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French election still in play

The key result of the first round of voting in the French Presidential election held on Sunday is that the incumbent Emmanuel Macron emerged with a comfortable, and increased, margin over his main challenger Marine Le Pen. Macron took 27.6% of the vote compared to 23.4% for Le Pen.

The corresponding tally in the first round in 2017 was 24% for Macron and 21.3% for Le Pen. Both candidates comfortably increased their vote share, as did the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon whose vote grew by over 2% to 21.95%.

The only other notable feature of the result, which highlighted again the embarrassing irrelevance of the old left and republican right, was the 7% vote share for Éric Zemmour who seems to have managed to mobilise a right constituency that had not previously come out for Le Pen.

Zemmour has unequivocally backed Le Pen in the second round, but that has not been matched on the left. The once mighty Communist Party whose vote had survived even decades of supine Stalinism and whose former support base has gone almost completely to the far left and Le Pen, has called on its dwindling band of supporters – just 2.3% of the vote – not to vote for Le Pen, but they stopped short of asking their supporters to vote for Macron.

More important of course is what the 7.6 million people who voted for Mélenchon will do on April 24. After the result of the first round became clear, Mélenchon declared “We know who we will never vote for. Don’t give your votes for Madame Le Pen.” However, the extent to which that is in his gift, and the extent to which far left voters will abstain rather than vote for Macron who they loathe, or even vote for Le Pen will be the deciding factor in the second round.

A Harris poll carried out prior to the vote on Sunday found that just 45% of Mélenchon supporters intended to vote for Macron in the second round compared to 21% for Le Pen and 44% who would abstain or spoil their ballot. A poll conducted by Mélenchon’s own organisation Insoumise in 2017 claimed that just 35% intended to vote for Macron but the actual % on the day of the second round was much higher.

In 2017 almost five million fewer voters turned out for the second round. That is likely to be even higher this time, and Le Pen needs it to be. She particularly needs a huge level of abstention on the far left. Such a level of abstention would have been unthinkable in France at one time – when De Gaulle defeated Mitterand in 1965 just 800.000 fewer voters came out the second day.

Zemmour has mobilised some of those who might not have voted at all had he not run and his backing for Le Pen and the huge proportion of his voters – 84% according to Harris – who will vote for Le Pen is a boost for her as her second round vote in 2017 only grew by 3 million, compared to over 12 million for Macron.

One of the other factors that will assist Le Pen is the fact that her core voters and those of Mélenchon are far more similar in demographic terms than they are with Macron supporters. Of course class and age are a crude determinant but they will play some part. In 2017, Macron was clearly the candidate of the more prosperous in France. He took 32% of the votes of those with a monthly income of more than €3000 compared to 15% for Le Pen and 16% for Mélenchon.

Macron won the support of just 14% of those with monthly incomes below €1250, among whom Le Pen took 32%. Mélenchon’s voter demographic is similar although it is noticeable that he does much better among higher income groups than Le Pen, which some attribute to the continued influence of the so-called “Generation of 1968” – the soixante-huitards – who like the American Democratic left dominate huge swathes of academia, the media and the professions.

There are also Mélenchon voters, particularly the younger cohort, who identify with the Gilets juanes and are alienated from the establishment including its left wing. They share that, as well as basic economic situations and concerns, with many supporters of Le Pen and Zemmour. How many will take that to the logical step of voting for the anti-establishment candidate on April 24, or at least not voting for the poster boy of “globalism,” will be key.

Less of them will surely be swayed by the tired old mantra of “defending the Republic” with which both the centre right and left have wooed left voters against the both Le Pens for a generation. The increasingly sordid modern history of the soixante-huitards, as revealed by the exposé of their icon Foucault and others, as well as the actual role of the French Communists including fellow traveller Sartre during the early years of the German occupation prior to the invasion of their beloved Soviet Union, means that this has increasingly less traction.

The only people to emerge with real credit from those days were the anti Stalinist left, as epitomised by Camus, and the Catholic patriots like De Gaulle and intellectuals such as Francoise Mauriac. Some would argue that there are no French leaders of that stature any more. Perhaps not, but others have argued that the closest approximation is Marine Le Pen.

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