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The French Election and the New Political Divide

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eye on the news

The French Election and the New Political Divide

Does the Macron-Le Pen showdown herald the breakdown of traditional Left–Right categories? April 25, 2022
Politics and law

At a glance, Emmanuel Macron’s reelection looks like a brilliant political success. Not many heads of state in democracies obtain a second mandate with 58 percent of the vote. Looking beyond this number, though, we need to understand that some kind of ideological revolution is under way—not just in France but also in other modern democracies.

First, Macron was running as a candidate neither of the Left nor the Right, which, in France or anywhere else in Europe, is unheard of. Five years ago, Macron was already running on a middle-of-the-road platform, rejecting all ideologies and introducing himself as a problem solver. He used to say at the beginning of his political career—as he had never run for office before—that for each problem there were two competing analyses but also a synthetic solution: “altogether.” This “altogether” has become the motto of his presidency. In the way he has governed, it is hard to classify him in any preconceived political category.

When confronted with major crises—first the Covid-19 pandemic, then the war in Ukraine—Macron always considered that there were technical and rational solutions. He spoke and acted as the perfect technocrat of the kind produced by France’s grandes écoles. French voters recognized he was smart and efficient. They also deemed him somewhat arrogant, believing he showed no empathy for the poor and downtrodden. The French don’t love Macron, but he makes them feel relatively safe. One then could argue that, for the second time, they did not vote for him for president so much as they rejected his opponent, Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, chair of the National Front founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, which she renamed the National Rally, adopting a less xenophobic platform.

All Le Pen’s efforts to transform her father’s party into a more palatable, inclusive organization were not sufficient to bring her to victory. But one could interpret her defeat as a relative success that could help her party govern sometime in the future. Consider that, over the past five years, she has gone from winning 31 percent of the vote against Macron in 2017 to 42 percent for this second attempt. After nearly 50 years as an extremist, barely democratic party, the former National Front now has a plausible chance of attaining power. Most importantly, this presidential election did not feature a right-wing candidate against a left-wing challenger, which itself is a kind of ideological revolution in the French political landscape.

The distinction between Right and Left was born from the French Revolution. On September 11, 1789, the people’s representatives, invited to Versailles by King Louis XVI, had to decide between keeping an absolute monarchy or a monarchy limited by a Constitution. To facilitate the tally of votes, the Conservatives gathered to the right of the assembly president, and the progressives in favor of a Constitution gathered on the left. Over the centuries, this distribution took hold. It was clear and convenient. According to national cultures and the emergence of new ideologies, the Right became more or less conservative, and the Left more or less socialist. There was no doubt, anywhere, that the Right put individual responsibility first and the Left prioritized social justice.

Does that divide still hold, though? It doesn’t look like it when analyzing Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Boris Johnson and Brexit, or the rise of Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. In France, too, the distinction between Left and Right does not work that well anymore. Neither of the two candidates used the words. Some minor candidates ran for the first round of the French presidential elections under a leftist (Trotskyist) or socialist banner; voters strongly rejected them. The defeat of the once-ruling Conservative Party (the Republicans) was resounding as well: it won just under 5 percent of the votes in the first round. I would infer from these results that from now on, in France and perhaps other democracies, the people will have to choose candidates running under different banners than Left or Right. We might call the new labels “Open” versus “Closed” society.

Macron is clearly an Open-society leader. He favors globalization, an enlarged European Union, free trade, and immigration. He declared that there is no French culture as such but sees France as a melting pot of cultures. Whereas young French used to learn at school to be proud of the past French Empire, Macron has said that the colonization of Africa was a crime against humanity. He welcomes refugees. In economic affairs, he supports the principle of creative destruction, with no sympathy for obsolete industries. He has been dubbed the “startup nation” president.

Reverse all these beliefs, and you have Marine Le Pen. Her ideology and platform are strictly based on being French. She opposes the cosmopolitan elites (Macron) in favor of the French “people.” She has proposed not only to forbid any immigration but also to fight Islam as a threat to the French identity, to send back “foreign criminals” to their country, and to impose what her party calls “national preference,” in the name of which jobs or government-subsidized housing would go first to French citizens if in competition with foreigners. Every French citizen would enjoy access to cheap housing, she declared, if only 500,000 “foreigners” (but legal residents nonetheless) would be expelled from government-subsidized projects. As for Ukraine, Le Pen, who admires Vladimir Putin’s nationalism, wants peace but no heavy-handed sanctions against Russia. Her campaign has received financing from Russian and Hungarian banks. I would not conclude, as Macron did, that Le Pen “owes” Putin, but at the least, she does not share the NATO agenda—she has said that she would remove France from NATO’s military command. Clearly, one can define her as the candidate of the Closed society.

This new paradigm shift, from a Left/Right distinction to an Open/Closed one, could become a universal political transformation. Many observers on the Left classify the Closed society as “populist.” True enough: closed-society candidates and representatives mention “the People as opposed to the System.” But these seem to me like slogans with no clear meaning. The only substantial distinction, as far as we know, is sociological. Supporters of the Open society tend to be better-educated, wealthier, and more travelled than supporters of the Closed society.

If this hypothesis is right, a historical period from September 11, 1789, to April 24, 2022, is coming to an end. The new political paradigm calls not for insults but for understanding the other. Understanding and respect of the other, even if you disapprove of him or her, is the way to go on living together in relative peace.

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

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