“Like the remake of a bad movie,” says a voter in Sarcelles, one of Paris’s many “underprivileged” suburbs that, having formed the “red belt” of the French capital for decades, have now shifted to far-right populism.
The second and final round of the French presidential election last Sunday was, indeed, a remake of the contest five years ago when a then little known Emmanuel Macron handily defeated the far-right champion Marine Le Pen on her second bid for supreme power. But whether or not it was a bad remake remains to be seen.
In France’s two-round system of election, established by General Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, you vote for the candidate they prefer in the first round but vote against the candidate you can’t tolerate in the second.
Five years ago, however, things were not as clear-cut.
Many voted for Macron in both rounds because they saw him as a breath of fresh air. This time round, however, more than 70 percent voted against him in the first round, while Ms. Le Pen dramatically increased her share of the votes in both rounds.
The entire campaign was dominated by an anti-Macron theme in tones of hatred seldom heard in French politics before. Both Le Pen and the far-left champion Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third in the first round, based their campaign on a concerted effort to vilify Macron rather than offer a credible alternative. In the final stage of the campaign Macron decided, or was persuaded by advisers, to also hit below the belt by portraying his adversaries as wreckers of democracy and, in Le Pen’s case, being beholden to Vladimir Putin.
Because of historically high abstentions and spoiled ballots, plus the fact that the campaign did not allow for a serious and sober debate about key issues of policy, such as the defects of globalism, the widening gap between expectations and achievements, the need to reform the European Union’s increasingly authoritarian bureaucracy and a widespread feeling in France that a ruling elite of technocrats is no longer capable of even hearing the “ordinary” citizen, the label “a bad remake” may well fit.
On the other hand, one could argue that the “remake” was not all bad.
To start with, it may have set the seal on the Le Pen dynasty saga that consists of eight election defeats since Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, entered the ring as a serious contender three decades ago.
Initially, the dynasty was built around small groups of Algeria-is-French nostalgics, admirers of the Vichy regime, integralist Catholics, and anti-Islam and anti-Jewish cabals plus strands of opinion favorable to Bonapartist style of rule by a “strongman”.
The latest election showed that although Marine Le Pen had distanced herself and her party from most of those positions, at least in theory, she could not persuade enough voters to go even for her “light” version. Many Le Pen voters, including some French Muslims in the “underprivileged” suburbs and “ethnic minorities” in Corsica and other overseas territories, went for her as a vehicle for protest without embracing her core beliefs.
Also on the “not so bad” side is the fact that France is now one of only two European Union member countries, the other being Hungary, to have a leader backed by more than half of the voters, thus capable of avoiding shady coalitions that magnify the power of small but determined minorities.
Macron’s 58.5% share of the votes cast may not be translated into a similar score in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. And that raises the specter of “cohabitation.” But even then, according to two polls last week, a majority of the French liked the experience of the previous cohabitations.
There is no doubt that anti-European Union sentiments also played a part in Le Pen and Mélenchon’s high scores.
However, as far as the European Union is concerned, Macron’s re-election must be placed in the “not so bad” column. For he designated the election as a referendum on Europe, while his rivals adopted an anti-EU posture. The last thing that Europe needed at this time of war and economic crisis was a Frexit challenge.
Also in the “not so bad” column is the fact that many French commentators and opinion-makers and a growing sliver of would-be voters have begun to pay attention to the need for restoring dignity to rules of political life.
The decision by Le Pen, Macron and some of the other candidates, to portray Macron as something of a Third World potentate, was wrong to say the least, if only because it took legitimate criticism of a president beyond the limits of civility. Focusing on personal attacks, they failed to help foster a serious political debate.
The result was gutter politics of the kind unworthy of a mature democracy.
At the other end of the spectrum, Macron’s camp branded Le Pen as “extreme-right” or even “fascist”, labels that may suit juvenile student politics but need to be used with care by adults. The millions who voted for Le Pen could not be branded as “fascist”. Many with whom I talked turned out to be responsible citizens in a justified or unjustified angry mood for various reasons. Instead of dismissing them with a label, Macron and the governing elite must identify and try to address the sources of that anger.
Branding Mélenchon as a crypto-Stalinist and a secret admirer of Putin was also way out of line. It reminded some of us of the days when every critic of the status quo was branded as a “red under the bed” potential felon deserving a strong dose of McCarthyism.
Both Le Pen and Mélenchon, not to mention openly anti-democratic wannabes like Éric Zemmour and Nathalie Arthaud, are critical of what they label “liberal democracy” and tend to preach a form of populism known as “authoritarian” democracy in the name of abstractions such as “the nation” or “the working class”. However, as long as they do not violate the basic rules of the game they must be respected as challengers and contenders for power, and drawn into and defeated in loyal debates.
Democracy is a substitute for civil war. In it, ballots replace bullets. But they must also replace hurtful words and arrogant gestures.
The latest presidential election shows that, although facing serious challenges, French democracy is still in robust health and capable of negotiating the dangerous bends ahead.
(Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books)