Don’t despair at the French election just yet

by Léa Bourgeteau

26th April 2017

With the choice now narrowed to include only two options – an ‘idealist outcast’ and a poisonous dictator – now is the time for my country to rethink and rebuild the foundation of its political landscape.

Léa Bourgeteau is watching her country’s most unpredictable presidential election from her new home in London.

“I’ve never voted in a presidential election before,” my 33-year-old brother WhatsApped our family group chat yesterday. Suffice it to say that after spending four hours queuing in Wembley to put my vote in the ballot box, this was nearly enough to push me over the edge.

“You should honour the fact that you live in a country where you have the liberty, the right and the chance to vote,” I replied. “And you should take this opportunity to instill democratic values in your children.”

It’s interesting how politics always finds a way to kill the fun.

It’s also interesting to see that despite a projected 80 per cent turnout rate – about 20 per cent higher than the UK’s last General Election turnout – some people in my country, even my family, have felt that for too long politics has not been here to represent, help or serve them.

The Sixth Republic?

The political uneasiness felt across France in 2017 is evident from the results of the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, in which the two main traditional parties were completely wiped out, with a catastrophic six per cent for the country’s incumbent Socialist Party and a slim 19 per cent for the Republicans, the party of France’s former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Now is clearly the time for my country to rethink and rebuild the basis of its political landscape.

Notable is Emmanuel Macron’s 24 per cent lead. Macron embodies an alternative that is different from the choices that – until now – seemed like the only options. The ‘Macron phenomenon’ offers a genial alternative to the historical right-left split that struggles to convince today’s generations—unaware or uninspired by France’s traditional political cleavage. Macron’s supporters, certainly, don’t see the relevance, preferring instead to work together to build a society based on union rather than on division.

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”
Nelson Mandela

Macron, the charismatic leader of En Marche!, a political party founded just one year ago, offers a solution to a France that is European to its core and fundamentally open to the world. One of his policies is to extend the Erasmus programme to all students, allowing young people to study one year abroad as part of their studies—an ‘idealist’ idea that has nonetheless garnered the support of the majority of France’s voters.

We have never been less sure of our country’s future

We can’t ignore the fact that these elections are one of the most important in decades for France, notably because it is the first time in the Fifth Republic that results have been so unpredictable. Polls are notoriously unreliable, but now they are simply volatile—at some point during the campaign, each foresaw every main political party winning.

Macron was discarded as an ‘idealist outcast’, François Fillon was declared the winner last year, then Benoît Hamon, and finally Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose far-left policies were met with an astonishing 19 per cent of the vote. His party is now considered the official voice of France’s Left.

This explains the high turnout rate for these particular elections as everyone felt that a gesture as simple as putting a vote in the ballot box was still a way to play a role in deciding the future of France. And isn’t that the point of a general election in the end? One thing the French can be proud of is the way our country is still able to come together and fight for their ideas with passion.

Marine Le Pen—populism is far from over

One statistic remained unchanged throughout the whole campaign—that which predicted the presence of Marine Le Pen in the second round. Whereas France managed to avoid the prospect of the Front National in its last election, this presidential run has strange similarities with 2012. And the shock is still here, with most candidates asking voters to ‘vote against extremism’ and prevent France from signing a death warrant on its national values of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Indeed, isolated in her politics, Marine Le Pen is the anti-establishment figure of the extreme: anti-Europe, anti-immigration, protectionist. Despite temporarily stepping down as the Front National leader on Monday, Le Pen has successfully carried her father’s party – still tainted with neo-fascism, racial bigotry and Holocaust scepticism – to an unprecedented high. Increasing numbers of voters clearly believe that the anti-republican rhetoric – whether espoused by Front National or Le Pen herself – is what will ‘save’ France today, and this is one scary thought.

I didn’t vote for Macron. Nor for Marine Le Pen. However, I still believe that democracy is the least-worst form of government and that this calls for the least-worst form of candidate.

I embrace and understand the need for an alternative, and hope that Macron’s pro-European vision can be the last standing voice against a dangerous, isolationist discourse that has become far too normalised in today’s politics.

And I believe that ideas of union, openness and togetherness can be effective barriers to an increasingly dangerous world.