By Dick Paul Ouko
On the cold night of March 31st, just days before the first round of French Presidential elections, I expressed my concerns to a staunch ‘Macroniste’ on the direction taken by French political discourse. All pointers had Macron ahead of all the other candidates, and as things stand today, two days after that first round, France is headed for five more years of Macron at Élysée but “what will happen in five years after Macron’s departure?” The further implosion of the center-left and center-right in the past first round of the French Presidential elections presents a worrying trend for French liberal democracy – one that, if continued well over the next five years, threatens an unwinnable political trial that could force liberal democracy to march towards the guillotine.
My concern about the erosion of the center-left and center-right’s grasp on French political discourse was confirmed by the official results of the first round of presidential elections; Macron came out on top with 27.8%, Le Pen second with 23.1%, Mélenchon a close third with 22%, and Zemmour a distant fourth with 7.1%. Therefore, Macron and Le Pen are set for a ‘second leg’ match, a repeat of 2017. The center-left and center-right suffered huge blows with a staggering collapse, a ‘negative follow-up’ of the 2017 elections. The two previously dominant forces in French politics scored 6.6% between them, with Valerie Pecresse of Les Républicans having 4.8% and Anne Hidalgo of the Socialists garnering just 1.8%. Both fell below the 5% threshold, which would have allowed their campaigns to get a reimbursement of the funds spent on the campaign trail.
The main point concerning the results after the first round is not at the extremities but at the heart of liberal democracy. Though winning the hearts and minds of a growing fraction of the French electorate, the far right is not the big winner. The gains by Le Pen, if compared to the 2017 elections, are minimal, while Zemmour and Dupont-Aignan, the other right-wing candidates, got around 5% more than Dupont-Aignan had received in 2017. The Russo-Ukrainian War changed the political landscape for Le Pen and Zemmour. Le Pen had been competing with the radical right’s Zemmour and the center-right’s Pecresse for second place. The ties that Zemmour had with the Kremlin cost him dearly, as his score represents only a third of Le Pen’s. Although she had even had a photo-op with Putin, Le Pen deployed the ‘silence tactic’ and was able to push aside her ties in the mainstream media. She presented herself as a moderate option to Zemmour, softening her stance on issues such as immigration, which sting and evoke emotions in voters, and ultimately negative coverage in the media.
The far-right and the extreme-right gained 7% of the votes compared to 2017, while Les Républicains, mainstream or center-right, lost 15%. While positive on the surface, Macron’s gain of 4% hides the fact that he has lost his grip on the charm and personality that led him to break the Old Party system in 2017. This campaign period has instead had a slow rhythm for Macron, who – righteously – has had to devote huge amounts of attention to the Ukrainian war just at the doorstep of France and the EU. He started his campaign late, giving four-hour speeches on his promises and achievements. He is no longer the young minister sans enemies, new to the system, with beliefs that had voters and political analysts throng to his ideas as he picked up the spoils of the broken Old party system into the Élysée. His ratings, which had been strong, drastically dropped in 2019 with the Gilet Jaunes demonstrations and the economic developments, which have had the broader French electorate worried. Just before the first round this past Sunday, polls had shown Le Pen gaining on Macron, and his margin for error threatens to shrink further heading into the second round.
The support for anti-system parties has soared higher on both sides of the political spectrum. Mélenchon, of the radical-left, gained 2.42% compared to 2017, which was not large enough to propel him into second position. One might also wonder whether some of these voters were really “his.” In the last few weeks before the elections, there was an increased mobilization in his support, especially by the young voters, the majority of which cast their votes for him. On campus, one of the reasons given by Mélenchon supporters that I encountered was the need to vote him in to slowly eliminate the predominance of the radical right in the French political sphere. Their hope for the second round of the elections was to reinstate a seriousness to the discussions in the political arena. Since polls showed a steep increase in his support in the last weeks, questions can arise as to whether that 2.42% increase was originally from his voter base or just the undecided. The French electorate is therefore split in three ways between liberal internationalists, represented by Macron, Le Pen, and Zemmour’s far-right nationalists, and Mélenchon’s left-wing radicals, with all these three political factions accumulating about 80% of the total votes. There was a complete implosion of the center-left and center-right in the first round. It is worth noting that Le Partie Socialiste had already imploded in 2017, while Les Républicains’ implosion is a contemporary phenomenon.
One explanation for these lackluster showings are the weak personalities of the candidates fielded by these parties. A strong personality is vital in the French political arena because of its semi-presidential state system. There is a need for a leader who can marshall the parliament and the country behind their policies. Since parliamentary elections are held after the second round of the presidential elections, the winning party is often informed by the party of the just elected president. As a consequence, the presidents have had to go back to the campaign trail after their inauguration to mobilize support for parliamentary candidates of their parties so as to ensure themselves an easier time enacting policies by their administration. A strong personality is essential to avoid the risk of cohabitation, making the president a ‘lame-duck’ throughout the five years. Le Pen and Mélenchon will push for cohabitation, which will significantly change the landscape, however, it would represent a milestone as a first since the new law of 2000 came into force.
What has come to be known as the Blairite revolution is another cause for the implosion of the center-left and center-right parties. Tony Blair came to power after a period of Thatcherism, whose main goal was to replace Keynesianism of the post World War II period in the United Kingdom with neoliberal policy. The Third Way (of Blair) presented an alternative to the politics of the left and right, hence a radical center, where political antagonisms gave way to conciliation, social partnerships, and consensus. In an economy controlled by the market and its demands, individual responsibility was promoted with the state helping these individuals become “more responsible.” This avoided dealing with the structural flaws that existed, in addition to the burgeoning inequality. This Blairite centrist course, which oversaw the embracing of the market and depoliticization of politics, led to the marginalization of the left. The keen view of always arriving at consensus is not healthy for the politics of a nation as it is easier to stifle dissenting voices. As Mouffe pointed out, ‘it is a politics without an adversary,’ that ignores the ‘integrative role of conflict in modern democracies.’ Badiou, in an article published in 2008 penned that this erasure of the left from parliamentary democracy and normative consensus on free-market capitalism [had] had significant effects on deliberative politics and public political debate and hence the existence of real democratic choice – electoral politics had become a procedure of State.
So how does this apply to French political discourse? The Blairite revolution can be observed in the evolution of the French right to the extremes (radical), especially in the 1990s. This can be observed in parties such as Rassemblement Pour la République (RPR) and even the Le Parti Socialiste (PS), who fully integrated the Blairist centrist course. When Macron entered the political scene in 2017, he brought a more vibrant play into French politics, one that had not been mainstream before in France. He was a breath of fresh air with his centrist stand. He presented himself as the choice neither aligned with the right nor the left. He was the candidate who would incorporate ideals from across the political divide – removed from the established elites of the older left and right whose politics had a centralized, depoliticized, pragmatic nature. Many voters claim he is more aligned to the right judging by his policies and rhetoric. However, in truth, his policies still very much resembled those of the Blairite discourse, for example, his policies surrounding the auto-entrepreneur – policies that promotes individual responsibility over collective responsibility.
It is clear from the above discussion that a political discourse centered on ‘Blairite politics’ is not only an assured path to the ideological and electoral weakening and disorganization of the center-left but also a weakening of liberal democracy, where dissenting voices should be welcomed and encouraged. In a healthy liberal democracy, the society’s focus is on the collective movement towards national goals, not a focus on individual responsibility as is currently promoted by the Macron administration. Years of Blairite discourse discourages voters from participating in the political process leading to a weakened democratic process. Voter apathy is thus a cause for increased support for the radical left and right through reduced voter turnouts in various elections, and the rise of radical leadership in Zemmour, Le Pen and Mélenchon.
In this recent first round of the presidential election, the vote abstention stood at 26.81%, an increase of 4.08% compared to five years ago and a record since 2002. This high voter abstention is in line with other European elections, thus presenting a need for defenders of liberal democracy across the continent to go back to the drawing board and adapt their politics to the changing views and needs expressed in the changing political terrain. What should be even more worrying for radical left parties is that the huge number of abstentions recorded are of the young population, who make up their widest support base. An Ipsos Sopra-Steria poll showed that only 58% of those aged 18-24 years old voted, while those in the age bracket of 25-34 years had a turnout of only 54% in the recent first round of the presidential election.
As long as this remains the norm in the French political arena, the French voters are only postponing the inevitable: the rise in power of a radical right presidential candidate, in Zemmour or Le Pen, for example. Since 2002, the French have rallied and voted against Le Pen, but one must ask for how long they will keep the watch while their needs are repeatedly ignored by each occupant of the Élysée. I seriously doubt this will be too long. The ‘Trump experiment’ in the case of France seems more and more probable. At the moment, only two political forces are evident: the one from Macron, represented by a single personality, and the ideological one from the right. As polls show, for the second round pitting Macron against Le Pen, the former is predicted to win, but that margin will be much lower than in 2017. It will be a return leg with the same winner but a marginal score. Macron’s flaws might just keep gifting the radical parties’ blocs in his second term, which will be a problem for his party, which is not yet stable and which will need a new flag bearer come 2027. When Macron exits the scene, will France be ready for a ‘possible death’ to the liberal democracy? Another possibility is that the “political deaths” of both Les Républicains and Le Parti Socialiste will leave voids that can be filled by a new party, which would have learned from the failures of the now ‘dying’ parties, come up with new structures and front strong personalities for races towards the Élysée. While my point pens a possible political obituary for the moderate parties, there is a possibility of their resurrection from the malaise, just like the center-right parties in Austria and Italy.
As Chantal Mouffe argued, ‘a well-functioning democracy calls for a vibrant clash of democratic political positions. If this is missing, there is always danger that this democratic confrontation will be replaced by a conflict between non-negotiable moral values or essential forms of identification.’ This was a prescient description of the Macron-Le Pen battles that have been seen in the French political discourse since 2002. The French political discourse must be re-politicized, with political agendas sold to the electorates deeply rooted in liberal democracy, which is cognizant of the present struggles hence not a reversal to the 80s and 90s.
- Cover Image: Winner by département. live interactive map of the 2022 French presidential election results. https://europeelects.eu/2022/04/10/2022-french-presidential-election-first-round-live-blog/
- Colin Wright (2009) Badiou’s Axiomatic Democracy Against Cultural Politics: A Jamaican Counter‐Example, Culture, Theory and Critique, 50:1, 77-91, DOI: 10.1080/14735780802696377
- MOUFFE, Chantal. The radical centre. Soundings, 1998, vol. 9, no Summer, p. 11-23.
- Powell, Kathy. “Brexit Positions: Neoliberalism, Austerity and Immigration—the (Im)Possibilities? Of Political Revolution.” Dialectical Anthropology, vol. 41, no. 3, 2017, pp. 225–40, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44979751 . Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.