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France: A fractured country and an uncertain second round

CLAUDE PATRIAT Emeritus Professor of Political Science University of Bourgogne, University of Bourgogne – UBFC

As expected, the vote on April 10 did not purge the situation caused by the irruption of Emmanuel Macron in 2017 in the fragile structure of the party system. Unlike. Far from stabilizing a new political order, the first round reveals an uncertain lunar landscape from which the former government parties seem to be excluded, both on the right and on the left: five years ago, with Benoît Hamon with 6.36%, it was the Socialist Party that was headed for the exit; now it is the turn of The Republicans to sink, divided between Emmanuel Macron and Éric Zemmour, and who are below 5%, while the Socialist Party, surpassed by Jean Lassalle and Fabien Roussel, achieves the lowest score in its history, with less than 2%.

This is a terrible descent into hell in a two-speed France where, paradoxically, the parties that still own the game at the local level are being beheaded at the national level.

deadly triangle

Instead of reforming political institutions by revitalizing the balance of powers and favoring the conditions for full democratic representation, the ruthless mechanics of the presidential election have been left to do their work as a dry guillotine, in an environment where anger and fear compete. with resignation.

Between the crossfire, based on the useful vote or the refugee vote, and the protest vote, the old right/left bipolarization has gone out of style.

The time has come for voters to group around three poles: a far-right pole, with 32.29% of the vote, 1.6 million more than in 2017; a pole of the radical left, self-proclaimed by Mélenchon as a popular unit, with 22%; and a central pole around the acting president, who received 27.84% of the votes.

Around the latter, isolated in the middle of quicksand, a scattered habitat for the shreds of parties not aligned with the poles: Roussel, Jadot, Pécresse or Hidalgo only add up to 13.45% (4,727,073 votes). Only Valérie Pécresse, falling to 1,679,470, lost 5,533,525 of the votes collected by François Fillon.

The Republicans, caught between the extreme right and Emmanuel Macron, have therefore been particularly affected by the shipwreck: they have been diverted by these two poles. A similar misfortune befell ecologists and socialists, collateral victims of the useful vote sirens sung by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Spectacular defeats

In this game of communicating vessels, some defeats are especially spectacular: of the twelve candidates, only three exceed 20%, while nine are below 10% and eight below 5%. And almost 15 points separate fourth from third! Strange disconnection of a political field in full recomposition, whose coherence with the local political landscape is difficult to grasp. Let us remember that in 2017 the first four candidates were inside a handkerchief.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon can boast of a higher result than the polls suggested, although probably less important than he expected: with 21.95%, he increased by 655,000 votes compared to 2017 (+5.97%). The contribution of a useful vote from environmentalists and socialists is not enough to compensate for the handicap caused by the presence of his former communist ally, who this time has gone alone: ​​he has not managed to beat Marine Le Pen by 421,000 votes.

Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, managed to get away with it, leading his main rival by almost four points. With 27.84% of the votes, he improves on his 2017 result by more than 1,130,000 votes (+13%). As for Marine Le Pen, with 23.15% she has managed, thanks to an intelligent use of the useful vote, to overcome the handicap of a Zemmour candidacy and advance by more than 450,000 votes compared to the previous election (+5.96 %).

vote transfers

The road to the second round is full of uncertainties and pitfalls. Because the game that is about to be played is doubly complex. There is, of course, the designation of the occupant of the presidential chair. But beyond that, there is the question of the effectiveness of the institutions and their ability to respond to the expectations of a deeply divided and fractured country.

The result of the first round leaves a false clarity about the result of the second. This antagonistic tripolar crystallization hinders what is one of the two essential elements of the dynamics of a second round: vote transfers.

Marine Le Pen does not seem to have anything to worry about from this point of view, since the texture of the far-right vote is homogeneous and the other two candidates in her camp, Éric Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, ask without surprise and without conditions the vote for her. In addition, given the attitude of the number 2 in the primaries of The Republicans (LR), Éric Ciotti, a supporter of the hard right, can expect a part of the votes collected by Valérie Pécresse.

And the icing on the cake, within the framework of a kind of “everything but Macron”, could benefit from some votes from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, although the latter called several times on Sunday night not to “give even a single vote” to the extreme right (although it is true that without giving an instruction in favor of Emmanuel Macron).

A difficult campaign for Emmanuel Macron

Faced with these two blocs united by their common hostility to the president-candidate, Emmanuel Macron does not have the same potential resources. It is true that Anne Hidalgo, Valérie Pécresse, Yannick Jadot and Fabien Roussel have called firmly and clearly to vote for him. But his potential remains slim, assuming he’s disciplined. He will have to fight hard to attract to him the left-wing voters who will have voted for Mélenchon to avoid too much disgrace in his field. It only remains to play with participation and create a dynamic among the abstentionists of the first round. This participation was mediocre: only two points more than in 2002 and four less than in 2017. Therefore, support must be expected.

This will be related to the second dimension of the election: the democratic efficiency in the functioning of the institutions. Because there is a lack of confidence in the elected representatives. In fact, there is little chance that April 24 will purge France of the unrest fostered in public opinion. The risk of the winner’s legitimacy being called into question is high.

The years that have just passed have sufficiently demonstrated that elections, no matter how brilliant, are not enough on their own to guarantee consent to politics. It will be necessary to invent a form of government that breaks the stagnation in which the presidential illusion has plunged the country for decades.

The horizon would be very different if, instead of being reduced to a presidential system of smoke and mirrors, the proportional legislature allowed pluralism and diversity of opinions to be represented. And if the functioning of the institutions were more respectful of the balance of powers. It was a serious mistake of the five-year period to avoid this reform. Now you have to pay the price.

Emmanuel Macron seems to have understood this, as he declared on the night of the first round:

«I am willing to invent something new to unite diverse convictions and sensibilities».

Lacking the means to act immediately, he has to try to convince people how he intends to proceed to get out of this top-down practice focused on the exercise of power.

Reading the results of the first round, the exercise promises to be dangerous. Danton said that enthusiasm was necessary to found a Republic. It is also necessary to preserve it.

This article has been published in ‘The Conversation’.

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