As if the media have learned nothing from the last twelve months; virtually all major news organisations are tipping a French election win for Emmanuel Macron. The young, pro EU centrist has built a huge following, filling arenas like Bernie Sanders was a year ago. He speaks of being an alternative voice, separate from the French political establishment. He’s offered US scientists ‘asylum’ in France. He’s a former banker and finance minister but was openly critical of his former boss, the hugely unpopular incumbent Francois Hollande. His socially progressive policies have led him to be compared to Canadian PM Justin Trudeau yet his warm relationship with the business and banking communities are more in line with someone like Hillary Clinton. His grass roots movement En Marche have made him seem to many former Socialist voters as a real ‘third way’ candidate. The only option to stop Front National’s Marine Le Pen and keep France inside the EU. He’s the common sense candidate with a clean skin and social conscience. He’s gotta win right?
Well, not exactly. Polling suggests that it will be Marcon v Le Pen in the second round of voting with Marcon to trounce Le Pen 63%-37%. Just like Brexit and Trump last year the polling has always counted in favour of the more moderate candidate. The polling also says that Le Pen will win the first round of voting with Marcon coming in second place but Macron will beat Le Pen in the second round as the majority of the French electorate will vote for him to stop Front National actually getting into power.
Front National (FN) were founded in 1972 by Jean-Marie Le Pen. A former French Foreign Legion paratrooper who fought in the Algerian wars, monsieur Le Pen became an active voice in far right politics upon his return to France in the 60s. His career was thwarted by his casual anti-semitism which didn’t really fly in a country who had, not all that long ago, been invaded by the Nazis. This didn’t stop him from famously making the second round of the 2002 presidential election where he was trounced by Jacques Chirac. His daughter Marine took over the leadership of the FN in 2011 and she soon expelled her father in an attempt to modernise the message of the party. Marine is considered a moderate in comparison to her dad and her niece, the conservative catholic Marion Marechal Le Pen.
To say the least, Marine Le Pen has used the refugee crisis in France to her advantage. Criticising the EU open border policies and advocating for a ‘Frexit’. She’s also pushed a secular message which on the surface seems reasonable until you remember that the only religion her constituents have an issue with is Islam, leading many critics to consider her secular message to be thinly veiled (pun not intended) islamophobia. Economically she has advocated for the restoration of the French welfare state making her, strangely, the most left leaning candidate on economic policy with a chance of becoming president this election. She’s suspicious of ‘elites’, obsessed with sovereignty and has converted people on all sides of the French political divide to her way of thinking.
She’s also the most prominent member of the wave of nationalist/populist parties in Europe who have skyrocketed in popularity since the refugee crisis. Le Pen has been vocal in her criticism of the French government doing business with Saudi Arabia despite the Saudis not taking one single refugee during the crisis in Syria. It’s a popular sentiment not just with far right populists but with feminists, human rights campaigners and anyone who has an issue with the hypocrisy of socially liberal governments being in bed with a country like Saudi Arabia economically. It’s also a sentiment echoed by British Foreign Secretary and Brexiteer Boris Johnson, famously going against his own party line and getting a public telling off by his own PM. There is nothing to suggest Macron will change a thing in terms of how the Saudis are dealt with and it’s the continuation of the status quo, albeit in a new modern politically unaligned package that will be his biggest hurdle.
We saw in the 2015 UK elections, Brexit and the US Presidential election that people were lying when they were being polled. Remember when the Huffington Post claimed that Hillary Clinton had a 98% chance of winning the election the day before America went to the polls? Remember when Remain were going to walk the EU referendum? People don’t like to admit they’re going to vote for parties or movements that are considered by many to be racist. Usually they are voting for these parties for reasons other than race (obviously there are many who unfortunately do vote based on race) but the rhetoric on the other side is that voting for a populist party means you are a racist. This is a big part of why people lie and why the polls are inaccurate. Not only does this inaccurate polling keep people home on election day but it also makes the shock of these huge shifts in the political landscape seem even greater than they perhaps would if people were getting accurate information.
If the French voter really wants to stop Le Pen from becoming the President they’d do well to show up rather than trust the polling. The margin of error in polling, especially when dealing with candidates like Le Pen is far too big to just assume some other person will move democracy in the direction you want it to go in. The sheer fact that Le Pen is favourite to win the first round of voting should be enough for French moderates to question Macron’s status as favourite in the second round. The ‘Macron law’ (which was put into place in 2015 to cut the red tape which its namesake believes is strangling the French economy) is still considered by many to be an unpopular act of appeasing Brussels and at a time of increasing Euro-skepticism. This might not end up playing well when the people enter the polling booths for the second round on May 7, assuming, of course, that Macron is facing Le Pen.
Both candidates have entirely different visions for where they want France to be, how they see French identity and who they need to appeal to. While Le Pen’s employment of left wing economics and right wing nationalism has converted Socialists and Republicans into potential FN voters in 2017, Macron appeals to a contemporary base who don’t believe cutting France off from the rest of the common market is going to solve anything. Le Pen believes that French identity is being lost to (mostly muslim) immigration while Macron believes multiculturalism is a success and should be embraced.
In the two months leading up to the election a lot can happen. All of Macron’s hard work could come undone if internal security issues become major news again. One thing is for certain the absence of any of the two major political parties from the discussion means that everything has changed. The question is how much change do the voters of France really want? Unfortunately, if recent history has taught us anything, nobody has a clue.