This post was originally published here by Prospect Magazine
Having fought a campaign around the theme of over-turning the political establishment and pitching himself as the leader of an insurgent citizen-led movement, that very same establishment greeted Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the first round of the French presidential election with a huge sigh of relief. This tells us something about the candidate who is now most likely to become the next president of France.
Macron’s success boils down to one key insight: the French Socialist party (PS) is a sinking ship and anyone tied to it will go down with it. Macron quit the government presided over by François Hollande just in time to make his image as an outsider plausible. He decided to run as an independent rather than seek the Socialist Party nomination by taking part in the open primaries. This laid the basis for his success. The relegation of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, to fifth place in the first round, where he secured a paltry 6.35% of the vote, is the big story of this election so far. It had a decisive result in both propelling Macron to first place in the first round and in pushing up Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vote share to within a whisker of François Fillon. The latter got 19.94% of the vote, Mélenchon 19.62%.
The collapse of the PS made the Macron phenomenon possible and this dynamic will shape a Macron presidency, assuming he goes on to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round as many assume he will. His En Marche! movement captured the imagination of many but this enthusiasm came from his call to break the mould of French party politics. Disillusionment with the capacity of these parties to organize and lead drew people to Macron. In this first round of voting, it was striking how often people said they were voting in order to avoid someone else getting through. This sort of negative reasoning suited Macron perfectly as he was the acceptable face of all anti-system feelings: he was a safe vote for anyone who wanted to give the political mainstream a kicking but preserve the status quo at the same time. This peculiar and contradictory desire for both change and continuity was summed up perfectly in the days before yesterday’s vote, where voting Macron became a way of avoiding a Mélenchon-Le Pen run-off.
The negative feelings behind the Macron phenomenon are not new. In 2012, François Hollande won the presidency on the back of huge anti-Sarkozy sentiment. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won in a run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, securing over 80% of the votes cast in an enormous wave of anti-National Front feeling. Negative sentiments rather than a positive endorsement of a distinctive programme have become central to determining who makes it to the Elysée palace, and Macron confirms this rule. Even in organisational terms, Macron and his En Marche! movement have some roots in the recent past. Back in 2007, the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royale tried to create her own electoral movement, Desirs d’Avenir, after she received lukewarm support from the chauvinist barons of the PS. Her movement went nowhere after she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy but it was a sign that short-lived electoral vehicles built around the personality of a presidential candidate were possible in France as alternatives to traditional party machines.
What propels Emmanuel Macron forward as he fights to win the second round is the collapse of the French party political system and specifically the disappearance of the French PS as an electoral force. These disintegrative and negative dynamics make for very weak foundations going forward and explain why abstention is likely to be very high in the second round. Those congratulating themselves after Macron’s first round victory should think a bit harder about what is exactly is happening in France. Macron is a symptom of the country’s problems, not a solution to them.