France Must Not Underestimate Le Pen In The Final Race

Voters from the left and the right who didn’t vote for either front-runner could turn to Le Pen.
04/24/2017 12:08 pm ET
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PARIS — With political novice Emmanuel Macron and the far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen both qualifying for the next round of France’s national election, the scenario predicted by most opinion polls was confirmed. The worst-case scenario — a second round between Le Pen and the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon — was thankfully avoided.

The election dramatically shed light on the true nature of the challenge France faces: an open society vs. closed-mindedness, Europe vs. nationalism, tolerance vs. bigotry, liberal values vs. illiberal values, the free world vs. Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As such, a vote for Macron will be not merely a choice of civilization but a choice for civilization.

If the polls are right again, Macron is likely to win the second run with approximately 60 to 65 percent of the vote. But we must stay vigilant because many uncertainties remain. This country is sharply divided, even if most of the leaders of the left and the right — including the Socialist and conservative contenders in last weekend’s election — endorsed Macron and urged their supporters to vote for him against Le Pen in order to counter the far right. 

First, at this point, the radical-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon hasn’t endorsed either candidate for the runoff on May 7. Some of his supporters may consider voting for Le Pen an opportunity to break down the system, which is what they are basically aiming to do. Or they may decide that they cannot pick between a fascist and a capitalist — a rather short-sighted choice. 

Some radical left voters may consider voting for Le Pen an opportunity to break down the system.

Second, the conservative party Les Républicains has drifted to the right, breaking down some barriers between the classical conservative right and the far right. François Fillon, the mainstream conservative candidate, never rejected endorsements from some far-right politicians and groups. Instead of clear advocacy for an open society, he cozied up to very conservative organizations like Sens Commun, an anti-gay rights and anti-abortion hardline Catholic group. Some of Fillon’s supporters could also turn to Le Pen or abstain. Even if she never truly abandons the obsessions of her father, she may appear less frightening to some ill-informed conservative sympathizers.

In spite of Macron’s clear victory, the first round of voting demonstrated that France is divided into four parts. The first, which voted for Macron, is open to the world, expects benefits from Europe and globalization and preaches openness and reform. Macron’s party name, “En Marche!” (“On the Move!”), encapsulates this spirit. Mélenchon and, up to a point, the socialist candidate Benoît Hamon — who is certainly more leftist than Bernie Sanders — captured rebellious France, which yearns for more protection from the state against globalization. This group expresses a revolt against inequality and finance without a face — similar to Podemos in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the U.S. — but has no hope in Europe. 

The first round demonstrates the division of France into four parts.

Marine Le Pen represents the third part of the country, which holds deep anger against migrants, Europe and cosmopolitan elites. Her praise for laïcité — the French variety of secularism — against Islam is mostly a sham. Some of her party’s leaders are openly gay and try to gain favors from the gay community by pointing out some Muslims’ homophobia. 

Finally, Fillon represents a more traditional, mostly Catholic conservative France, and he was aiming to merge faithfulness to classical family values and the free-market economy. However, scandals generated a rather more ambiguous, Trump-like position: his attacks against the justice system and the media, his lies and the dissemination of fake news by his campaign team made his stance in favor of the virtues of globalization less credible.

Whoever becomes the next president will have to cope with this divided France, large sections of which distrust open-society values, Europe and the free market. In the weeks ahead, Macron will have to reconcile the moderate right and the reformist left. He will have to demonstrate that Europe and globalization can bring justice and fairness and that France can mend its divided society. If Macron’s center can’t mend this divide, France’s right-wing and left-wing populists will be waiting in the wings. 

If Macron’s center can’t mend this divide, France’s right-wing and left-wing populists will be waiting.

From an international perspective, this challenge is of paramount importance. In a way, the fate of Europe will be decided in France on May 7. Macron is the only one strongly campaigning for Europe. His supporters wave European flags at his rallies. He could bring a new European ambition to France.

In his international views, Macron supports human rights defenders, minorities and dissidents fighting dictatorships. A second round without Macron would basically have been a victory for Putin. Le Pen wasn’t the only one cozying up to the Russian leader — Fillon and Mélenchon supported Russia’s stances on Ukraine, Syria and Crimea. Macron and Hamon have been the only ones in the electoral campaign to declare that Putin’s values are not ours and that his Russia was a threat to Europe and the world.

Macron may be France’s last chance. Alongside the experienced Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, they are likely to be the two faces of the free world. But nothing is done yet. The defenders of the free world have a fight ahead of them.

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