‘Vive la difference’ taken to extremes in France – by Henry Ergas for The Australian – 16.04.22

Although Emmanuel Macron is likely to be re-elected as France’s president, the “Republic one and indivisible” emerges from last Sunday’s first round of voting more fractured than ever.


Nothing highlights the fault-lines as clearly as the massive shift of the electorate to the political extremes. In 2007, the far right and the far left together secured 20 per cent of the first-round votes. That share increased to 31 per cent in 2012, and 42.5 per cent in 2017.


Now, in the first round of the presidential election, the anti-system vote has soared to an unprecedented 56 per cent, gutting the middle ground of politics.


In the midst of that polarisation, Macron’s own vote share rose, going from 24 per cent in 2017 to 27.6 per cent. However, he was widely expected to pick up some 5 to 10 percentage points from the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialist Party (who had together received 26.4 per cent of the vote in 2017), taking his first round score to around 30 per cent. With his tally falling short of those expectations, a ­visible element of panic has entered his campaign.


At the heart of the panic is the possibility that Marine Le Pen – who will be Macron’s competitor in the April 24 run-off – might still win. Her first-round score continued the trend rise which has lifted it from 17.9 per cent in 2012 and 21.3 per cent in 2017 to 23.2 per cent last Sunday. That gain may seem slight, but she achieved it despite facing a vigorous far-right rival in Eric Zemmour, who is estimated to have attracted some 900,000 voters who supported her in 2017.


Moreover, while Le Pen’s own vote edged up only slightly, the ­aggregate voting share of the far right leapt from 21 per cent in 2017 to a historically high 32.5 per cent, providing a large base she can rely on in the second round.


It is extremely unlikely that Macron will manage to lure those voters away. What he should be able to do, however, is to construct what the French refer to as a ­“Republican front” – that is, a coalition which protects the political system by blocking the extremes from gaining power. It was by ­effectively coalescing those forces that Macron trounced Le Pen in 2017’s second round; but there are plenty of reasons to believe that will be significantly more difficult in this year’s contest.


To begin with, the collapse of the centre-left and the centre-right means that there is a much greater distance now between Macron’s centrism and the political preferences of the additional voters he needs to gain than there was in 2017. That is most obviously the case with the 21.2 per cent of the electorate which opted for Jean-Luc Melenchon, a fiery orator who has come to entirely ­dominate the French left.


Indeed, Melenchon – whose sympathies have long laid with leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez – has spent much of the past six months portraying Macron as Le Pen in disguise. Although he has backed off those claims since Sunday’s first-round ballot, many of his voters may still prefer to abstain, or shift their support to Le Pen, rather than endorse a candidate who personifies every feature of the elite they despise.


French far-right party Rassemblement National (RN) presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

As a result, Macron, if he is to obtain their votes, cannot simply appeal to their hostility to Le Pen; he will have to offer substantial concessions in terms of his program of government. That process is already under way: almost immediately after the first round results were announced, he began to downplay his reform of France’s enormously costly pension system, promising that nothing would be done without a broad consensus and suggesting that any increase in the pension age (which is still only 62) could be put to a referendum.


Nor is that likely to be his sole concession: he may also feel forced to accept some major planks of Melenchon’s program, such as reinstating a wealth tax, increasing social benefits and tightening the labour laws.


What is unclear, however, is whether Melenchon’s electorate would regard those commitments as credible; and even if they did, they might well worry about the other policies Macron could adopt. Moreover, every concession Macron makes to the far left will deter the centre-right voters he badly needs to retain and cost him some of the support he has garnered in France’s wealthiest areas, such as Paris’s 16th arrondissement (where he got 46.8 per cent of the vote, up from 26.7 per cent in 2017) and its neighbouring, even tonier, suburb of Neuilly (where his vote share fell just short of 50 per cent).


But Le Pen faces serious challenges too. To say that is not to overlook the real strengths she has as the final vote approaches. Although Zemmour’s presence on the ballot cost her votes, his extreme rhetoric helped recast Le Pen as a moderate. That made it possible for her to materially broaden her base: for the first time, she drew votes from the centre right, attracting over one million voters who in 2017 backed the ­Republican’s Francois Fillon; and also for the first time, she approached or exceeded 20 per cent of the vote in virtually every region of metropolitan France, including areas such as Brittany where her party had long failed to gain a foothold.


Additionally, she has sensibly focused on bread-and-butter issues, notably the steep rise in electricity, gas and petrol prices, on which Macron has seemed utterly unconvincing; that focus has not only cemented her working class constituency but boosted her share of middle class votes by 7 percentage points, giving her a plurality among French voters of working age.


The French will decide on April 24 whether to re-elect pro-business centrist President Emmanuel Macron or blow up…


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Henry Ergas AO is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He has taught at a number of universities, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of Auckland and the École Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Économique in Paris, served as Inaugural Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong and worked as an adviser to companies and governments.



Emmanuel Macron holds his fist in the air after delivering a speech on stage at a gathering with supporters.

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