And in the end, it wasn’t difficult at all. The uptick in the opinion polls over the last few days turned out to be predictive, and Emmanuel Macron won drawing away, with 66.1% to the far right’s Marine Le Pen on 33.9%, a lead of just over ten million votes. He carried all but two of France’s 102 departments.
As the Guardian puts it, “The people of France have inflicted a major reverse on demagogic nationalism. Their country is safer for it. So is ours. So is Europe.”
Macron will take office later this week as the youngest French head of state since Napoleon and the first from outside the two-party system since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974 (not, as the BBC has it, since 1958). He will then face parliamentary elections in a month’s time (11 and 18 June), which will partly determine just how powerful he will be.
Turnout was 74.6%, down from 77.8% in the first round and 80.4% in 2012. But that understates the fall, since 11.5% of those who voted did so informally – up from 5.8% in 2012. Only 66.1% of those eligible cast a valid vote. At its peak, in 1974, that figure was 86.2%.*
So although Macron has an impressive mandate, France has not shown the same unanimity that it did when Le Pen’s father was annihilated by Jacques Chirac in 2002.
France is divided three ways, with the traditional supporters of the republic in the centre flanked by its opponents to both right and left. Macron’s objective is to build a consensus behind his centrist position: pro-European, tolerant, multicultural, supportive of economic reform but mindful of the need to share its burdens more equitably.
To the right are the enemies of modernity, who want to turn their back on European integration and return to a nationalism of blood and soil. To the left are those whose priority is the overthrow of capitalism, who regard Macron’s liberalism as at best an irrelevance.
It’s not easy to estimate the relative strength of the three groups. The middle group – the republican consensus – represents something between the 24.0% Macron won in the first round and his 66.1% in the runoff; it may still amount to a majority, but clearly not a large one. Many of the hard left evidently turned out to support Macron yesterday (preferring the argument of Yanis Varoufakis to that of Slavoj Žižek), but they are heavily represented among the non-voters, and some also would have switched to Le Pen as the more anti-capitalist candidate.
Once upon a time the republican consensus was big enough to support three major political forces within it – centre-left, centre and centre right – with the extremists relegated to the fringe on both sides. The danger now is that the decline of the centre-left and (to a lesser extent) the centre-right has left only one viable party in the middle, and the National Front and the Left Front (or some reworking of them) will take their place as the only alternative major parties.
(This is, of course, not just a French problem: it could be argued that something very like this has already happened in Britain.)
It’s true that the French electoral system will work in favor of the middle and against the extremes. A projection done by OpinionWay on the basis of the first round results puts Macron’s En Marche! well on the way to a majority in the new National Assembly; it suggests that the National Front, despite reaching the second round in most of the 535 seats in metropolitan France, would only win between 15 and 25 of them.
But that in turn creates a danger. The far right’s voters are already driven in large part by a sense of exclusion, a feeling that the system is stacked against them. If they win only a derisory representation for their fifth or more of the vote, that is only likely to reinforce their alienation.
The only sustainable solution is for Macron’s policies to succeed: for him to bring social inclusion, economic prosperity and national security. If he fails, then next time around France may well turn to those who demand the destruction of capitalism, or modernity, or both.
* Note: none of the second round figures yet seem to include the expatriate voters; most likely they will slightly increase Macron’s margin and reduce the overall turnout still further.