OPINION: France has again rejected the UK and US’s self-harming populism

For the second time in five years, France had its own Brexit-Trump moment - and for the second time the voters rejected populism. But this doesn't mean that the country is not deeply fractured or that Macron is facing an easy ride, says John Lichfield.

OPINION: France has again rejected the UK and US's self-harming populism
Emmanuel Macron with supporters at his victory party at the Eiffel Tower. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

First the good news. Emmanuel Macron won.

You might be forgiven for overlooking that fact amidst all the grudging French, and British, media commentary pointing to the “divided” France which voted (or failed to vote) yesterday.

Macron won by 17 points, a margin greater than any the final opinion polls had foreseen last Friday. France has, for the second time, rebuffed the wave of destructive nationalism which engulfed Britain and the United States in 2016.

As it happened: Macron wins re-election for a second term as French president

That populist wave, we were told, would wash over the whole of Europe, destroying the European Union and drowning the post-war liberal consensus. It hasn’t. France has blocked it twice; Emmanuel Macron has blocked it twice.

Both France and the President deserve great credit for that. Almost six in ten voters on Sunday rejected Marine Le Pen’s muddled and dishonest attempt to pass off inward-looking intolerance as patriotism.

Lest we forget, some of Le Pen’s ideas (not all) are already in power across the Channel and were in power across the Atlantic until the beginning of last year.

Now the bad news. France is deeply divided. Whether it is more divided than other countries, including the US and the UK, is open to question. I doubt it.

The fact remains that almost 42 percent of French voters who cast a valid ballot supported a far right party whose roots go back to the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II.

In the 2017 election, that total was 34 percent – a  score which carried over almost exactly to the combined total of the three far-right candidates in the first round of this Presidential election two weeks ago.

Will the Far Right 42 percent of Sunday carry over into the first round in 2027? Not all of it will but some of it may.  The taboo against voting for the far right is like a Ming vase: once broken it is broken.

 It is also disturbing that 28 percent of registered voters stayed at home (the highest for 53 years). It is equally disturbing that over 8 percent of those who voted cast blank or spoiled ballots. Overall, that is 15,000,000 people who declined or actively refused to vote for either candidate.

As for “a deeply divided France”, the demography of the vote does broadly sketch a picture of Two Nations, a well-off, well-educated and successful “pro-Macron” France and a poorer, less educated and unhappy “pro-Le Pen” France.

More than 70 percent of comfortable or wealthy voters chose a Macron ballot. Around 65 percent of the poor or struggling voted Le Pen. Almost three quarters of people with a higher education voted Macron. Over 60 percent of people who did not have their baccaulaureat (high-school leaving qualification) voted Le Pen.

In terms of the age of voters, the small-print of the vote is more complex – and more encouraging. The very youngest voters, the 18-24s, if they voted all, went 6 out of ten for Macron.

The 20, 30 and 40 somethings were more narrowly pro-Macron. The 50-somethings (maybe fearful of delayed retirement) were narrowly pro-Le Pen. The over 70s were more than 70 percent for Macron.

Geographically, the vote was also complex – more complex than the standard image of a “successful” metropolitan France and a struggling rural and outer suburban France.

Macron’s vote held up pretty well in many small towns. The only regions that Le Pen “won” in mainland France were the far-right strongholds of the north west (Hauts-de-France) and south east (Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur).

Macron’s greatest success is now his greatest problem. Something like half his 18,779,641 votes came from the Left and the Greens. They voted more anti-Le Pen than they did pro-Macron.

Arguably, French elections have always been that way. The winning candidate could only triumph in Round Two by attracting the votes of some of the losing candidates in Round One.

But something important has changed. It used to be a case of a moderate left or moderate right candidate assembling votes from his or her own wider camp. All, or most of, the Right or Left voters felt they had some kind of stake in, say, a Chirac or a Mitterrand.

 Now, as I argued last week, France has been cut in three.

Some of the left wing “third” of the electorate will lend their votes to Macron to beat Le Pen. They don’t feel they have any stake in him. In many cases, they dislike or detest him.

Macron will therefore  start his new term as a minority President. He said in his rather limp acceptance speech in front of the Eiffel Tower that he would govern for “all of France” and show his gratitude to his one-day-only supporters from the Left.

That is easier said then done. The parliamentary elections in June will decide whether Macron can do anything much at all in the next five years.

READ ALSO Parliamentary elections – what happens and why is it important?

On the whole, I believe that his centrist party and allies WILL win a working majority in the new National Assembly on June 12th and 19th. I do not foresee Macron having to surrender power to a Prime Minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon or a Prime Minister Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour.

But that’s a complex issue which had better wait for another column.

For now, let me end by saying, well done to Macron and well done to France.

This was the country’s second Brexit-Trump moment in five years. Divided it may be; troubled it may be. France has refused to follow Britain and the US on the path to self-harming populism.

Member comments

  1. As an American in France watching LePen’s concession speech, it struck me that something was missing. Here was a far-right populist candidate (1) conceding defeat in an election and (2) not breathing a word about the election being stolen. This is an important part of why I love living in France. It provides a certain confidence and joy to live in a democracy where people love democracy. They love democracy more than their own personal ideas and desires. And it’s a country where people, no matter how strongly they disagree (and the do!), they maintain a basic respect for, and trust of, one another.

  2. Thank you Mr. Litchfield for this clear analysis.

    I worry about Macron. Despite his humble beginnings (and perhaps because of rise up from them), he a bit blind to working-class issues and perspectives, and worse, he misreads situations and people. Given all his obvious intelligence, I wonder if he is hampered because he is on the autistic spectrum. Not to say that would be a reason to reject someone as a leader. It’s just an element to bear in mind.

    But I am very very happy he defeated LePen. In addition to her simmering anger and exploitation of fear and racism, her ideas/policies were almost as under-baked as Trump’s. She was/is a real danger to France, the EU, and to America. And I believe that it is just possible that Macron may achieve some positive things in the next five year. Best of all, but perhaps most unlikely, would be if he could halt or at least slow, France’s growing economic inequality.

  3. Whilst it is a huge relief that he won, I do hope he does not rest on his laurels, lest he end up hamstrung in the same way that President Obama did in his second term. President Macron is far from perfect but he is also far from the demon some try to portray him as. Moderates never move as fast as hardliners, but they also destroy less in the process. I still have hope that he will, on balance, be good for France.

  4. Very much agree with Mr. Lichfield here. The French electoral results reflect a level of political good sense and maturity one simply doesn’t find in the U.S. these days. Faced with a choice between an authoritarian nationalist and a constitutional democrat, the French have done the decent thing. Try to imagine a situation in the U.S. where an unpopular Biden beats Trump by 58% to 42% simply because he stands for the rule of law. Moreover, try to imagine an American election night where the polls close at 7:00 pm and the victor is announced at 8:00 pm or a presidential election law that permits only 2 weeks of campaigning. Americans could learn a lot from the French about how to structure an efficient and inexpensive electoral process. Except perhaps for those who have a vested interest in continuing with the present system that offers so many opportunities for voter suppression and thwarting the will of the people.

  5. As an American in France watching LePen’s concession speech, it struck me that something was missing. Here was a far-right, populist candidate (1) conceding defeat in an election and (2) not breathing a word about the election being stolen. This is an important part of why I love living in France. It provides a certain confidence and joy to live in a democracy where people love democracy. They love democracy more than their own personal ideas and desires. And it’s a country where people, no matter how strongly they disagree with each other (and the do very strongly!), they maintain a basic respect for, and trust of, one another. Ha! Even if it is only a respect for, and trust of, the election officials who count the votes, just that is a wonderful and valuable thing. We Americans can testify to that!

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Revealed: France’s funniest politicians and their best ‘jokes’

Politicians' jokes are more usually met with a groan than a laugh, but France's annual prize for political humour has been awarded - here are the zingers judged the best in 2022.

Revealed: France's funniest politicians and their best 'jokes'

According to the jury on the Press club, Humour et Politique awards, the funniest politician in France is the Communist leader (and 2022 presidential candidate) Fabien Roussel.

His award-winning zinger is: “La station d’essence est le seul endroit en France où celui qui tient le pistolet est aussi celui qui se fait braquer.”

It translates as ‘the petrol station is the only place where the one holding the gun is also the one who is robbed’ – a joke that works much better in French where ‘pistolet’ means both a pistol and the petrol pump. 

On a side note for British readers – Roussel also looks quite a lot like left-wing UK comedian Stewart Lee, so maybe he has funny genes.

Second prize went to ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy with his withering assessment of Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for his old party in the 2022 presidential election, who did extremely badly.

“Ce n’est pas parce que tu achètes de la peinture, une toile et des pinceaux que tu deviens Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, elle a pris mes idées, mon programme et elle a fait 4.8 pourcent”

“It’s not because one buys paints, canvas and brushes that you become Picasso. Valérie Pécresse, she took my ideas, my manifesto and she got 4.8 percent of the vote.”

While these two were jokes – in the loosest sense of the word – the prize can also be awarded to politicians who make people laugh inadvertently, such as last year’s winner Marlène Schiappa who, when announcing plans to ban polygamy, felt the need to tell the French, “On ne va pas s’interdire les plans à trois” – we’re not going to outlaw threesomes.

Here’s the full list of finalists for the funniest political joke of 2022 – somehow we don’t think you’re at risk of split sides with any of these.

Ex-Prime minister Edouard Philippe talking about hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon: “Il faut une certaine audace pour que quelqu’un qui a été battu à une élection où il était candidat puisse penser qu’il sera élu à une élection où il n’est pas candidat!”

“It takes a certain audacity for someone who was defeated in an election where he was a candidate to think that he will be elected in an election where he is not a candidate!”

Ex-Assemblée nationale president Richard Ferrand: “Elisabeth Borne est formidable mais personne ne le sait.”

“Elisabeth Borne is great but no-one knows it.”

Ex-Macronist MP Thierry Solère: “Mon anatomie fait que si j’ai le cul entre deux chaises, je suis parfaitement assis.”

“My anatomy means that if I have my ass between two chairs, I am perfectly seated.”

Some information that might be useful for this one – the French phrase avoir le cul entre deux chaises (to have your ass between two chairs) is the equivalent of the English ‘falling between two stools’ – ie a person who cannot make up their mind what or who to support. Further information; Solère is a largish bloke.

Hard-left MP Eric Coquerel: “S’imaginer qu’on va remplacer Jean-Luc Mélenchon comme ça, c’est une vue de l’esprit. C’est comme se poser la question de qui va remplacer Jaurès.”

“To imagine that we will replace [party leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon like that, is purely theoretical. It is like asking the question of who will replace Jaurès.”

Jean Jaurès is a revered figure on the French left, but not currently very active in politics, since he was assassinated in 1914.

Rachida Dati to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Votre présence au Conseil de Paris est aussi anecdotique que votre score à la présidentielle.”

“Your presence at the Council of Paris is as anecdotal as your score in the presidential election.”

There’s no doubt that Hidalgo did humiliatingly badly in the presidential election with a score of 1.75 percent. Daiti didn’t stand in the presidential elections but she did put herself forward to be mayor of Paris in 2020 and was convincingly beaten by . . . Anne Hidalgo.

So that’s the ‘jokes’, but there were also some entries for inadvertently funny moments.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo: “Tous les matins, je me lève en me disant que tout le monde m’aime.”

“Every morning, I wake up and tell myself that everyone loves me.”

But the undisputed queen of this genre is the green MP Sandrine Rousseau, whose ideas and policy announcements seem to have provoked a great deal of mirth.

Je voudrais qu’il y ait une possibilité de délit de non-partage des tâches domestiques – I would like there to be the possibility of a crime of not equally sharing domestic tasks

Les SDF meurent plus de chaleur l’été que l’hiver – The homeless die from heat more in the summer than the winter

Il faut changer aussi de mentalité pour que manger une entrecôte cuite sur un barbecue ne soit plus un symbole de virilité – We must also change our mentality so that eating a steak cooked on a barbecue is no longer a symbol of virility.

If you prefer your humour a little more scientific, Phd researcher Théo Delemazure has done a study of which politicians and political parties are funniest when speaking in parliament.

He analysed how often speeches raise a smile or a laugh (which presumably includes sarcastic laughter) and concluded that the party that gets the most laughs is the hard-left La France Insoumise.

They are also the party that speaks most often, however, when he calculated the laughter rate per time spent speaking, the prize went to the centre-right Les Républicains.