Jocelyn Evans: French vote may spark EU renaissance

Not for the first time since the Brexit referendum, the populist Right has failed to live up to expectations in a European election. After the defeat of the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidentials, and Dutch politician Geert Wilders' slump to second place in his country's parliamentary election, Marine Le Pen has conformed to type, and taken the runner-up slot in the first round of France's presidential race.
Marine Le Pens support is more concentrated among less educated and less well-off voters. (AP).Marine Le Pens support is more concentrated among less educated and less well-off voters. (AP).
Marine Le Pens support is more concentrated among less educated and less well-off voters. (AP).

Marine Le Pen’s presence in the second round has been heralded by many commentators as a shock to the French system, and certainly her presence has helped to exclude candidates from both of France’s main governing parties. The Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, managed only six per cent of the vote, despite a clear victory in the party’s primaries. What supporters of the left wanted was evidently not the choice of the broader French population.

François Fillon, a similarly clear winner in the right-wing Republicans primary, was dogged by investigations into alleged financial impropriety.

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But presidential elections are traditionally where the Front National has performed beyond expectations, outstripping its much more mediocre results in parliamentary and local elections. Yet, this year, Marine Le Pen fell well behind the 28 per cent that her party achieved in 2015 at the regional elections, and the European elections before that. Those results, and the polls which followed until the last weeks of the presidential campaign, suggested Le Pen was on course to win the first round.

For her to be overtaken by Emmanuel Macron, an electoral novice, supported by a hastily-assembled political movement, and almost unknown to most French people until his appointment as Finance Minister in 2014, was a much greater shock to election watchers.

Of the many noteworthy aspects of Macron’s success, his unapologetically pro-European stance set him apart from almost all the other candidates. Even compared with the UK, France has been considered a Eurosceptic nation. Recent opinion polls have shown that the French are second only to Greece in their criticism of Europe. All the presidential candidates promised to push for reform of Europe, at least, and in some cases departure from the single currency, or a referendum to leave the EU altogether.

But Macron has promised reform in the opposite direction – harmonisation across health, education and minimum wages, and greater political control to accompany the euro, to enable the European political bloc to act as a well-governed social and economic unit.

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That message appeals to Macron’s core support, which comes from a group of well-educated, well-off, middle class voters. Unlike Fillon, who won almost 50 per cent of the over 70s age-group, Macron’s support is spread more evenly across the generations.

Le Pen’s support is more concentrated among less educated and less well-off voters, economically vulnerable, hostile to immigration and inward-looking. It is no surprise that on political issues such as Europe, immigration and globalisation, these groups hold opposed worldviews.

In the event that Macron wins the second round his victory will be seen by many of those who voted for him as ‘anything but Le Pen’. Traditionally, parties of the left and right have always arranged to support each other, rather than risk splitting the vote to allow a Front National candidate to win – the so-called ‘front républicain’. Hamon and Fillon both directed their supporters to vote for Macron in the second round.

On Sunday night, both Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were quick to offer their congratulations to Macron. For the European Union, largely stalled since the 2010 financial crisis, and still reconciling itself to the UK’s vote to leave last year, a renewed partnership between France and Germany represents a chance to jump-start the European project.

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For the UK, as Brexit negotiations pick up pace, such a partnership is understandably likely to prioritise working on the EU’s future, rather than on minutiae of the terms of separation with its erstwhile ‘awkward partner’. Macron has been explicit about not doing the UK any favours, as well as wanting ‘talent’ to move post-Brexit from the UK to France to benefit from continued inclusion in the EU. If he wins on May 7, the UK government’s resolution to complete Brexit as a clean break will meet with no resistance from the French.

Jocelyn Evans is Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds.