Will Macron’s Centrism Defeat France’s Growing Right Wing?

On Sunday, French voters chose the incumbent President, Emmanuel Macron, and his far-right challenger, Marine Le Pen, as the two candidates who will compete in a runoff on April 24th. Macron captured nearly twenty-eight per cent of the vote; Le Pen managed to win twenty-three per cent. They were followed by the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won a surprising twenty-two per cent, and the television personality and writer Éric Zemmour, who ran to Le Pen’s right and briefly rose in the polls before finishing at seven per cent. Perhaps the most shocking results were the drubbings given to the mainstream center-right and center-left parties, which won 4.8 per cent and 1.8 per cent of the vote, respectively. The race was marked by increasingly dire rhetoric about crime, Islam, and immigration. Multiple candidates or their advisers warned of a “great replacement,” referring to a racist conspiracy theory that France is being strategically overrun by nonwhite immigrants. Polls show Macron with a small lead in the runoff, but the race appears much closer than it was in 2017, when he defeated Le Pen by more than thirty percentage points.

I discussed the election and the state of French politics with Arthur Goldhammer, an affiliate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the translator of more than a hundred books from French into English. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why Le Pen’s current campaign has been more successful than her last, the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in France, and Macron’s political legacy.

[Support The New Yorker’s award-winning journalism. Subscribe today »]

This election is being talked about as a nail in the coffin of the center-right and center-left in France, and its replacement by candidates on the extreme ends and what has been dubbed the “radical centrism” of Macron. Do you think that this has essentially been Macron’s plan all along—to become the alternative to the extremes in France? Or is this where he’s ended up after five years?

I think he’s exploited a situation that even preëxisted him. It was always convenient, going back to the time of François Mitterrand, who was President from 1981 to 1995—he arranged for the candidate of the far right to take votes from his opponents in the mainstream center-right party. Now the mainstream center-right party has vanished, but that doesn’t mean that the center has vanished—Macron now thoroughly occupies the center. And it doesn’t mean that the left has vanished. The unexpectedly strong vote for Mélenchon shows that there is a hunger for a left alternative, but it can’t really find a candidate to coalesce around.

And the vote for Mélenchon was largely a strategic vote. His real solid base, I think, is only about eight or nine per cent, but in the end he got over twenty per cent because you had a lot of disgruntled Socialists who thought if they wanted to have any kind of left-wing alternative, or the possibility of reaching the second round, they had to vote for Mélenchon. That would’ve given them, if he had made it, at least a debate between someone on the left and Macron. So, while the parties are certainly in disarray, the strength of the historically mainstream parties—the Socialists and Les Républicains—does continue to exist at the subnational level, and they remain concentrated in the center. And that’s the way it’s been for a long time.

Do you have a sense of why Le Pen took off in a way Zemmour did not? Her appeal seems to be to a more working-class right-wing electorate than his. But for a long time it seemed like they would maybe steal each other’s votes, or he would rise and she would fall. And instead she beat him by more than three to one.

Well, I think two things account for her strength. The first is something not of her own doing but of Vladimir Putin’s doing. The invasion of Ukraine discredited Zemmour, who was an outspoken supporter of Putin—and who refused to back off of that position even when it became clear that Russia was going to go through with its threat to invade and then commit atrocities. Le Pen has also been associated with Putin in the past, and was photographed with him in Moscow, and made favorable statements about him, and said that her preferred foreign policy is to be equidistant between Russia and the United States. But she also was quick to condemn the invasion and to welcome Ukrainian refugees to France, in spite of her general opposition to immigrants and refugees from other countries. Zemmour did not do that. And when he did not do that he began to fall back in the polls.

The other thing is that Le Pen has worked hard to soften her image, and Zemmour provided a convenient contrast: someone even more xenophobic and racist and hostile to Islam than she is. And someone harping on the three “I”s: immigration, insecurity, and identity, all of which had been signature issues of the Le Pen family. He was so radical that he made her seem more moderate, and therefore abetted her long-term strategy to de-demonize herself, as the French like to say.

My sense is also that it wasn’t just that he was going further on things like immigration and Islam but that she was more willing to talk about economic issues in this campaign than she had been in 2017. Is that accurate?

I would correct you on one point. In 2017, she did talk about economic issues, but essentially in terms of withdrawing from the E.U., reëstablishing protectionism, and dumping the euro. Those were not popular issues. This year, she talked about purchasing power, and the cost of living. And that did strike a vein—particularly, again, in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, when France suffered a spike in energy prices even more extreme than we’ve seen in America, which hit ordinary automobilists in the pocketbook. That issue began to gain even more traction.

So her discussion of economics this year was much more down to earth and relatable than the threat of Frexit that she raised in 2017, which was, first of all, abstract, and, second of all, not really her own issue. In my assessment, it was something that was sold to her by her then top adviser, Florian Philippot, who has since left the Party to form his own. And she didn’t really understand the complexities of the position as he had developed it. So, in particular, she couldn’t defend it effectively in the debate with Macron, and that’s what made her look so bad in that debate, leading to her humiliation and sound defeat in 2017.

And my sense is Zemmour never really caught on with working-class conservative voters. Is that accurate?

He had the bourgeois conservative voters and the more affluent and more religious conservative voters. So, for example, that’s why Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, supported Zemmour rather than her aunt, even though her aunt had helped raise her in her childhood.

Tragic betrayal. I want to take a step back here. From a distance, France seems like a country with a pretty high standard of living. It’s weathered the pandemic fairly well. France is generally considered a nice place to live. And yet every time I checked in on this campaign the tone of it seemed to be near-apocalyptic—about immigration, about crime, about Islam, about issues of secularism and how much they were under threat. I don’t want to underplay the real problems France has, but I don’t totally understand why in 2022 the tone of this campaign took this turn. Do you have some sense of why?

It’s a very good question. I think the French have a tendency to hate all of their leaders more than is warranted. Macron, in particular, comes in for more hatred than he deserves. But I think a lot of voters on the left felt betrayed. Many were willing to accept his proposition in 2017 that he was neither the right nor the left, and were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And then when he came into power he brought many right-wingers into his government. The measures he enacted, such as abolition of the wealth tax and also labor-market reform, were generally seen as measures that could have been enacted by, say, Alain Juppé, a center-right leader who lost the primary in 2017. So there was this sense of betrayal. But it goes far beyond, to my mind, anything that can be justified by what Macron actually did. He was vilified by Zemmour, by Le Pen, by Mélenchon, all of whom painted him in the blackest of terms. Still, it’s hard to understand why people accept these characterizations of someone who, for all his neoliberalism, remains fairly moderate—a radical centrist, as you put it earlier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *