So, the French have shown again that politics really matters and has become the space where different visions of the future are being fought out. And, while the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron now appears certain to be France’s next president, the first round of the 2017 presidential election has already brought massive changes.
As we have seen elsewhere, voters are decisively rejecting long-established mainstream parties and giving support both to new parties and, in increasing numbers, to parties on the extreme right and left. France has now demonstrated these tendencies more strongly than has any other country.
Neither of the two parties that have dominated the politics of the 5th Republic, the centre left and the centre right, made it to the second round. Perhaps the greatest disaster was the 6% vote received by the ruling Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hammon, but the travails of the centre right candidate, Francois Fillon, and the fact that the vote he received was similar to that of the far left candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon, also marks a political earthquake.
Attention now turns to the clear option presented to the French in the second round of voting, the centrist vision of the relative newcomer Macron, optimistic but vague and ill-defined, and the firm right-wing, inward-looking and fearful message of Marine Le Pen. Both will face much harder questioning over the next two weeks about the sort of France they want.
Is Macron, as Paul Mason is tweeting as the results come in, the candidate of the ‘global-liberal elite’ or can he offer a credible project of social change that can combine elements of liberal economic policies with strong social supports? If Macron manages to do this, it has implications for centrist liberal politics throughout Europe and beyond.
Two other factors deserve mention in relation to Macron. One is that his campaign has mobilised a new social movement, En Marche. This, then, is a different form of centrist politics based not primarily on an established party but on mobilising especially young people who have been largely alienated from politics. How this movement institutionalises itself as Macron goes on to become president has potential to renew French political life.
The second factor is that Macron signals a generation change in French politics. Having someone who is 39 years of age reach the highest political office, is symbolically important in a Europe where politics remains dominated by leaders who are in their 60s or even 70s. These leaders who politicised within stable systems dominated by the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. With Macron we have a political leader who has emerged as these systems unravel. How, or if, a new politics coalesces under his leadership will be fascinating to watch.
And then there is the Front Nacional. Though we can breathe a sigh of relief that Marine Le Pen will not make it to the Elysee, election 2017 confirms yet again that around a quarter of the French electorate continues firmly to support a party that wants to go back to an imagined past and that plays loose with our liberal democratic order. It remains a reason for profound concern.