By Prabasi Nepali
French voters went to the polls last Sunday in a watershed election. The French people were fully aware that in the second and final round of their presidential election, a momentous decision lay in their very hands. Not only the future of France itself, but that of Europe, risen out of the ashes of the gruesome Second World War, was at stake. Voting followed an unprecedented campaign, marked by scandal, repeated surprises and a last-minute hacking attack on Macron. The run-off vote pitted the pro-Europe, pro-business Macron against anti-immigration and anti-EU Le Pen, two radically different visions that underline a split in Western democracies. And the French did rise to the occasion.
The French chose Macron with a resounding victory with about 66 percent to Le Pen’s 34 percent. Although the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialists had been eliminated in the first round, they did come together in favour of Macron and against far-rightist Le Pen. It was a victory of forward-looking optimism against the dark pessimism of jingoism and narrow nationalism. It was symbolic that Macron chose the square in front of the Louvre museum (housing the world-famous “Mona Lisa” painting by Leonardo da Vinci) for his acceptance/thank you speech to his electrified supporters. He said significantly that ‘France had won’. And when he took the stage, he entered to the sound of music – but not to the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, but to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the official anthem of the European Union! Macron has become the youngest French leader since Napoleon Bonaparte, who was appointed a general at 26, later elected First Consul and thus the supreme leader of France, and in 1805 crowned himself Emperor of the French. Macron owes his victory to luck, his political skill and France’s rejection of its dark past (the collaboration of the puppet Vichy government with Nazi Germany).
The last polling showed Macron with a widening lead of around 62 percent to 38 percent before the hacking leaks on Friday evening. A campaigning blackout entered into force shortly after. Hundreds of thousands of emails and documents stolen from the Macron campaign were off loaded online and then spread by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks, leading the candidate to call it an attempt at “democratic destabilization.” The Macron team had previously accused Russia of trying to meddle in the election. The election is set to cause a profound change for France, the world’s sixth largest economy (after the US, China,
Germany, Japan and the UK), a permanent member of the UN Security Council (with veto privilege) and a global military nuclear power.
In the first round on April 23, French voters had rejected the most dangerous snare of having to choose later between two authoritarian demagogues – Ms. Marine Le Pen on the far-right and Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far-left. Both rejected the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Their economic policy consisted only of protectionism, and in foreign affairs they supported the revanchist and retrograde policies of Vladimir Putin. After their defeat, the centre-right and centre-left parties opted to support the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, but Melenchon was so extreme as to reject any concerted action even against the hated crypto-fascists of the right. Rather he seemed to be of the opinion: ‘Apres nous le deluge.’
It was clear that the extremists of the left and right were not capable of solving France’s severe crisis of identity. France needed a brave and visionary leader to tackle political Islam, and at the same time offer pragmatic solution for its economic travails without sacrificing social security. In order to combat the emerging threat from Russia, and counter the shaky policy of the Trump administration, it must bolster the EU in partnership with Germany. With his background and experience, Macron is capable of building a new vision for France in its central role together with Germany. The UK has voluntarily exited from its role.
In the run-up to the second round, it was projected that Macron, leader of “En Marche!” (“Onward”) movement, would secure 61 percent of the votes, against 39 percent for Le Pen. The die appeared to be cast according to numerous pollsters, whose reputation had been established by the accuracy of their predictions for the first round. However, there was lingering doubt, since there were imponderables with regard to voters disappointed by the results of the first round, and also with regard to how many would actually abstain from voting (as it turned out a high of 25 percent) . There was also a significant percentage of nullified/invalid votes from those dissatisfied with both candidates. Thus, to put it sarcastically, there were voters levitating/hesitating between ‘passive indifference’ and ‘active abstentionism’ (NYT cartoon). No one can really put a finger on what is actually happening in France. If the rate of turnout is low, i.e. a high rate of effective non-participation, or invalid votes, then Le Pen stood a chance. This was no longer impossible, since the xenophobic National Front had already joined the political mainstream.
The NYT columnist Roger Cohen has compared Marine Le Pen’s rise with that of Donald Trump – he was first considered a joke, then an unlikely contender, and at last, the realization of the horrible reality that he had in fact become the president! Like in America,
there is the latent rage against the establishment (Trump famously promised to drain the ‘Washington swamp’/ likewise the French political class misused state resources for personal gain ); the belief that globalization is a ‘rigged system’ for the wealthy; the fury at the impunity of the manipulators of the 2008 financial crisis, including the euro. Furthermore, there was “the cultural and economic chasm between the wired metropolis and dystopian periphery; growing inequality; and hollowed-out industrial heartlands.”
Thus, after the unbelievable rise of Trump, there was the feeling that anything was possible in the topsy-turvy new world of Western politics, according to “The Washington Post”. The French presidential election was looked upon “with a mix of giddy anticipation and existential dread.” For right-wing populists, it offered “the next big opportunity to remake the postwar global order in their own nationalist, nativist and protectionist image.” Moreover, it had the potential to disintegrate the European Union, NATO and other pillars of the trans-Atlantic alliance. In any case, the French campaign illustrates “the profound new chasm in the West: between those who favour open, globalized societies and others who prefer closed, nationalized ones.” We witnessed a historic choice between two completely different modes of organizing a society. As Madani Cheurfa, a professor of politics at Paris’s Sciences Po noted: “The world is focused on France because France has managed to encapsulate – almost to the point of caricature – the debate underway across the world.” For the time being at least, France has overcome the Brexit and Trump effects, and the voice of reason and rationality has triumphed!
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Ruchir Sharma is Head of Emerging Markets and Chief Global Strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. He is a regular columnist for the “New York Times”. He was named one of “Foreign Policy” magazine’s Top Global Thinkers in 2012. His latest book: “The Rise and Fall of Nations. The Rules of Change in the Post-Crisis World”, 2016 is a pioneering field guide to understanding our impermanent world.