The right celebrated the ignominious defeat of the Socialist Party candidate, saying it couldn’t attract the masses. The left saw it as a good sign that the broad left—the socialists and communists—came away with nearly a quarter of the votes. Many viewed the fact that the racist right candidate made it to the runoff as another indication of the crisis of Western democracy. Still others saw the expected coalition of other forces against the right as an opportunity to restore confidence in sound politics.
Despite the truth of many of these conclusions, I tend to think the significance of the first-round results is that they confirm a trend seen in the US elections three months ago and the Brexit referendum a year ago: that voters people are tired of traditional politics, long-established parties, and the condescending rhetoric of their leaders, even when they’re affirming their sympathy to the people and concern for the poor. In all three cases, the majority went for figures that were least like traditional politicians and best able to speak to the public straightforwardly, even after some of them acted in morally repugnant ways.
This disinterest in, even hatred of, traditional politics and veteran politicians is the common denominator is all three major polls of the last year. Even the recent Turkish referendum conformed to the trend. Although President Erdogan eked out a narrow victory for his constitutional amendments, it was, in my view, a pyrrhic victory, especially in a yes/no referendum, where the margin of victory should be much greater than among competitors in elections where each candidate has his/ her own enthusiastic base.
While many observers see this trend as dangerous, demonstrating the increasing influence of social media on voters and the declining importance of policy and ideological positions, it has positive dimensions as well. It reminds those considering ripening in future elections that today’s public is not easy to deal with; it isn’t easily persuaded by policies and theorizing and will not necessarily place its trust in candidates with a long history. The public is ready to give their votes to those who care to get close to them and win their affection.
However frustrating and disappointing recent elections and referendums have been for democratic currents around the world, they nevertheless give expression to a new reality. In this new reality, every candidate must consult his or her constituents, understand their fears, and respect their will. Candidates must come out of their lofty seclusion and leave the comfort of the party for the real world.
It was in the 1960s that we first started hearing, “The customer is always right,” and had to be respected regardless of his choices. Today, it seems the voter is right and must be respected however much his choices diverge from conventional expectations.
Will we see the same respect for voters here one day?