Since leaving school, most of us have found the ability to detail the contents of our pencil case in French much less useful than we perhaps once thought.
As a result, we’re happy to take the champagne and pain au chocolat but stay ignorant about the rest of French life. So why then should we care even un peu about the upcoming French presidential election?
The first round of the 2017 election was held on Sunday 23 April. As no candidate won a majority, a run-off election between the top two candidates will be held tomorrow.
The election and, in particular, the two finalists, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche! and Marine Le Pen (formerly of the Front National), have been much covered by the British press.
At a time of Brexit negotiations, our own General Election, Labour Party turmoil, SNP belligerence, Stormont catastrophe, alleged Conservative election fraud and Trump’s tweets you would think we had enough politics on our plate without feigning an interest in the affairs of the French.
But the final contenders are worth paying attention to. Both are offering two vastly opposing propositions for France’s future with the EU; Macron is for ever greater integration while Le Pen wants to hold a referendum on the country’s membership and reinstate the Franc. Either outcome would have great implications for Britain as she seeks to untangle herself from the EU.
However, the election is most fascinating because it is yet another rejection of the so-called ‘political class’. This is the first time France’s two main parties have crashed out in the first round since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958.
While not exactly political outsiders, Macron only founded his party under a year ago and the Le Pen dynasty has sat on the periphery for the past 50 years; loathed by most for its stance on immigration and economic protectionism.
By spurning the traditional parties voters have expressed clearly that they are dissatisfied with the status quo and that change must come. While the Conservatives seem to have the British Election tied up this time round, UK politicians ought to pay attention. While there have been many calls for Westminster to take stock following the Brexit vote and consider carefully the voice of the disillusioned, little seems to have changed. A House of Commons without either a Conservative or Labour majority seems unthinkable, but so too did a Le Pen v Macron run off.
The traditionally hard-right Le Pen has, through her anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation rhetoric, notably won support from disgruntled voters on both the left and the right.
She has increasingly found support in former industrial and socialist heartlands, where its residents are expressing an objection to high levels of unemployment, to ‘this type of Europe’ and ‘this level of immigration’. The Socialist Party’s candidate Benoît Hamon came sixth in the first round with a paltry 6.2 per cent of the vote.
Voters who previously thought the Socialist Party would make their lives better are now looking to Le Pen; and she is making hay. Faced with globalists and their liberal policies, closure of public services and policies of deindustrialisation Le Pen is proudly protectionist, staunchly patriotic and determined to hold a referendum to assess the nation’s view on France’s membership of the EU.
Le Pen realises that the big cities are not for her. She has targeted ‘Forgotten France’; the countryside and former industrial areas, and evidenced that this demographic is worth remembering. Le Pen received 21.3% (7.7 million) of the first round vote. Among those in the lowest earning bracket, Le Pen was the most popular candidate (Macron was the most popular among the highest earning bracket) and 40% of 18-24 year old’s voted for her, which is no surprise when you consider there is 25% youth unemployment.
Despite Le Pen significantly sanitising the rhetoric of her father, she still comes under significant attack from French and British media for being racist, populist and extremist.
But can Le Pen be blamed for the failings of other parties to make good on their election pledges to change people’s lives for the better? Can she be faulted for, like all politicians, presenting her policies as the answers to problems faced by the electorate? Is it demagoguery and populism to have a stance on immigration which differs to other main stream parties but appeals to voters?
Accusing Marine Le Pen of being like Hitler, of being friends with Putin, of being an extremist bigot, of being a Muslim-hating rabble-rouser, regardless of it being true or not, does not address the problem.
Pollsters are now predicting a landslide victory in the second round for Macon, as a coalition of necessity is formed to ‘keep Marine out’.
Such a victory will not be, regardless of how it will be hailed by the press, a liberal triumph in the war against populism.
Whether Le Pen becomes the next president of France or not, the feeling that the EU, that globalisation and deindustrialisation are not the solution, but in fact the problem, will remain. One French election will not snuff out the feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction that is ever increasing in western democracies.
Whether it be the Trump supporting rustbelt of the US, the Brexit-voting towns in the north of England, the liberal-tired Geert Wilders voters in Holland or Forgotten France, there are sections of societies that are not satisfied and want change. The media’s labelling of these groups as racist and extremist will not keep them at bay.
Le Pen has made the last two weeks of the campaign a ‘clash of civilisations’ between the winners and losers of globalisation, between the ‘elites’ supporting Macron and ‘patriots’ supporting her. To remedy France’s current cycle of low growth, high unemployment and rising debt Macron has pledged to increase even further France’s links with the EU. If he wins, he will have to quickly demonstrate how this will help the unemployed, the disillusioned and the marginalised in Forgotten France or the Front National will have but one more case study for the next election.
As Brits, we should care about this election because, yes, the winner will have a huge impact on our Brexit negotiations, but also because it has presented yet another example of voters disillusioned with current globalisation and immigration policy. The most important political division is no longer between left and right — but between nationalist and internationalist. Solutions that address unemployment and social incohesion need to found. It is not enough to tell the dissatisfied demographic to get with the liberal programme.