Sauce for the Goose

In yet another example of the push for national sovereignty around the globe that has manifested in the last decade, the French presidential elections are about to run their course. The two-round election was introduced by General Charles De Gaulle as the Fifth Republic was installed in 1958. It will be the 11th such election since then. Americans would do well to pay attention.

The first round enables the populace to vote with their hearts. They can vote for any and every party under the French spring sun. Only the top two are then allowed to feature in the final round. 

In so doing, the voter is forced, in a manner of speaking, to vote with his head and give, through the ballot box, the presidency his consent. 

De Gaulle was inspired partly by the “first past the post” system. He saw the British political system as guaranteeing continuity and political stability. 

The idea was designed to inject these two attributes into France’s political DNA, and thereby move away from the perennial parliamentary instability that plagued the third and fourth republics from 1870 to 1958—with a short collaborationist break between 1940 and 1944. 

So, as per the plan, two weeks ago, the French went to the ballot box with their hearts on their sleeves. They had choices aplenty. Twelve parties, many with different names but surprisingly similar policies worded differently, jockeyed for the top political job in France. 

From this dirty dozen, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen rose to the rim. 

Out of chaos, order. 

Indeed, since 2002, the French public has had to contend with the family Le Pen in the last round three times out of five. 

For a country that likes to proclaim its progressive credentials, it seems a bit atavistic. 

When not in the last two, Marine Le Pen comes close enough to give the right people heart palpitations. She came a close third in 2012, for instance. 

As time passes, Le Pen’s regularity seems to be morphing inexorably into some kind of inevitability. It seems increasingly a question of when not if.

Wednesday’s closing presidential debates were evenly matched. As Figaro, France’s largest daily, reported “the Macron-Le Pen debate was much tighter than it was five years ago.” 

The survey shows that “on average, 48 percent of French people believe that Emmanuel Macron was the most convincing, against 47 percent who give the advantage to Marine Le Pen.”

It adds that nearly half (47 percent) of those surveyed either ignored the debate or wouldn’t pick a winner. 

The top-line data say the election will go to Macron, 53-47. The granular data are much more circumspect. The outcome of the election is on a knife-edge. 

Those hoping for the status quo should be a little worried, given the areas of the debate the voters felt each candidate won. 

For his part, Macron did better on the theoretical and esoteric fronts: such as running institutions, GDP growth, and the “international” scene. This refers especially to the European Union and the euro—this currency of doom to which so many nations in Europe unfortunately are tethered. 

Macron knows, however, that the French voting public is possibly more Euro-skeptic than the British one. In January 2018, he said himself that the French would vote for a French exit from the European Union if only they were given the chance. Little in the last four years has happened to change this deep-seated truth. 

Le Pen, for her part, did better on the practical and homely issues. She was ahead on security, immigration, and pensions. She came across as calmer and more in control of herself. 

To add to this multi-layered picture, on the subject of inflation Le Pen is seen as a realistic candidate for change by a large segment of diverse people. In fact, in a reversal of the usual “narrative,” the young seem increasingly likely to vote for what some might consider more extreme options such as La Pen, as are most age cohorts. 

Reflective of this phenomenon, for instance, is Irdrielle Mounet, a student in Paris. She said she was prepared to cast a vote for change, as the Financial Times reported: “Le Pen says she is more focused on helping young people—so maybe it is worth a try.” 

One has to go to the over 65-year-olds to see a clear gap between incumbent and challenger. At over 2-to-1 in this age category, Macron has a very clear advantage. 

In an aging democracy such as France, this is in all probability the most important age group. They are more likely to vote, and they are more numerous. 

Macron, in other words, has seduced the older folk more thoroughly and professionally than Madame Le Penperhaps, given his life choices, they feel that they too are in with a chance. 

Another significant change is the way the press has covered the elections. While the usual mud has been slung in Le Pen’s face, it is noticeable that the election coverage has been much fairer than it might have been. 

The debate itself was a case in point. For anyone who had the endurance to watch the cockfight for close to three hours, the two judges did their utmost to keep the contest watchable. 

This might be an indication of two things. 

First, Macron is still the favorite to win but he is not a popular president. There is a sort of a Macron ennui. 

He has made too many enemies and has behaved in an unforgivably haughty manner, so many French people think, towards many of his country’s poorest. 

Secondly, Le Pen in the second round is no longer seen as an aberration. Perhaps, the press might think, she deserves a chance?

Too many other parties have been tried, too many promises left hanging, and so little tangible delivered over time—so much so that every passing second makes an eventual Le Pen victory ever more plausible. 

Worse, though, is the president’s visible impotence on a crucial issue: Macron has no real mechanism to deal with the cost of living crisis and inflation. He has little to no influence on monetary policy. The tools to fight inflation have been given, in an act of absolute folly, to a centralized European Bank. That institution has no need or requirement to work on behalf of the French. 

Macron’s second presidency, therefore, would be at the mercy of institutions fully outside of his control. 

There is a sense, and herein lies the danger for him and his reelection prospects, that the Little Napoleon has no clothes. 

Many French voters will ask themselves, “Why suffer another five years of this painful purgatory?” Macron’s victory on Sunday may foretell a clear path for a Le Pen victory in 2027. 

It is fear of Le Pen that will keep Macron in. It is hope for change that may see him lose. 


About Alex Story

Alex Story is a senior manager at a London brokerage. He represented Great Britain in rowing at the Olympic Games. In 2016 he won the right to represent the people of Yorkshire and the Humber in the European Parliament but didn’t take the seat.

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

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