Published daily by the Lowy Institute

French election a swansong for liberal globalism

Should Macron win, you won't need to be a supporter of Le Pen's to believe that French democracy will be worse off.

Published 26 Apr 2017   Follow @MatthewDalSant1

In a fascinating series for Le Figaro, veteran French journalist Laure Mandeville embarked a fortnight ago on a journey across five départements from Paris’s northern banlieues to the Atlantic coast. After eight years in Washington ending in Donald Trump’s improbable rise to the White House, Mandeville noted the same sense of despair and frustration in this 'France of the forgotten' that she had witnessed in Rustbelt America. She concluded one of her despatches with the reflection: 'I tell myself the French will make their choice at the last minute, in the privacy of the ballot box. God only knows whether the sentiment that will prevail at that moment will be one of exasperation or fear of the unknown.'

Now, it seems, we know. If exasperation won out in the US six months ago, fear of the unknown seems to have carried the day in France on Sunday. It must have come as a huge relief to those with a stake in the continuation of the status quo. Barring the unthinkable, a fortnight hence Emmanuel Macron will be President of the French Republic.

Much has been made of the fact that the election has called time on the party system the French have known since 1958.

For the first time since General Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, neither a Gaullist nor Socialist candidate will feature in the second-round run-off. For the French right, in particular, this is a bitter pill: having won the presidency on all but three occasions (losing to Mitterand, twice, in 1981 and 1988, and to Hollande in 2012), on Sunday its candidate (François Fillon) only just survived being beaten into fourth place behind centrist, far-right and far-left candidates.

But let’s be clear, a revolution this is not. Macron, who has never before been elected to anything and only founded his own party (En Marche!) last year, is an 'outsider' in a purely cosmetic sense. A graduate of the elite École Normale d’Administration and former Rothschilds investment banker, he was introduced to politics as a protégé of the deeply unpopular incumbent president, whose policies he largely intends to continue. In electing the leader of En Marche! as president of the Republic the French have been prevailed upon to elect Davos man, bearer of what the left-wing La Libération has called a libéralisme soft. Has there ever been an emperor in such obviously recycled clothes?

His contest with Marine Le Pen will be cast as the demise of the old left and right and its replacement by a new divide between nationalists and globalists. The danger is that, if he wins the 60-odd per cent of the second-round vote he’s projected to, Macron and the international media establishment that by and large shares his worldview will be sorely tempted to claim that France has led the world in rejecting 'populism' (or whatever the dissent towards the social and economic orthodoxies of the past two-and-a-half decades is currently being called). Both Berlin and Brussels are already lining up to hail him as saviour of Europe.

But how many French voters actually sign up to his view of the world?

What the French returned on Sunday was in fact a vote in favour of four scarcely reconcilable visions of France, with popular preferences finely balanced between them. After all, slim margins separate Macron’s (24%) and Le Pen’s (21.3%) winning tallies from those of the 'losers' Fillon (20%) and Mélanchon (19.6%).

Thus while the second round will pit Clinton-Blairite liberal internationalism against a kind of 'nationalist welfarism' à la française, waiting in the wings were a liberal conservatism and 'internationalist welfarism' of almost equal appeal to voters. (Indeed, had the 4.7% of the vote won by Nicholas Dupont-Aignan, a little-known Gaullist sometimes called France’s Nigel Farage, gone to Fillon, Le Pen wouldn’t even be in the run-off.)

While Macron will in all likelihood be the face of France for the next five years, the truth is around half of the French electorate is hostile to the cultural globalism Macron stands for (Le Pen + Fillon/Dupont-Aignan) while another half is hostile to its economic form (Le Pen + Mélanchon/Hamon).

Indeed, to interpret a Macron presidency as pointing to the strength of the French centre would be a fatal mistake when what the first-round results actually bear witness to is its remarkably restricted base and the profound fragmentation of the French electorate. Only half of Mélanchon’s supporters appear likely to transfer their support to him, and even fewer of Fillon’s.

Should Marine Le Pen to win 40% of the vote she's expected to, her 'defeat' would still represent a doubling of the Front National’s share of the vote since her father was crushed 82:18 by Jacques Chirac in 2002. Moreover, the more each candidate’s policies are interrogated, the harder it becomes to sustain the idea that a Macron presidency represents a turning point in the 'populist' global reaction to de-industrialisation, globalisation, and mass migration. In casting it as such, the global commentariat will almost certainly nominate France as more steadfastly cosmopolitan, internationalist and globalist – in a word, liberal – than it really is. But with a shiny-faced Macron in the Élysée, the myth will at least be plausible.

Among those interviewed by Mandeville, two anxieties predominated. One was economic and the other 'spiritual', but both were driven by globalisation and its twin side effects of austerity and mass migration. Given the support that went to candidates that spoke directly to both anxieties, voters' verdict on Sunday was that Macron had little to nothing to say to them. Should he win, you won't need to be a supporter of Le Pen's to believe that French democracy will be worse off. A democracy that functions only by permanently conspiring to ignore the anxieties of one half of its electors, faute de mieux, as the French would say, is hardly in good health.

Having presented himself as a liberal internationalist throughout this first part of the campaign, however, for the next fortnight Macron will now have to tack to the patriotic Catholic right to shore up as many of Fillon’s supporters as possible, without going so far as to repel Mélanchon’s Marxist internationalists. The tragedy for France is less that his heart isn’t really in it than, in the end, it doesn’t really matter: republican duty will compel conscious voters to back him anyway, whatever their real political preferences.

In espousing the cause of third-way, Clinton-Blairite centrism with its clever triangulation (in the French case: quadri-angulation?) and empty showbiz, Macron is only thirty years too late. To the same extent the hollow platitudes of the original have proven themselves incapable of offering a solution to the widespread sense of the political disenfranchisement of the Western voter, Macron’s ‘revolution’ will also fail.

Already Macron has been called a ‘head of State elected by default’. Inevitably, it seems, this is what France will wake up to on 8 May. Is more-of-the-same all a great nation such as France has left to aspire to? The truth is this election represents not a revolution but a swansong for a liberal globalism that few love but which more prefer to tolerate than any of the alternatives on offer.

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