First published on CNN
The results from the first round of the French Presidential election are in, and they have delivered a pretty damning verdict for France’s mainstream political parties.
On the center left — after 97% of the votes have been counted — the Socialist Party’s showing of 6.35% is hardly a surprise after the party’s dismal record in power over the past five years under François Hollande. This was made worse by the many defections the party suffered during the campaign. While few imagined that the public’s affection for the party would fall that low, no one was expecting that its candidate, Benoit Hamon, would reach the second round.
For the Republican Party, the opposite was true only a year ago. It seemed that the presidential election would be a breeze as they expected their candidate to face Hollande, the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic.
However, during the party’s primaries in November 2016, a surprise emerged and the outsider François Fillon was elected, instead of Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy, as the right-wing electorate expressed its desire for something different.
Little did they know that their candidate would become embroiled in a series of scandals. His result — 19.94% — is higher than many would have expected after such a damaging campaign.
The major shock of the first round is Emmanuel Macron’s victory. While some polls had placed him first for a few weeks now, few would have believed that the 39-year old former banker and political novice could reach the second round when he started his En Marche movement a year ago.
And yet today, he stands as the last republican rampart against the far-right National Front: all major parties have called for their members to support him in the second round.
The National Front’s Marine Le Pen’s presence in the second round may be a shock, but it is not really a surprise. Since 2012, most of the media, pundits and politicians have thought that this outcome was unavoidable.
Making such predictions so early gave her a disproportionate amount of publicity and allowed her to set the agenda throughout the campaign. While her party pursued its strategy of “normalization” under her leadership, providing it with more positive coverage, its program and politics have remained anchored in the far right.
In the current political climate, with widespread disillusion and dissatisfaction towards mainstream politicians, the FN has benefited from the anti-establishment image crafted over decades by Marine Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the far-right National Front in 1972.
There is little doubt that the party has also benefited from the terrible attacks France has witnessed in recent years, as well as the normalization of racist discourse by mainstream politicians — particularly towards the French Muslim communities.
In fact, Le Pen’s accession to the second round is no so much a victory for the FN, but rather a striking defeat for the mainstream elite and their lazy approach to politics.
While Le Pen’s result is extremely worrisome, if her party and its racist core are to be defeated, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.
In 2002, the shock of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, reaching the second round of the presidential election eclipsed the fact that his vote had actually stagnated compared to 1988 and 1995. What had handed him this improbable result was the poor performance of mainstream parties and the record abstention for a presidential election.
This was mostly ignored and instead, mainstream parties pretended to have listened to the French people by borrowing from Le Pen’s discourse, rather than by reinventing more positive and courageous politics that might appeal to the wider population.
Of course, the current situation is not quite the same. Marine Le Pen received more than 7.5 million votes in the first round — almost three million more than her father in 2002.
However, she remains far from the gates of power. In fact, the result was most certainly a disappointment. Despite incredibly favorable circumstances, she failed to win the first round outright as had been long predicted.
More importantly, she remains extremely unlikely to win the second round. While much of the media insisted that this was a real possibility before the first round, it’s clearly not the case. To be elected president, even with the possibility that many French voters will abstain in the second round, Le Pen would need to double her vote.
It is therefore crucial not to fall into Le Pen’s trap and paint her as the voice of the people against the system. Polls throughout the campaign showed Le Pen as leading the pack, as she appeared the only alternative. Yet in April, her fortune started to turn when the media was forced to take other non-mainstream candidates into account.
The debates, where Mélenchon and the left in general fared particularly well, changed the dynamic of the campaign. The last month demonstrated that rather than a thirst for nationalism and xenophobia, what the French are craving is a return to grown-up politics, but away from the consensual neo-liberal approach.
While Mélenchon failed in his bid to reach the second round, and while his campaign suffered from a number of shortcomings, his result is a sign that politics can be done on a more hopeful basis. With the Socialist Party in its death throes, this could augur a real redefinition of the French political landscape where the right and left could offer radically different visions of society to the electorate.
This would require changes beyond political parties themselves, as well as a real change in the way the media engages with politics — moving away from the lazy sensationalism that the excitement around a far-right candidate makes so easy. While this may seem utopian, the last few weeks have shown that a return to democratic imagination could indeed be the only way to send the far right back to the margins.