Barely an hour after having won the French presidential election, with 66.06% of the votes, Emmanuel Macron addressed his supporters at the Place du Carousel, in front of the Louvre museum, a former residence of the French kings and a contemporary symbol of culture and modernity. To add on symbols, Macron walked on the stage alone, to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode of Joy, the European Union’s official anthem. At 39, he is the youngest President to be ever elected in France since Napoleon III in 1851, and the youngest head of any democratic state.
In his victory speech, Macron addressed those who voted for him without “sharing his ideas”, vowing to respect their right to disagree and to protect republican values. He also addressed his opponent’s supporters, pledging that he would do all he can in the next five years to give them “no reason to vote for the extremes anymore”.
Announcing hard times ahead, he pledged to uphold the French Republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity, and called to the people to give him a majority in the upcoming general elections, in six weeks’ time. Given the fractured mandate that the French have delivered and given the state of decomposition of France’s political landscape, this will be an uphill task.
Since the beginning of the campaign, this French presidential election has had two different meanings. Those who observed it from outside were anxious to see whether France would be the next domino to fall under the pressure of populism and xenophobia. Seen from inside, anger and resentment against mainstream parties dominated the electorate’s behavior.
The main difference with the countries that recently fell for populist authoritarian figures is that the French could choose between several anti-system figures. Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who was defeated on Sunday, incarnates perfectly the wave of Right-wing extremism that has been rising in the recent past. Jean-Luc Melenchon offered an anti-system alternative to the Left (he received 19% of the votes in the first round). And Macron, a barely known technocrat who fought an edgeless consensual campaign, could gather the votes of those who rejected traditional parties while refusing to vote for the extremes. Macron and Melenchon opposed “the system” while holding to core republican values.
The fact that France rejected Marine Le Pen’s hateful proposal is nonetheless remarkable, in a country that experiences high unemployment (above 10%) and that has suffered repeated terrorist attacks in the recent past. This defeat, and the fact that Macron does stand for values that are antithetic to the Far Right – openness, international cooperation, European integration – will be a huge relief for all of those who have been reeling at the outcome of recent elections across the world. The irony is that the French are unlikely to look at their own presidential election that way.
A nuanced victory
A quick look at the numbers calls for a nuanced understanding of Macron’s performance for at least three reasons.
First, unlike in 2002, when Jacques Chirac beat his Far Right opponent Jean-Marie Le Pen with more than 80% of the votes, a weak “republican front” rallied behind Emmanuel Macron. A significant 25.3% of voters abstained and an unprecedented 8.9% of the electorate – that is 4.2 million voters – registered blank or invalid votes. Abstention was highest among young voters (34% abstention among the 18-24 years old) and the unemployed (35% abstention).
Blank votes are not recognised in France and therefore not considered for the calculation of vote share. If one accounts for them, Macron’s score falls to 58% and Marine Le Pen’s to 30%.
Recent polls indicate that Macron barely received a majority of the votes from voters who had supported other candidates in the first round on April 23. Between those who voted blank, abstained, or voted for Marine Le Pen, 48% of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s voters and 52% of Francois Fillon’s voters in the first round did not vote for Macron. Overall, Macron received more votes from the Left than from the Right. One fifth of Fillon’s voters in the first round voted for Marine Le Pen in the second round.
This basically means that a large share of the electorate abstained from choosing between Macron and Le Pen, either by not showing up to the polling booth or by registering a blank vote.
Besides, for the first time in a French presidential election, turnout was lower in the second round – 74.% – than in the first (77%). This is France’s lowest turnout in a presidential election since 1969. This means that Macron has effectively been elected by 43.4% of registered voters. Abstention, blank votes and invalid votes total 32%, nearly as much as Marine Le Pen’s performance.
This is not unusual in France. In 2012, Francois Hollande got elected with 39% of registered voters. That figure was at 43% for Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 election. Jacques Chirac was the only French President to receive more than 50% of the registered voters’ support (62%), in his 2002 confrontation with Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Third nuance: the presence of a Far Right candidate in the second round skews the interpretation of the winner’s mandate. According to an Ipsos exit polls, 43% of Macron’s voters voted for him only to prevent the election of Marine Le Pen.
With 33.94% of the votes, Marine Le Pen is a distant second. But she scored her party’s best performance, with 10.6 million voters. In the 2015 regional elections, the National Front gathered 7.6 million votes. She nearly doubled the score of her father, who was also qualified for the second round of the 2002 presidential elections (he got 5.5 million votes). While the Far Right has been defeated, it demonstrated an ability to gather votes beyond its core support base, which has also grown substantially.
Hard times ahead
In his victory speech, Emmanuel Macron referred several times to the “hard times ahead”. He called for the formation of a plural majority, with members from both the Left and the Right. According to an Ipsos exit polls, hard times ahead might come sooner than expected, as a majority of French (61%) are currently unwilling to give him a legislative majority in the upcoming general election in June.
This in uncharted territory for France. So far, every president has been able to secure a legislative majority at least at the beginning of their first term. In two occasions, Parliament returned a different majority, which forced to the President to let the opposition run the government, in a unique system called “cohabitation”.
Macron has less than a week to finalise his candidates’ list, who will contest for a party that has just been created. Macron has pledged to field 50% women candidates, and 50% “civil society” candidates, without any formal political experience. While intellectually appealing, these choices might prove costly, once confronted to the reality of French electoral politics.
An absence of majority would mean that he will have to negotiate hard every decision and every bill. He has pledged to reform France’s labor laws by ordinance. But even those need a vote in Parliament to become law.
Re-composition of the political landscape
Despite Macron’s performance, France remains divided, beyond the alternative that was elected for the second round. Marine Le Pen presented the results as the outcome of a “deep re-composition of France’s political landscape (…) divided between patriots and globalists”. She vowed to transform her party and turn it into France’s main political opposition. Between the two rounds, she allied with a small nationalist party, indicating a strategy of aggregation of sovereignist political forces.
It is too early to say whether the two mainstream parties – the Socialist Party and the Republicans – will be able to rebound in the upcoming general elections in June and whether any clear majority will emerge in the next Assembly. What is certain is that Macron’s great gamble of carving a new political space at the Centre (neither Left, nor Right) will not be complete before he creates a viable party.
Gilles Verniers is assistant professor at Ashoka University and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data. Views expressed are personal.