France witnessed the first round of its presidential elections last weekend, in which the pollsters correctly predicted who would lead (sitting President Emmanuel Macron), who would be second (challenger Marine Le Pen) and third (Jean-Luc Mélenchon), and who would qualify for the next round. However, they underestimated the scores of the main three candidates. This was for quite a simple reason: the polls played a decisive role in shaping voters’ choices.
If this election proves anything, it shows that the polls have a major influence on the final result. People read the polls and saw the rise of Le Pen and Mélenchon over the last ten days. Many wanted to vote for Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse in the first round, and then go for her or Macron in the second. But all of a sudden, they were afraid. Pécresse and Macron were steadily losing ground, even if Macron remained in the lead, so they opted for a “smart” strategy instead, deciding to vote for Macron from the beginning to ensure he would not be eliminated by Mélenchon or Le Pen.
A lot of other voters voted for Macron for the same reasons. Macron’s achievements are not that bright, but he improved his score in the 2017 elections. The vote for Pécresse and Yannick Jadot collapsed, and they scored less than five per cent.
Mélenchon started his rise some three or four weeks before the elections. He put some distance between himself and extreme-right candidate Eric Zemmour and Pécresse. Securing the second place and a seat in the second round still seemed difficult, as he was lagging behind by a quite large margin. It would be difficult, but not impossible.
Many of those who intended to vote for one of the smaller leftist parties decided to change their plans and voted for the most powerful leftist force instead, despite their dislike for Mélenchon. As a result, he gained eight points to score 22 per cent in the first round of the elections. This was not enough to go through to the second round, but it was an impressive feat. The price was the collapse of the Greens and the Communists, who also failed to reach the five per cent line.
Le Pen benefited to a lesser extent from the same pattern at the expense of Zemmour, who scored seven per cent. His plight, however, is not catastrophic. Pécresse, Jadot and others are in a quandary, however. In France, the state funds presidential campaigns, provided candidates get at least five per cent of the vote. None of them achieved this. For many, this was expected. For Pécresse and Jadot, it was a very nasty surprise.
I cannot dwell here on the fate of Les Républicains and of the Socialist Party that together ruled France for many decades. They scored 56 per cent in the first round of the 2012 elections, 26 per cent in the first round of the 2017 elections, but now less than seven per cent.
The debate now is to try to answer the question of whether this sharp decline is the result of mistakes that can be reversed or whether it is the unavoidable consequence of their failure to adapt to contemporary France, which looks like an archipelago composed of very different islands. These two parties seem unable to produce a strong candidate for the top job or to define a national project, but they remain a strong force in local government.
Now we are seeing a remake of the Macron/Le Pen match of 2017, a match between two very different political projects, two very different kinds of supporters, two very different ideas of France. This time the competition is real, as either could win.
UK commentator David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere is a good guide for understanding the crisis. It draws a distinction between those who can work and live “anywhere” and those who need a “somewhere” in order to do so.
The first category speaks many languages, has universally recognised qualifications, colleagues and friends in many countries, earns a lot of money, and can live anywhere. The second only speaks one language, has lesser qualifications, or maybe none, and needs to work in a town they know. They need to belong to a “somewhere” to which they are accustomed.
The first category does not understand the life, priorities, problems, need for security and protection and state redistribution of the second. Unfortunately, the power elite in Europe now represents the first category, even if it claims otherwise. Despite its best intentions, it is unable to understand what the second category is saying. The second category is at least a third of the population and usually much more.
Macron represents the first category: Those who live in big cities, who have benefited from globalisation, and who have the capacity to deal with its challenges. His voters earn more money, have more impressive qualifications, and are better adapted to globalisation. These people think, probably rightly so, that France should adapt to globalisation, and badly needs to reform its labour market and welfare state. They understand that the French public does not welcome the idea, and so they opt for a kind of soft authoritarian liberalism.
Le Pen represents important segments of those who need a “somewhere” in order to thrive, those who are wary of globalisation, who need protection, and who dislike newcomers, that is Muslim immigrants. During her campaign, she skillfully avoided the immigrant question and focused on the need to protect the purchasing power of the poor and lower middle classes. But anti-immigrant policies remain a cornerstone of her project.
The people who will decide the result of this struggle are the 22 per cent who voted for Mélenchon. They are in a quandary. They hate racism and xenophobia, but they also hate Macron. Mélenchon told them not to “give a single voice to Le Pen,” but he did not add “and vote for Macron” on the second round of the elections. But the voters do not need to oblige him. Most probably, a third will vote for Macron, another third for Le Pen, and a third will abstain.
One thing is certain: the next president of France will be hated from the very first by at least 60 per cent of the French people, including by some of those voted for him. In a country confronting so many crises, this is a bad omen.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.