Bien accueillir, extrème droite. La France est divisée – Welcome, Extreme Right. France is Divided.
Yes, that’s the portrayal of today’s France. Just before the second round of the all-important French presidential election, in a BBC programme, someone sitting in a plaza in a French town was asked whom he would vote for. The man said that he would support Marine Le Pen – the far-right anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic leader, although he had voted for the far-left in the first round of the elections. There are reasons to believe that this person is not unique. In a highly heterogeneous and deeply fractured society like today’s France, Le Pen’s far-right ideology helped her beat Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran far-left leader of the La France Insoumise group, in the first round.
However, Le Pen and Mélenchon had overlapping agendas of opposing the rising cost of living, President Emmanuel Macron’s economic liberalism, increasing globalization, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Le Pen, thus, reaped the harvest of far-left candidate Mélenchon to some extent in the second round, whom she surpassed with a wafer-thin margin of 1.2 per cent in the first round to seal her place in the second round. In the French presidential elections, of course, the top two candidates of the first-round contest in the second round provided nobody gets a 50 per cent vote share in the first round.
Mélenchon certainly got a hefty 22 per cent vote share in the first round. The last time a hard-left French politician received this kind of support was more than half a century ago, in 1969, when the Communist legend Jacques Duclos polled about 21.3 per cent. There is no deny- ing that French politics and society are becoming extremely bipolar, with the far-right and far-left increasingly gaining momentum. President Macron is playing a balancing act with his centrist politics.
France might have voted to keep the far-right Le Pen of the National Rally out of the Élysée Palace in the just-concluded presidential elections but almost three million votes were added to Le Pen’s 2017 tally, indicating how the far-right is menacingly catching up since World War II. And today’s France bears a striking resemblance to the electoral landscape of the UK during the Brexit referendum in 2016 or of the US during Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. France today is a country having two electoral blocs characterized by opposing geographic and sociological profiles.
Macron knows it well. As the results of the second round of voting came out, declaring his victory in front of the Eiffel Tower, Macron acknowledged that the country is “beset by doubts and divisions” and the French people voted not for his ideas “but to block those of the Far- Right”. Yes, for the second time in succession, in the backdrop of a high- ly fractured society, Macron has, to a great extent, been rewarded for not being Le Pen. In fact, many French voters said they feel arm-twisted into choosing “the lesser of two evils”. Still, it is to be noted that the two far-right candidates – Marine Le Pen and the former TV pundit Éric Zemmour – together got more support than
Macron in the first round of the election. With the ominous surge of the far-right in France, from 33.9 per cent in 2017 to 41.45 per cent in 2022 in the second round – and the vote against Muslims, immigrants, the European Union, and globalization, the multiculturalism of France has been dealt a devastating blow.
Forget the second round where strategic votes play a crucial role with only two contestants. In the first round, Macron got only 27.8 per cent of the vote share compared to Le Pen’s 23.2 per cent. One has to understand that this is his support base, under the perfect competitive setup. Le Monde, a French daily, explained this brutal reality when it dubbed Macron’s win “an evening of victory without a triumph”.
Macron, of course, got huge support from the over-65s and among the 18-24 age group; neither has a significant active presence in the labour market. And amidst the complex social structure of today’s France, in the backdrop of the pandemic and Russia’s Ukraine attack, France is increasingly behaving like an unhappy democracy with a huge number of abstentions during the vote. In fact, the abstention rate reached a record 28 per cent, or 1.36 crore voters, 2.5 per cent more than in 2017 and the highest since 1969. Around 6.35 per cent of votes cast in the final round were ‘blank’ and another 2.25 per cent were ‘null’ (a candidate’s name is either crossed out or a ballot is invalidated). Le Monde has argued that, if these ballots were considered, Macron has been elected with 54.7 per cent, not 58.5 per cent, of the votes cast. Macron knows that he “did not manage to contain” the rise of the far-right during his presidency. And he also acted in a rightist way when he adopted tougher approaches to migrants and adopted the widely criticized ‘Separatism law’. The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) protests in 2018, which were triggered when Macron increased the diesel tax, were quite spontaneous and a blow to his presidency as well. Well, his second term would be a much more difficult time when he will have to confront a more powerful far-right opposition.
Michel Houellebecq is one of France’s leading novelists and most provocative writers. Houellebecq’s newest novel Anéantir (meaning ‘Annihilate’, ‘Destroy’ or ‘Obliterate’, in English) was published in January this year, just a few months before the all-important presidential elections. Anéantir is written against the backdrop of the fictional 2027 French presidential elections. Far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are characters in the novel. So is President Macron, although not named. In fact, in this newest novel, Houellebecq envisages a grim picture of France five years on. In 2026 and 2027, “France [is] in decline” but the bourgeois elites are not doing so badly. However, France shows some signs of revival and is without labour strikes but “the gap between the ruling classes and the populace has reached unprecedented levels.” The country nonetheless remains in a state of moral decay, gripped by tensions caused by inequality as well as the slow death of rural communities. Overall, France in 2027 is predicted to be bleak.
In this fictional depiction, in 2027 France, Le Pen has stepped down as leader of the National Rally but far-right candidate Éric Zemmour is still sparking controversy. And after two terms of Macron’s presidency, Houellebecq presents a country that is on its knees, with high levels of unemployment and poverty.
In his 2015 bestseller Soumission (meaning ‘Submission’, in English), Houellebecq, of course, predicted a Muslim president to be elected in the 2022 French elections, which never materialised. But there is no denying the inherent message of Soumission, that with the huge influx of African immigrants, France would see a surge in popularity of the far-right leader Le Pen around 2022, which is perfectly matched with present-day French society.
Present-day Europe is flooded with immigrants from Africa and West Asia. Thus, it would be interesting to keep an eye on the continuing developments in the mixed French society, that might dominate the future of Europe as well. And Emmanuel Macron has a daunting task in his second term, indeed.
(The writer is a Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.)