OPINION: The winner of France’s elections was neither Macron nor Le Pen, but apathy

OPINION: The winner of France's elections was neither Macron nor Le Pen, but apathy
Will the election washout affect Macron's chances in 2022? Photo: Ludovic MARIN / AFP.
There was a runaway winner in the second round of regional elections in France Sunday, writes John Lichfield. It was the 'bof' (can’t be bothered) party.

Over 34 million voters, two thirds of the electorate, stayed at home or at least went nowhere near a polling station.

Any attempt to analyse the results, or project them onto the blank screen of next April’s presidential elections, is muddled by that miserable fact.

Yes, the great loser was Marine Le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement National, which had high hopes of capturing a region for the first time and lost everywhere.

She underperformed the opinion polls for the sixth election day in a row since 2017. She even lost ground on a poor first round last week.

READ ALSO Le Pen’s far-right fails to win any areas in French regional elections

It would be foolish all the same to write off Le Pen’s chances of reaching the second round of the presidential poll next Spring. Her support is heavily concentrated in the white working class and the young – the sections of  the electorate which voted least yesterday.

Yes, the second great loser was President Emmanuel Macron. His La République en Marche party got 7 percent of the overall vote – barely 10 percent in those regions where the “marcheurs” survived the first round.

But it would be equally foolish to write off Macron’s chance of re-election in April. The President remains personally popular (by French standards) with up to 50 percent approval rating in some polls.

And yet his party, and their centrist allies, attracted only one in ten votes – one in 30, if you consider the turnout – in the last big electoral event before the presidential election. Whatever the extenuating circumstances (lack of interest in local politics; feeble attachment to the sprawling, newish regions; the pandemic) no French president has ever suffered such a poor result in a “mid-term” poll.

Macron remains a fragile favourite to win a second term next year but he remains an isolated figure – unable to turn his unexpected and fortunate breakthrough in 2017 into a permanent transformation in the French political landscape.

The great winner in yesterday’s result – according to his own estimation at least – was Xavier Bertrand, the independent centre-right president of the north western region of Hauts-de-France. He defeated the far right and the left with over 52 percent of the vote in the Lille-Calais-Amiens area and now expects to emerge as the main challenger to the Macron-Le Pen duopoly next year.

According to one poll yesterday, he has 18 percent support in the first round of the presidential elections – compared to 22 percent for both Macron and Le Pen.

But that poll is misleading. It assumes that Bertrand will be the only centre-right candidate and will have the undivided support of traditional, conservative voters. At least four other centre-right barons (and one baroness, Valérie Pécresse, who was triumphantly re-elected in Île-de-France) have other ideas. 

Bertrand and Pécresse are no longer members of the main centre-right party, Les Républicains. That party has yet to decide how, or even if, it will choose a single contender for next year. Bertrand has stolen a base on the other hopefuls but they will be all the more determined to trip him up in the coming months.

All in all, yesterday’s results leave France in a bizarre place – its political landscape more divided between national and local than any other large democracy or maybe any other democracy.

The centrist would-be revolutionary Macron and the far-right would-be revolutionary Le Pen still dominate national politics. After yesterday’s results the old, supposedly tired and repudiated political families of centre-left and centre-right still control all 12 regions of mainland France.

Even the Parti Socialiste – the party of François Mitterrand and François Hollande, moribund at national level and unlikely to produce a viable presidential candidate next year – held on to its five regional presidencies. In doing so, it repulsed (for now) the advance of those other upstarts, the Greens, who look likely to become the dominant force on the centre-left at national level.

A question arises. Is this a question of Back to the Future – a sign that French politics is returning to the old left-right enmity and partnership? Or is this the last stand of two discredited and ideologically bankrupt movements, which retain some allegiance at local level among the kind of older and more educated voters who did bother to leave home?

Local politics in France is commonly a reflection of the past, not the future. Even the Communist Party retains some local bastions, although it lost its last département, Val -de-Marne, in the separate departmental (county) elections yesterday.   

There are many explanations for the bof or can’t-be-bothered vote but none of them suggest that French politics is returning to normal. The kind of anger and disillusionment with mainstream, politics-as-usual which pushed both centre-right and centre-left out of the second round of the presidential elections in 2017 still exists.

Yesterday and last Sunday it took the form of mass abstention or absenteeism rather than a protest vote. Against the expectations of pollsters and pundits – including me, I should admit – even Marine Le Pen failed to turn out her electorate.

It would be nice to think this was a rejection of the racist ideas and racists still harboured by her supposedly cleaned-up party. Au contraire, exit polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that Le Pen has now succeeded in making the Rassemblement National part of the mainstream. She is therefore rejected as too much like the other mainstream parties by part of the “angry” vote.

She will face a difficult party congress in Perpignan next week when hard-liners (ie racists and out-and-out Europhobes) will push behind the scenes for a return to the raw, red meat served by her father, Jean-Marie.

She cannot win the Presidency next year if she goes down that road. She cannot keep up the energy levels in her movement if she refuses. The dilemma suggests that Marine Le Pen has taken the far-right (in its present form) as far as she can. 

Macron faces a different dilemma. Does he ignore yesterday’s results? Does he try to rebuild his reputation as a grey-suited revolutionary by resurrecting a few reforms in the autumn? Does he reshuffle his government? Or does he rely on the receding pandemic and a recovering economy to see him home?

My money would still be on a Macron and Le Pen second round next April and a Macron victory.

But, unless derailed by his centre-right rivals, Xavier Bertrand is now a real threat to the President. I have long believed that the greatest threat to Macron in 2022 will be a strong centre-right candidate who pushes him out of the second round.


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