Flag waving supporters cheered French centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen's accession to the second round of France's presidential elections on Sunday as downcast supporters of France's two main traditional parties quietly slipped out their near-empty headquarters.
Now, it is up to a divided France to decide, and those divisions were on full display in the first round of voting on Sunday. The country's established partied both failed to make it into the run-off for the first time in almost 60 years, and the first time ever in the Fifth Republic. In a country that has been dominated for decades by a traditional right-left political structure, voters are very clearly ready for something new.
Emmanuel Macron's Rise
The secret behind Macron's success is his movement. Emmanuel Macron has reinvented France's politics with a new concept: ''the catch-all party'' or the party that attracts from all sides, beyond social classes and, above all, beyond the classic split between right and left. The electorate of this catch-all movement/candidate is gradually being defined according to the demographics uncovered in the polls, but it seems to have crossed the Rubicon and goes beyond this left-right split.
Since the launch in April last year of his political movement ''En Marche!!'', which means ''Forward'', Emmanuel Macron wishes to become president at age 39. Macron has potential as new standard bearer, His youth is a sensation in a country that has been governed for decades by a group of politicians who all seem to look alike, with the same faces, the same names and the same résumés. He succeeds over and over in striking the right tone. He can sound conciliatory, but also brash and demanding. But he always remains polite and never raises his voice.
Macron is an exceptional phenomenon in times of nationwide discord. He stands out starkly from former colleagues, who often act just as haplessly as the president. Even the once-popular former Prime Minister Manuel Valls is no longer particularly appreciated by the French and is widely seen as sullen and authoritarian. By contrast, Macron can say what he wants and people still like him. He can rave about Europe, which he views as major accomplishment, not obsolete concept. And he can praise German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her refugee policy and explain why France cannot remain the way it is: paralyzed, stuck and depressed.
To Macron's credit, he has jolted the French awake and striven to rouse the country from its state of stupefaction. Instead of seeking to appease the public, he sees it as his mission to galvanize the French into action. Moreover, this is coupled with a tremendous sense of self-confidence that consistently shines through and makes you wonder where in the world it comes from.
Indeed, Macron means business. He says that he wants to reinvent politics, that he wants a new deal for Europe, a new social contract for France. But he has never had to stand for election. His role models are the great socialist European politician Jacques Delors, and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, a pragmatic reformer. Sometimes it seems as if Macron sees France as Sleeping Beauty and himself as the Prince.
It is balancing act. Macron, who portrays himself as ''antisystéme'' (non-conformist) and very popular among right-wing, older professional voters, has the opportunity now to expand his support base, attracting voters coming from varying perspectives, men and women from the left as well as the right. His strategy has worked: Left and Rights voters are rallying behind him and he has indeed great chances to win the second round by more than 60% on May 7.
Marine Le Pen's surge
Today France political climate is rife with violence rooted in nationalist agendas and exploitation rooted in international ones. People's sense of belonging in France has begun to detach itself from the established parties ( Republicans and Socialists) that have been governing them, and instead they have gravitated towards nationalism and populism, offered by Marine Le Pen.
Marine Le Pen claims to be fighting against ''those at the stop''. The approach is successful because the Paris elite is indeed aloof. Up until now, the established parties preferred to simply ignore the Front National. But that is no longer an option. This increases Marine Le Pen's popularity even further.
Marine Le Pen is in very strong position to win France's presidential election next year, because French are rejecting the old parties associated with the old policies. French no longer care how extreme Le Pen's views are. In fact, many French do now adhere to Le Pen's views on the economy, immigration, the declining living standard and the lack of real job creation.
There are three major strands in mass attitudes which predispose French to vote for the radical right or '' Front National'': nativism – that is, a belief that holds that only indigenous inhabitants should have full civic and social rights – authoritarianism, and populism which counter-poses the ordinary people against the ‘elite’, the political class, the liberal intelligentsia. This, combined, constitutes what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall called ‘authoritarian populism.’
According to the theory of ''Pathological normalcy'', authoritarian populism, far from being confined to the margins, is deeply embedded within the mainstream. Two factors, one can argue, have propelled it into the forefront of political consciousness. The first is the rising salience, and emotional voltage of anti-immigrant feeling, that is to say mounting antipathy, resentment and apprehension towards those – whether they be recent immigrants, asylum-seekers or established ethnic minorities – who constitute ‘the other’.
The second is, of course, the impact of the financial crash and the economic recession. The effect of this has not been a tilt to the left. Left-wing diagnoses, at least in France, have had little purchase: there is only a muted sense that the gyrations of the financial system are in any way responsible for what went wrong. Most people, one suspects, are left baffled by talk of sub-prime mortgages, derivatives and credit default swaps. They are looking for something more tangible to blame: if not Francois Hollande then welfare recipients and, of course, immigrants.
The implication of all this is disturbing for the ''Republican'' and the ''Socialist Party''. Research for some while has indicated that authoritarian populism in France appeals in particular to the more poorly-educated, to manual workers and to routine clerical workers: the natural constituency of the those two main parties. What we are witnessing is, in a sense, a reconstitution of a form of class politics.
In this unprecedented situation, it would be inadvisable to look past voting patters for guidance. Traditionally, when the Front National has made it into the final round of the election, voters have tended to rally around its opponent, which appears to be happening this year as well.
The ''Republican'' and the ''Socialist Party'' have now officially declared war on Marine Le Pen and dubbed her their most important opponent for the presidential election. Both the ''Republican''s candidate, Francois Fillon and the ''Socialist''s candidate, Bénoit Hamon, have not wasted time in calling theirs voters to rally behind Macron.
If the polls are right, it seems that we are heading to a repeat of 2002 presidential election when Marine Le Pen's father and ''Front National'' founder, Jean Marie Le Pen, got through to the second round in a surprise vote but went on to lose in a humiliating landslide against right wing president Jacques Chirac.
To avoid this ''déjá vú scenario'', Le Pen's best chance of hauling back Macron's big lead in the polls is to paint him as a part of an elite aloof from ordinary French people and their problems. Part of that strategy would be to remind voters of Macron's former role as a deal breaker in investment banking and economy minister under Hollande.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
International Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: AFP-Getty Images photo of Emmanuel Macron & Marine Le Pen