Will Macron’s centrism defeat France’s growing right?
On Sunday, French voters chose incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right challenger Marine Le Pen as the two candidates who will face off in a run-off on April 24. Macron won almost twenty-eight percent of the vote; Le Pen managed to win twenty-three percent. They were followed by left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won a surprising twenty-two percent, and television personality and writer Éric Zemmour, who ran to Le Pen’s right and is briefly high in the polls before finishing at seven percent. hundred. Perhaps the most shocking results were the beatings inflicted on the main centre-right and centre-left parties, which took 4.8% and 1.8% of the vote respectively. The race was marked by increasingly dire rhetoric about crime, Islam and immigration. Several candidates or their advisers have warned of a “great replacement”, referring to a racist conspiracy theory that France is strategically overrun by non-white immigrants. Polls show Macron with a small lead in the second round, but the race looks much closer than it was in 2017, when he beat Le Pen by more than thirty percentage points.
I discussed the election and the state of French politics with Arthur Goldhammer, affiliated with the Harvard Center for European Studies and translator of more than a hundred books from French to English. During our chat, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Le Pen’s current campaign has been more successful than the previous one, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in France, and Macron’s political legacy.
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This election is spoken of as a nail in the coffin of the center-right and center-left in France, and its replacement by candidates from the extremes and what has been called Macron’s “radical centrism”. Do you think that was essentially Macron’s plan from the start: to become the alternative to the extremes in France? Where did he end up after five years?
I think he exploited a situation that even existed before him. It was always practical, dating back to the days of François Mitterrand, who was president from 1981 to 1995 – he arranged for the far-right candidate to garner the votes of his opponents from the dominant centre-right party . Now the dominant center-right party is gone, but that doesn’t mean the center is gone – Macron now completely occupies the center. And that does not mean that the left has disappeared. The surprisingly strong vote for Mélenchon shows that there is a thirst for a leftist alternative, but that he cannot really find a candidate around whom to unite.
And the vote for Mélenchon was largely a strategic vote. His real solid base, I think, is only about eight or nine percent, but in the end he got over twenty percent because there were a lot of disgruntled socialists who thought that if they wanted have a left alternative, or the possibility of reaching the second round, they had to vote for Mélenchon. It would have given them, if he had, at least a debate between someone on the left and Macron. So while the parties are certainly in disarray, the strength of the historically dominant parties – the Socialists and the Republicans – continue to exist at the subnational level, and they remain concentrated at the center. And it’s been like that for a long time.
Do you have any idea why Le Pen took off in a way Zemmour didn’t? His appeal seems to be for a more working-class, right-wing electorate than his own. But for a long time, it looked like they might steal each other’s votes, or he’d rise and she’d fall. And instead, she beat him by more than three to one.
Well, I think two things explain its strength. The first is not his doing but that of Vladimir Putin. The invasion of Ukraine discredited Zemmour, who was a staunch supporter of Putin and who refused to back down from that position even when it became clear that Russia would follow through on its threat to invade and then carry out atrocities. Le Pen has also been associated with Putin in the past, and has been photographed with him in Moscow, and has made favorable statements about him, and has said that her favorite foreign policy is to be equidistant between Russia and United States. But she was also quick to condemn the invasion and welcome Ukrainian refugees to France, despite her general opposition to immigrants and refugees from other countries. Zemmour did not do this. And when he didn’t, he began to fall back in the polls.
The other thing is that Le Pen has worked hard to soften her image, and Zemmour has provided a convenient contrast: someone even more xenophobic, racist and anti-Islamic than she is. And someone who insisted on the three I’s: immigration, insecurity and identity, which had all been characteristic problems of the Le Pen family. He was so radical that he made her seem more moderate, and thus encouraged his long-term strategy to de-demonize himself, as the French like to say.
I also get the impression that it was not just that he went further on things like immigration and Islam, but that she was more willing to talk about economic issues in this campaign than she had not been in 2017. Is that correct?
I would correct you on one point. In 2017, she spoke about economic issues, but mostly in terms of withdrawing from the EU, restoring protectionism and dumping the euro. These were not popular questions. This year, she talked about purchasing power and the cost of living. And it struck a chord, particularly, again, following the invasion of Ukraine, when France suffered an even more extreme spike in energy prices than we’ve seen in America , which hit ordinary motorists in the wallet. This question began to gain even more traction.
So her discussion of the economy this year was much more down-to-earth and relevant than the Frexit threat she raised in 2017, which was, first, abstract and, second, not really its own. problem. In my opinion, this is something sold to him by his main adviser at the time, Florian Philippot, who has since left the Party to form his own. And she didn’t really understand the intricacies of the position as he had developed it. So, in particular, she couldn’t defend him effectively in the debate with Macron, and that’s what made him look so bad in this debate, which led to his humiliation and defeat in 2017. .
And I feel like Zemmour never really caught the eye of working-class conservative voters. Is it correct?
He had the bourgeois conservative voters and the wealthier, more religious conservative voters. So, for example, this is why Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece and Jean-Marie Le Pen’s granddaughter, supported Zemmour rather than her aunt, even though her aunt had helped raise him in his childhood.
Tragic betrayal. I want to take a step back here. From a distance, France looks like a country with a fairly high standard of living. It has weathered the pandemic quite well. France is generally considered a good place to live. And yet, every time I checked this campaign, the tone of it seemed to be almost apocalyptic – about immigration, about crime, about Islam, about secular issues and how threatened they were. . I don’t want to minimize France’s real problems, but I don’t fully understand why in 2022 the tone of this campaign has taken this turn. Do you have any idea why?
That’s a very good question. I think the French tend to hate all their leaders more than is justified. Macron, in particular, receives more hate than he deserves. But I think a lot of leftist voters felt betrayed. Many were ready to accept his proposition in 2017 that he was neither right nor left, and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And then, when he came to power, he brought many right-wingers into his government. The measures he enacted, such as the abolition of the wealth tax or the reform of the labor market, were generally perceived as measures which could have been enacted by, say, Alain Juppé, a center-right leader who lost the primary in 2017. was that feeling of betrayal. But it goes way beyond, in my view, anything that can be justified by what Macron has done. He was vilified by Zemmour, by Le Pen, by Mélenchon, who all painted him in the blackest terms. Yet it’s hard to understand why people accept these characterizations of someone who, for all his neoliberalism, remains quite moderate – a radical centrist, as you said earlier.