It is now clear that the polls in the last weeks of the campaign before yesterday’s first round vote were broadly right: Marcon and Le Pen lead with Melenchon and Fillon quickly following. The final percentages (the French insist on going down to the second decimal point) actually give Macron a slightly larger lead than had been predicted, and Le Pen’s score is lower than all bar one poll in the final days. The closeness of those percentages can be misleading; whilst Macron at 23.86% and Melenchon at 19.62% look close, they are in fact separated by 1.5 million votes. Turnout was good, if not spectacular. In my hometown we reached 75% – good for us, a peri-urban spot with a young and very diverse population that often turns out below the national average.
Many on the left can be relieved that they are not forced to side with a disgraced Francois Fillon in the second round. Many on the right will not have too much trouble voting for a resolutely pro-business Emmanuel Macron. But I feel deeply uneasy this morning.First there is Macron himself. Estimates of the results based on select polling stations were published at 8pm and all agreed that he was in the lead – in question was the precise order of the other top three candidates. Yet Macron did not emerge until 10.30pm, after all the other major candidates had spoken (Fillon saying that he would personally vote for Macron in the second round, Hamon doing the same, Le Pen setting the scene for her dreamed-of second round versus the Establishment, and Melenchon saying, rather other-worldly, that the results were not yet clear). Macron had apparently been working on his speech. The extra time spent on this (which must have been in the works for days) was not apparent on delivery.
On the one hand, I love the fact that he refuses to allow his audience to whistle and boo his opponents (he tells them gently to cut it out if they do). He read out the names of all the other candidates, bar Le Pen, and the audience enthusiastically applauded. The contrast with Le Pen’s speech, where she baited her audience who replied with blood-thirsty jeers, was stark. On the other hand, Macron’s speech really only said one thing: I want to get 51% in the second round and be your President (at one point he actually said to the audience rather cringingly: “I would like to be your President”). His central philosophy, of a France that is open to the world in terms of its society, its outlook, its economy, was lacking, and whilst he talked of his optimism, he got bogged down in the need to talk about the shift in the campaign (a “new” campaign with the need to “bring everyone together” – a feelgood but meaningless statement). He is vulnerable to Le Pen’s attack from the first debate – that he talks and talks and yet says nothing. The crowd loved it though – the cult of personality still lives on.
The speech done, he left for a private dinner in a shabby-chic restaurant in the 14th, La Rotonde, surrounded by celebrities and select advisers. Champagne was poured. He perhaps needs to be reminded that he hasn’t won yet (more on that later) and Sarkozy never recovered from a similar gathering in the much smarter Fouquet’s restaurant the night he won the Presidency. The association with celebrity and money is another vulnerable sting from Le Pen that this gathering seemingly proved. It was an unnecessary and poorly judged step. He should have had a ready-meal back at Campaign HQ and worked on the agenda for the next two weeks.
Then there is the figure of Benoit Hamon. His final score of 6.5% was several points lower than even the most pessimistic opinion poll. His 2.2 million votes fell massively short of Francois Hollande’s 10.2 million in the first round in 2012. He came perilously close to causing a financial crisis within the Socialist Party (campaign expenses are not reimbursed by state coffers to candidates who score less than 5%). He was a depressing sight last night, clearly in shock at his score, stumbling over his words. He focused on a positive call to vote Macron (although he pointed to his differences with the man who is not “of the left”) and resisted the temptation to talk about his own possible role in rebuilding the Socialist Party.
Hamon did not deserve his pitiful score. He is a better politician than many give him credit, and whilst his campaign was pockmarked with poor strategic choices, wasting time dealing with Melenchon whilst his right flank deserted him, shifting ground on his one eye-catching idea of a universal income, he has perhaps a role to play in future. He is clearly a thinker within the party, if not a political strategist. The Socialists treat defeated candidates well: Segolene Royal made a successful governmental come-back and is now a big hitter. Whether Hamon wants a future as a player in the party is not clear – his personal motivations are mysterious and he himself is fiercely private. His lieutenants engaged in TV studio debates last night in the very worst of leftist in-fighting, decrying treachery of those Socialists who publicly supported Macron, claiming leftist purity tests would be the future. Hamon has no control over his former followers, who followed him out of pure opportunism, and they may well attempt to steer the party hard to the left, looking on at Melenchon as a model. What happens to the Party now is uncertain and a subject I will return to another day.
Whilst I feel uneasy this morning, it is nothing compared to the despair that many felt on the morning of 22 April 2002. The day after Jean-Marie Le Pen, an unreconstructed Facist, racist, authoritarian homophobe, made it to the second round of the Presidential election, much of France was plunged into a political abyss. We worked through the pain by doing what we do best: marching in the street loudly for much of the two week second round campaign. Whilst Marine Le Pen finesses her bigotry and ignorance, her programme is essentially inherited from her father (much as she has inherited his party and the skinheads and alt-right intellectuals that orbit around it), there is no such despair today. Not because she cannot win, but because we have simply become used to her presence in the political landscape. Keeping her in the background is now a civic duty of every voter, and Emmanuel Macron’s most important task yet.