Inside the French Vote

Inside the French Vote

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The voters of France elected the young, inexperienced, centrist Emmanuel Macron as President on Sunday by an almost two to one margin over the populist, nationalist, extremist Marine Le Pen. The vote was clear a rejection by the French voters of the National Front and was a strong pro-Europe statement. A preliminary analysis of the vote, however, suggests numerous questions many of which ought to be quite disturbing.

On a global level as well as internally for France, this vote was a rejection of the nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic forces which Le Pen had so effectively stirred up. Clearly there is a need for Macron to defuse these polarizing, extremist views, but he needs to provide the Le Pen supporters with enough of response that he can quiet their anger.  He can reject their ideology but understand their concerns. If he fails to quiet Le Pen and her supporters, next time she could win   He cannot do that without fighting against racism and anti-Semitism.

The French voters in the first round had indicated a serious interest in candidates on both extremes; Le Pen on the right and a number on the left.  (In addition there was a leading candidate who became ethically damaged.) They are left with a President from the center.

Many of the leftist voters presumably stayed home as a protest to the choices in the run-off, both of whom they rejected. The overall turnout in the run-off indicated a larger than usual drop-off for the second round. Americans might be impressed at a 65% voter turnout—in a good year 60% of eligible voters turnout in an American presidential election. For France, however, the turn-out was low and confirmed the dissatisfaction of a significant portion of the French people for their options.  

For the French analysts the key question will be to dissect the pro-Macron vote as well as the Le Pen vote. In fact, it may be much more important to identify the Le Pen voters.  Marine Le Pen garnered more than 11 million votes; more than double what her father ever achieved. Over a third of the country supported her, a fact which ought to scare French leaders about the pervasiveness of her National Front’s views. Racism and anti-Semitism still have deep-seated multi-generational followers. These prejudices continue to run deep in some groups of French society which viewed Le Pen as the vindication of their remaining committed to the bigotry.

On the other hand, the French did not elect the populist choice and this maintained a much more traditional posture towards Europe. Unlike American’s newly elected, it appears that Macron is not flaunting his victory.  In the forthcoming National Assembly elections, Macron will endeavor to solidify the center around his new party and will seek to provide moderate answers for the Le Pen voters. Macron convinced the French people that the populist revolution which was manifested in the Brexit vote in Britain and followed by the Trump election in November, was not going to cross the Channel.

Macron faces the challenging task of demonstrating to his countrymen and to all of Europe that he has the ability to govern France from the political center; something made even more challenging given that he is a political novice. The French majority rejected him in the first round and now many of them protested.  If he can move effectively both at home and on the world stage, this may curiously develop into an important moment for France. It will not be simple.

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