OPINION: France has again rejected the UK and US’s self-harming populism

For the second time in five years, France had its own Brexit-Trump moment - and for the second time the voters rejected populism. But this doesn't mean that the country is not deeply fractured or that Macron is facing an easy ride, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: France has again rejected the UK and US's self-harming populism
Emmanuel Macron with supporters at his victory party at the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

First the good news. Emmanuel Macron won.

You might be forgiven for overlooking that fact amidst all the grudging French, and British, media commentary pointing to the “divided” France which voted (or failed to vote) yesterday.

Macron won by 17 points, a margin greater than any the final opinion polls had foreseen last Friday. France has, for the second time, rebuffed the wave of destructive nationalism which engulfed Britain and the United States in 2016.

As it happened: Macron wins re-election for a second term as French president

That populist wave, we were told, would wash over the whole of Europe, destroying the European Union and drowning the post-war liberal consensus. It hasn’t. France has blocked it twice; Emmanuel Macron has blocked it twice.

Both France and the President deserve great credit for that. Almost six in ten voters on Sunday rejected Marine Le Pen’s muddled and dishonest attempt to pass off inward-looking intolerance as patriotism.

Lest we forget, some of Le Pen’s ideas (not all) are already in power across the Channel and were in power across the Atlantic until the beginning of last year.

Now the bad news. France is deeply divided. Whether it is more divided than other countries, including the US and the UK, is open to question. I doubt it.

The fact remains that almost 42 percent of French voters who cast a valid ballot supported a far right party whose roots go back to the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II.

In the 2017 election, that total was 34 percent – a  score which carried over almost exactly to the combined total of the three far-right candidates in the first round of this Presidential election two weeks ago.

Will the Far Right 42 percent of Sunday carry over into the first round in 2027? Not all of it will but some of it may.  The taboo against voting for the far right is like a Ming vase: once broken it is broken.

 It is also disturbing that 28 percent of registered voters stayed at home (the highest for 53 years). It is equally disturbing that over 8 percent of those who voted cast blank or spoiled ballots. Overall, that is 15,000,000 people who declined or actively refused to vote for either candidate.

As for “a deeply divided France”, the demography of the vote does broadly sketch a picture of Two Nations, a well-off, well-educated and successful “pro-Macron” France and a poorer, less educated and unhappy “pro-Le Pen” France.

More than 70 percent of comfortable or wealthy voters chose a Macron ballot. Around 65 percent of the poor or struggling voted Le Pen. Almost three quarters of people with a higher education voted Macron. Over 60 percent of people who did not have their baccaulaureat (high-school leaving qualification) voted Le Pen.

In terms of the age of voters, the small-print of the vote is more complex – and more encouraging. The very youngest voters, the 18-24s, if they voted all, went 6 out of ten for Macron.

The 20, 30 and 40 somethings were more narrowly pro-Macron. The 50-somethings (maybe fearful of delayed retirement) were narrowly pro-Le Pen. The over 70s were more than 70 percent for Macron.

Geographically, the vote was also complex – more complex than the standard image of a “successful” metropolitan France and a struggling rural and outer suburban France.

Macron’s vote held up pretty well in many small towns. The only regions that Le Pen “won” in mainland France were the far-right strongholds of the north west (Hauts-de-France) and south east (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur).

Macron’s greatest success is now his greatest problem. Something like half his 18,779,641 votes came from the Left and the Greens. They voted more anti-Le Pen than they did pro-Macron.

Arguably, French elections have always been that way. The winning candidate could only triumph in Round Two by attracting the votes of some of the losing candidates in Round One.

But something important has changed. It used to be a case of a moderate left or moderate right candidate assembling votes from his or her own wider camp. All, or most of, the Right or Left voters felt they had some kind of stake in, say, a Chirac or a Mitterrand.

 Now, as I argued last week, France has been cut in three.

Some of the left wing “third” of the electorate will lend their votes to Macron to beat Le Pen. They don’t feel they have any stake in him. In many cases, they dislike or detest him.

Macron will therefore  start his new term as a minority President. He said in his rather limp acceptance speech in front of the Eiffel Tower that he would govern for “all of France” and show his gratitude to his one-day-only supporters from the Left.

That is easier said then done. The parliamentary elections in June will decide whether Macron can do anything much at all in the next five years.

READ ALSO Parliamentary elections – what happens and why is it important?

On the whole, I believe that his centrist party and allies WILL win a working majority in the new National Assembly on June 12th and 19th. I do not foresee Macron having to surrender power to a Prime Minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon or a Prime Minister Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour.

But that’s a complex issue which had better wait for another column.

For now, let me end by saying, well done to Macron and well done to France.

This was the country’s second Brexit-Trump moment in five years. Divided it may be; troubled it may be. France has refused to follow Britain and the US on the path to self-harming populism.

Member comments

  1. As an American in France watching LePen’s concession speech, it struck me that something was missing. Here was a far-right populist candidate (1) conceding defeat in an election and (2) not breathing a word about the election being stolen. This is an important part of why I love living in France. It provides a certain confidence and joy to live in a democracy where people love democracy. They love democracy more than their own personal ideas and desires. And it’s a country where people, no matter how strongly they disagree (and the do!), they maintain a basic respect for, and trust of, one another.

  2. Thank you Mr. Litchfield for this clear analysis.

    I worry about Macron. Despite his humble beginnings (and perhaps because of rise up from them), he a bit blind to working-class issues and perspectives, and worse, he misreads situations and people. Given all his obvious intelligence, I wonder if he is hampered because he is on the autistic spectrum. Not to say that would be a reason to reject someone as a leader. It’s just an element to bear in mind.

    But I am very very happy he defeated LePen. In addition to her simmering anger and exploitation of fear and racism, her ideas/policies were almost as under-baked as Trump’s. She was/is a real danger to France, the EU, and to America. And I believe that it is just possible that Macron may achieve some positive things in the next five year. Best of all, but perhaps most unlikely, would be if he could halt or at least slow, France’s growing economic inequality.

  3. Whilst it is a huge relief that he won, I do hope he does not rest on his laurels, lest he end up hamstrung in the same way that President Obama did in his second term. President Macron is far from perfect but he is also far from the demon some try to portray him as. Moderates never move as fast as hardliners, but they also destroy less in the process. I still have hope that he will, on balance, be good for France.

  4. Very much agree with Mr. Lichfield here. The French electoral results reflect a level of political good sense and maturity one simply doesn’t find in the U.S. these days. Faced with a choice between an authoritarian nationalist and a constitutional democrat, the French have done the decent thing. Try to imagine a situation in the U.S. where an unpopular Biden beats Trump by 58% to 42% simply because he stands for the rule of law. Moreover, try to imagine an American election night where the polls close at 7:00 pm and the victor is announced at 8:00 pm or a presidential election law that permits only 2 weeks of campaigning. Americans could learn a lot from the French about how to structure an efficient and inexpensive electoral process. Except perhaps for those who have a vested interest in continuing with the present system that offers so many opportunities for voter suppression and thwarting the will of the people.

  5. As an American in France watching LePen’s concession speech, it struck me that something was missing. Here was a far-right, populist candidate (1) conceding defeat in an election and (2) not breathing a word about the election being stolen. This is an important part of why I love living in France. It provides a certain confidence and joy to live in a democracy where people love democracy. They love democracy more than their own personal ideas and desires. And it’s a country where people, no matter how strongly they disagree with each other (and the do very strongly!), they maintain a basic respect for, and trust of, one another. Ha! Even if it is only a respect for, and trust of, the election officials who count the votes, just that is a wonderful and valuable thing. We Americans can testify to that!

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Key points: How Macron has reshuffled French cabinet for tricky second term

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday replaced a cabinet minister who is targeted by a rape probe, in a cabinet reshuffle after his ruling alliance lost its majority in parliamentary elections.

Key points: How Macron has reshuffled French cabinet for tricky second term

Main points:

  • After being accused of rape and placed under investigation, the Solidarity and Disabilities Minister Damien Abad has been replaced.
  • Macron loyalist, Clément Beaune, will switch posts from Minister of Europe to become Minister of Transport 
  • Former Health Minister, Olivier Véran, will be the new government spokesperson
  • Critics from both the left and right have argued the same people have been reappointed

After recently losing his absolute majority in the parliamentary elections, French President Emmanuel Macron reshuffled his cabinet in an attempt to a second term off to a rocky start. 

Abad, who has denied the allegations, later told reporters that he had been targeted by a “sinister movement” of “despicable slanders organised around a calendar” designed to drive him out of government after just 45 days.

He will be replaced by French Red Cross director Jean-Christophe Combe. 

According to the Elysée, the foreign, finance and defence ministers remained unchanged. This means that Catherine Colonna, Bruno Le Maire, and Sébastien Lecornu respectively will keep their positions. 

Gérald Darmanin will also stay in his post as Interior Minister, despite the fiasco surrounding the Champion’s League final and accusations that he lied over the causes of the chaos. Other posts in the 41-strong cabinet – exactly divided between men and
women – mostly went to politicians from the different factions in Macron’s camp.

However, just a month and a half after the last reshuffle, several high-profile roles have been changed, namely that of Clement Beaune, previously the Europe minister, and is known for playing a key role in Brexit negotiations.

In a surprise move, Beaune will now head the transport ministry in a cabinet reshuffle, while the chief economist of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Laurence Boone will take over as the new Europe minister.

The role of government spokesperson was also changed with the health minister from the previous government, Olivier Véran, given the role instead of Olivia Gregoire. 

Though the reshuffle replaced one minister accused of sexual assault, another accused minister was set to stay in her position.

Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, who has been accused of sexual assault in her role as a gynaecologist will remain in her current position of Secretary of State for Development, Francophonie and International Partnerships.

Other ministers, like those for health and environment who stepped down from their positions after losing their parliamentary elections, have also been replaced in the reshuffle.

Christophe Bechu, mayor of the Loire city of Angers and a key ally of former prime minister Edouard Philippe, was named environment minister, replacing Macron loyalist Amelie de Montchalin who lost the battle for her seat in the parliamentary elections.

The president of Samu-Urgences de France, François Braun, will replace Brigitte Bourguignon as Health Minister, after Bourguignon also lost her parliamentary election.

Reactions from across the spectrum

The cabinet reshuffle has not been met with applause by all parties, however. After the announcement of the new environment minister, Greenpeace France criticised the appointment, saying Bechu has “no experience of what’s at stake in the green transition and has almost never taken a stance on national or international questions of climate or the environment.”

The reshuffle was “a message to the troops: loyalty will be rewarded. Looking ahead to the coming months, when passing new laws is likely to come down to just a few votes,” tweeted Frederic Says, a political commentator for broadcaster France Culture.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen charged that “those who failed are all reappointed” to the government. Communist head Fabien Roussel told broadcaster LCI it “feels like they’re just starting over again with the same people”.

While Macron’s ruling alliance won the most seats in the June 19th parliamentary polls, it lost its majority and will need now to build coalitions to push legislation through parliament.

The outcome was seen as a major setback for the president, who won a second presidential term in May after defeating far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

This reshuffle comes just ahead of French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s government programme announcement, which is scheduled for this upcoming Wednesday, June 6th.