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OPINION: The déja vu of the European election polls masks a dangerous game in French democracy

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OPINION: The déja vu of the European election polls masks a dangerous game in French democracy
Pro-European Emmanuel Macron. Photo: AFP
16:07 CEST+02:00
The opinion polls for the European parliament have a strangely familiar look about then - John Lichfield asks what this means for the election, and for position of the far right in France.

Despite five months of French political and social crisis, the opinion polls ahead of next month's European elections have a Monty Python look about them.

It is déjà vu all over again -  “that strange feeling we sometimes get that we've lived through something before”.

In the multi-candidate first round of the Presidential election in April 2017, the top two finishers were Emmanuel Macron with 24.01 per cent; and Marine Le Pen with 21.3 per cent.

In a string of opinion polls before the 26 May European election, Macron's centrist party and its allies are predicted to take 22.5 to 24 per cent of the vote. Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National is attracting between 21 and 22.5 per cent.

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Emmanuel Macron will face off against Marine Le Pen in the European elections. Photo: AFP

In other words, despite the Gilets Jaunes rebellion, despite his poor personal ratings, Macron is on course to take almost exactly the same share of the popular vote that he did in the first round of the presidential poll in 2017. He may be detested in working class France, right-wing-France, left wing France, rural France and outer suburban France but his centrist, pro-European, urban base is intact.

Marine Le Pen, despite the anti-Macron mood in large parts of the electorate, is forecast to do only marginally better than she did in the first round in 2017 – and fail to emulate the 25 per cent she scored in the last European elections in 2014. Despite the Gilets Jaunes social rebellion, whose demography and geography overlaps with her own electoral heartland, Ms Le Pen's popularity has scarcely risen.

Depending on your political viewpoint, you might find these figures to be baffling or reassuring. The political crisis in France cannot, it seems, be so critical as all that.

Look, however, at the rest of the predicted scores for the European Elections in France. They contain a stark warning about the future of French democracy.

Former President François Hollande was widely quoted as saying last month that the Far Right would rule France one day. He was somewhat misquoted.

What he actually said was the post-2017 French political battleground – the Centre versus the Extremes – was ultimately dangerous.

France is a country that loves to kick its leaders and kick out  incumbents. There has been a change of power in almost every election in the last 40 years. If the only game is the Centre v the Extremes, the only recourse will eventually be the Extremes.

Hollande said that the traditional political forces of centre-left and centre-right, scattered and humiliated in 2017, must find a way back into the game. “They must become once again credible alternatives capable of mobilising people, otherwise the head-to-head between the present centrist government and the far right could one day finish badly.”

Now look again at the polls before the European elections.

Centre-right and centre-left, the political forces which dominated French politics for 70 years after the 1939-45 war, are nowhere. They have yet to recover from their 2017 implosion.

The old “parliamentary” Left has split into three fragments  - the hard, the traditional and would-be inventive.

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Months of 'yellow vest' protests appear not to have affected Macron's poll ratings. Photo: AFP

Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise (the hard fragment) has struggled up to 9 per cent of the vote and was once down at 7 per cent. The rump of the Socialist Party – the party of François Mitterrand and François Hollande – is marooned on about 5 per cent (the lowest possible score to qualify for a handful of seats in the European Parliament). 

 Generation-s, the inventive breakaway led by Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate in 2017, is stuck on 3 per cent.

On the centre-right, things are a little better but not much. Les Républicains, the party created by Jacques Chirac and renamed by Nicolas Sarkozy, is delighted to have seen its score rise in recent weeks to 15 per cent.

The leader of its list, a young Catholic-traditionalist philosophy teacher called François-Xavier Bellamy, has fought a good campaign but he appeals only to the socially conservative, bourgeois element of the centre-right. He has nothing to say to the hard-scrabble outer suburbs or rural towns which spawned the Gilets Jaunes.

Much can happen in a month before the vote on 26 May. The predicted turn-out is only 44 per cent. This compares to 45 per cent at the last European election and 77 per cent in the presidential election in 2017.

A small upward shift in participation could push either Macron's La République en Marche or Le Pen's Rassemblement National into a decisive lead.

Topping the poll makes no practical difference in domestic politics. It would, however, give a significant psychological victory to either Macron or Le Pen before their likely second face-off in the next presidential elections.

As things stand, despite his mistakes and despite his unpopularity, Macron must be favourite to be re-elected in 2022.  Marine Le Pen has never fully recovered from her woeful performance in the second round presidential debate two years ago.

Given Macron's horrible half-year since last October, Marine should be cruising in the European polls. The fact that she is treading water says more about Ms Le Pen than it does about President Macron.

All the same, ex-President Hollande is right. A two-way political contest between Centre and Extreme is ultimately a dangerous game for a democracy.

 
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