Further to this April 9 AP story, one day before the first round of the French presidential elections,
excerpts from a superb major article by an excellent Globe and Mail columnist; the best single reviews of tomorrow’s vote I’ve read (many photos at orginal);
France’s presidential election will make divisions worse, whether Emmanuel Macron wins or loses
As voters take stock of a centrist leader’s five years in office, challengers Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are fighting for control of the far right – and creating new frictions that will take the next government a long time to reckon with
…after a chaotic five-year mandate, known in French as le quinquennat, that has played out against the backdrop of the threat of Islamic terrorism, a populist uprising against Paris-based elites and the pandemic, Mr. Macron is poised to win again. War has something to do with that.
Paris, in all its spring glory, feels about as far away as you can get from a war zone. Even if COVID-19 case counts have been rising again in recent weeks, the French appear to have decided to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. Restaurants, patios and bars are brimming, and maskless patrons live it up as only the French know how. Yet, no matter whom you talk to, the topic inevitably turns to war.
The Feb. 24 outbreak of a bloody conflict in Europe awakened a desire among famously contrarian French voters for continuity at home. Mr. Macron’s stature on the European stage suddenly made him somewhat irreplaceable. French pollsters attributed the rise in his approval rating after the Russian invasion of Ukraine to l’effet drapeau, or the flag effect. But the effect appears to be wearing off as the shock of the war subsides. Mr. Macron’s lead in the polls has narrowed substantially in recent days. One wonders whether, in the absence of war, he might have faced a similar fate as his two immediate predecessors, the centre-left Mr. Hollande and the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom ended up as woefully unpopular one-term presidents.
For sure, France is more polarized than when Mr. Macron took office. If he wins a second term, his margin of victory stands to be much narrower than in 2017, when he won 66 per cent of the popular vote on the second ballot. This time, polls suggest, almost half of French voters will mark their first ballot for a candidate on the far-right or far-left…
Another cause of division lies in the fact that smaller parties are only weakly represented in France’s National Assembly, a function of the country’s electoral system, which requires candidates to garner 50 per cent or more of the second-ballot vote to win a seat…
At the heart of the divisions in France today, however, lies the question of what it means to be French. Terrorist attacks in late 2015, when Islamic jihadists gunned down 130 people in central Paris, and the beheading of a high-school teacher in 2020 after he showed caricatures of the prophet Mohammed to his students, have hardened attitudes toward immigration and religious accommodation within French society. Mr. Macron has attempted to strike a balance; his rivals accuse him of complacency in the face of the threat posed to the French identity by a growing Muslim population that they say does not believe in the secularist values of the Republic [see this February post: “Macron et les Musulmans en France, cont’d“].
No candidate has beaten this drum as loudly or effectively as Éric Zemmour [note his “background as an Algerian Jew of Berber stock“], a poison-tongued right-wing essayist and former cable news agitator, who has attempted to usurp Ms. Le Pen’s mantle on the far-right with a zero-immigration platform and promise to deport illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and criminals.
Until Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, it looked like Mr. Zemmour might finish second on the first ballot. His previous encomiums to Mr. Putin have now come back to haunt him. But no matter how he performs on the first ballot, his influence on this campaign, and French politics, cannot be understated.
Ms. Le Pen, despite having once also been in Mr. Putin’s thrall [see the 2017 photos here, just before the last French presidential elections], remains the candidate most likely to confront Mr. Macron on the April 24 second ballot, thanks to her solid support among working-class voters. The candidate for France’s traditional centre-right party, now known as Les Républicains, Valérie Pécresse, has struggled to crack double-digits in the polls, reflecting Mr. Macron’s success in drawing moderate Républicains toward him and Ms. Pécresse’s failure to stanch the exodus of others from her party toward Mr. Zemmour and Ms. Le Pen.
There is a chance that far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a politician given to fiery tirades against the rich and entitled who wants France to leave NATO, could surprise everyone. But he would first need to persuade French progressives to stop infighting long enough to prevent Mr. Zemmour or Ms. Le Pen from making it to the second round. The French left is weaker than at any time since the end of the Second World War…France appears set to emerge from this presidential election more divided than it went into it. Mr. Macron’s second quinquennat promises to be more agitated than his first. He will need all his chutzpah, and a bit of luck, to keep the populists at bay.
The question [below] is meant to provoke.
“How many immigrants,” says the message on the giant LED screen set up at the front of the arena in Metz, a city of 400,000 near the German border, “has France taken in during President Macron’s five-year mandate?” When the figure of 1.8 million appears, the crowd boos, then breaks into chants of “Zemmour Président.”
The correct figure is closer to 1.25 million, based on the number of permanent resident visas issued to non-Europeans since 2017. No matter. When he takes the stage in front of 4,000 supporters, Éric Zemmour tells the crowd that this presidential election is the last chance to save France from Le Grand Remplacement, or Great Replacement. Mr. Zemmour has made the conspiracy theory hatched by French polemicist Renaud Camus the central conceit of his candidacy. It posits that Muslim immigrants and their descendants are gradually “replacing” white Christians as France’s dominant culture, all with the complicity of the country’s Paris-based elites.
“I will stop immigration, I will terrorize the terrorists, I will restore order,” Mr. Zemmour tells the crowd. “I will do everything to ensure that jihad never again is waged on our soil.”
The top two finishers on the April 10 first ballot will face off in a run-off election on April 24. Unless he is one of them, Mr. Zemmour warns nothing in France will change..
Mr. Zemmour…accuses Mr. Macron of using the war in Ukraine as a pretext for avoiding a debate on immigration during the 36-day-long campaign. He dismisses Rassemblement National Leader Marine Le Pen – who is in her third campaign for president – as an “eternal loser.”..
For weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Zemmour appeared to be stealing Ms. Le Pen’s thunder as the French far-right’s preferred candidate.
Her own efforts to soften her image since 2017, emphasizing economic security rather than immigration, had led many hard core National Rally voters to switch their support to Mr. Zemmour.
But Ms. Le Pen’s strategy began paying dividends as voters grew more concerned about rising inflation. In contrast to Mr. Zemmour, she has promised a mix of protectionist and welfare state policies. She has vowed to hold a referendum on reducing immigration levels.
Still, polls show that as many of 80 per cent of Mr. Zemmour’s supporters would back Ms. Le Pen on the second ballot, helping her to significantly close the gap with Mr. Macron. That gap, which stood at more than 30 percentage points in the 2017 election, could be only a few percentage points this time around, according to some late campaign polls…
Emmanuel Macron dominates French public life like no President since Charles de Gaulle,..the powers inherent in the French presidency, along with the implosion of France’s traditional parties since 2017, have enabled him to govern without effective institutional opposition…
France’s once chronically high unemployment rate fell to 7.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2021, its lowest level since before the 2008 financial crisis. Mr. Macron’s reforms have made it easier to fire full-time workers and freed up businesses to determine local working conditions. The result, as counterintuitive as it might seem, has been impressive full-time job growth. Average disposable income has increased 5.3 per cent since 2017, the fastest rate in two decades. The gains have been even higher (7.5 per cent) for middle-income earners.
Mr. Macron has played the European card at every opportunity. He has taken advantage of Angela Merkel’s departure last year as German chancellor to push for greater economic integration and foreign policy co-ordination among the union’s 27 member states. His calls for an independent European defence policy – in 2019, he said NATO was in a state of “brain death” – have been superseded, however, by the Western alliance’s renewed sense of purpose in the face of Mr. Putin’s aggression…
Mr. Macron’s energy policy has undergone a 180-degree turn since he took power. In 2017, he embraced Mr. Hollande’s post-Fukushima plan to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear electricity to 50 per cent from 75 per cent by 2025. He now vows to extend the life of France’s existing reactors for as long as possible, and to invest massively in the construction of six new French-designed EPR2 reactors by 2050. France’s overall nuclear energy capacity would increase by 40 per cent. Mr. Macron has cited Germany’s ill-fated decision to close its nuclear power plants, exacerbating its dependence on Russian natural gas, to justify his own U-turn.
On economic matters, Mr. Macron leans mostly to the right, at least by French standards…
…he has vowed to take another stab at pension reform, raising the retirement age to 65 from 62. Mr. Mélenchon and Ms. Le Pen each vow to lower the retirement to age to 60 in most circumstances. Mr. Macron may have underestimated the depth of opposition to raising the retirement age and could still suffer for it on election day.
Still, pension reform is a fight France cannot avoid having. Spending on public pensions accounted for 13.6 per cent of gross domestic product in France in 2019, compared with an average of 7.7 per cent for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Over all, public spending surged to 61.4 per cent in 2020, the highest ratio among OECD countries – a result of a “whatever it costs” approach to getting through the pandemic. The ratio is expected to fall to about 56 per cent this year – a better, but still eye-popping, level…
Mr. Macron’s penchant for showing off his intellectual chops – he earned degrees in politics and philosophy before graduating near the top of his class at the elite École nationale d’administration (ENA) – has been a double-edged sword. If he has a blind spot, it relates to working-class voters, who see him as elitist and do not believe he shares their concerns…
No Western leader spoke more often, or for as long, to Mr. Putin in the weeks leading up to the Russian leader’s decision to invade Ukraine. French diplomats, who had voiced skepticism about prewar U.S. intelligence pointing to an imminent invasion, were critical of President Joe Biden’s Feb. 18 declaration that he was “convinced” Mr. Putin had made up his mind. They felt Mr. Biden undermined Mr. Macron’s efforts at diplomacy.
“I think people recognize that he tried,” Mr. Lescure says of Mr. Macron’s entreaties to Mr. Putin. “There was a bit of a ‘good cop, bad cop’ thing with the States.” Still, Mr. Macron was poorly served by his own country’s faulty intelligence. The head of French military intelligence was subsequently fired.
Mr. Macron has continued to speak regularly to the Russian leader since the invasion and has held himself up to French voters as a potential peace broker. But he has also warned of possibly darker days ahead…
But Mr. Macron has shown uncommon confidence in his ability to charm his opposites on the world stage. There has been almost no international crisis during his first term that he has not run toward. Whether he has much influence outside of Europe remains unclear. France’s relations with its former colonies in Africa, especially Algeria [note this Jan. 2021 post: “France still trying to come to Grips, almost 60 Years later, with its “Savage War of Peace” in Algeria“], have deteriorated on his watch.
In February, Mr. Macron also announced the withdrawal of 4,600 French troops deployed in Africa’s Sahel region since 2013 on a mission to combat the Islamic State, citing a lack of collaboration from Malian military leaders who seized power in a 2021 coup, the second such coup in less than a year. Mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group moved in as France withdrew its troops…
His 2017 election was a watershed moment. Until then, France had been suffering the same institutional sclerosis and gridlock as many Western democracies. The main political parties had become so beholden to their increasingly narrow bases that they lost sight of the public interest.
Mr. Macron blew all that up…
My assessment is that he has succeeded more than he has failed. But where he has failed – in underestimating the depth of the anxiety that has sent voters into the arms of Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Zemmour – his failure could have grave consequences….
Other posts, on a variety of matters, based on pieces by Mr Yakabuski are here.