On 6 May 2017, the day Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France after running on a “neither-left-nor-right” platform and defeating his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, the new ruler made a promise to the French people: that the country would never again see a far-right candidate reach the second round of the presidential election. “Our task is immense,” Macron said as he took office. “In the five years to come, my responsibility will be to appease fears, to revive the French optimism … I will fight with all my strength against the divisions that undermine us.” He vowed to “rally and reconcile” the French, for “the unity of the people and the country”. Today, almost five years later, France woke up to the result of the first round of the presidential election – and the prospect, once again, of a runoff between Macron and Le Pen.
The incumbent president (of the La République En Marche party, founded by Macron in 2016) won 27.6% of the vote on Sunday, followed by Le Pen (National Rally, formerly National Front) with 23.4%. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the leftwing party La France Insoumise, came close but failed to qualify for the runoff with 22%; then came Éric Zemmour (Reconquête party), the openly racist candidate who ran on a platform based entirely on the “great replacement” theory, with 7.1%.
France’s traditional parties are close to extinction: Valérie Pécresse, of the rightwing Républicains, got only 4.8%, while Yannick Jadot of the Greens reached 4.6% and Socialist candidate (and Paris mayor) Anne Hidalgo, only 1.8%. None of the three reached the 5% threshold to be fully reimbursed for their campaign spending, effectively putting their parties’ futures in danger. Bleaker still: add up Le Pen and Zemmour’s results, and you’ll realise that almost one in three of my fellow citizens who cast a ballot has chosen to vote for the far right, although turnout was low (74% of the population voted, compared with 79% in 2017). Macron has had many shortcomings, but this one really stings. He has failed to honour his first and most crucial pledge to the French – and now it feels like Groundhog Day, except with fewer groundhogs and more far-right threat.
In the run-up to the first round, Macron admitted that he “did not manage to contain” the rise of the far right. It would have been more honest to confess that he has done very little to prevent it. In five years, France has spectacularly shifted to the right, to the point that far-right theories such as the “great replacement” conspiracy, which states that white European populations are being replaced by “non-European” people, has been voiced not only by Zemmour, but also Pécresse, who later tried to distance herself from her initial remarks.
The media are in no small part responsible, having let anti-Islam rhetoric run rampant on air and having fed a morbid fascination for Zemmour’s views that greatly favoured his candidacy. But instead of distancing himself from the far right, Macron has dangerously played on its turf, adopting a tough stance on immigration that saw police officers destroying refugees’ tents in Calais, invoking the language of the founder of the far-right group Action Française in the Assemblée Nationale, paying homage to the “great soldier” Marshal Pétain, the 1940s French leader who collaborated with the Nazis, and giving interviews to far-right magazines.
During the campaign, Macron has condemned Zemmour’s views, but just last year, Zemmour revealed that the president had asked him for a brief on the immigration measures he’d like to see applied. Facing Le Pen on a TV show in February 2021, Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, declared that she was “too soft on immigration”. In 2020, when Zemmour was verbally abused on the streets, Macron personally called him to express support; yet in 2021, when leftwingers, including Mélenchon, were targeted with death threats by far-right extremists in a video calling to “shoot down leftists”, the president remained silent. His government has failed to condemn the rising number of attacks by far-right groups in Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg and Nantes. How is this supposed to convince leftwing voters that choosing Macron on 24 April will help contain the far-right threat?
The president effectively spent five years maintaining the far right as his only credible opponent for 2022, but one thing has changed since 2017: this time, Le Pen has a real chance of winning. Polls currently show an extremely close race, with Macron at 54% to Le Pen’s 46% for the second round – a much thinner margin than in 2017, when Macron defeated her by 66% to 34%. I lived in the UK during the EU referendum campaign; now that I’m back in France, these polls bring the Brexit result to mind. A victory for Le Pen should terrify anyone who cares about democracy and peace. Le Monde has warned that “the changes she is planning to the constitution aim for the implementation of an authoritarian system”; and she has several times declared her “admiration” for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
In his concession speech last night, Mélenchon said France now must “choose between two evils” and called on voters to “not give one vote to Le Pen”. One of these two is definitely more evil than the other, but the choice is nonetheless a painful one for the French left. Many feel betrayed after five years of Macron’s liberal, rightwing reforms that have widened the gap between the rich and poor, given greater powers to the police (who visited violence on protesters during the “gilets jaunes” crisis) and failed to implement any real measure to curb emissions.
Macron now has two weeks to reverse course and show the left he cares about the climate and social justice. He could, for instance, finally pledge to implement the 100 green measures he asked French citizens to come up with before discarding almost all of them in 2021. He could walk back on his widely hated pensions reform. He could announce a real plan to save the greatly underfunded public hospital and school system. This would “rally and reconcile” many more voters than playing on the far right’s turf ever will. It may be too late, but it’s well worth a try.