Independent candidate Emmanuel Macron and Front National leader Marine Le Pen have won first and second places in the “premier tour”, the first round of the French presidential elections, in a tighter contest than had been expected until a few days ago. Macron gained around 23.2% of the vote, with Le Pen on 21.7%. Republican Party (centre-right) candidate Francois Fillon and left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon were equal third, on 19.5%. Socialist Party candidate Benoit Hamon did even worse than expected, gaining only 6.5%, only a point or so above the best of the minor half-dozen candidates.
The result was a bonus for Macron and a setback for Le Pen, who had hoped to come first in the first round and thus be, however tenuously, the candidate presumptive. But the greatest loser was Francois Fillon, who, until, a few months ago, was seen as being unchallengeable. Charismatic and forceful, Fillon had promised to reform France’s rigid institutions, public spending etc, and presented himself as the non-crony candidate, an image destroyed by revelations that his wife and other relatives had been on the payroll. Appearing on France 2 television to concede, he found it difficult to hide his bitterness — at events, and being French, being itself I guess, la nature viscous de l’existence. Or, in English terms, shit sticks.
For many others, Fillon’s defeat was a profound relief, for Macron is a candidate that most can get behind. Hitherto on the centre-right of the Socialist Party, Macron had departed as the party went left, with the choice of Benoit Hamon, and after a period of hesitation had formed the En Marche movement, assembled online, rapidly gaining 250,000 adherents, which were then mobilised on the ground. It is pro-European, but also in favour of the general form of the French “settlement” of state enterprise, strong labour protection, etc, Macron is, in domestic terms at least, a Tony Blair-type figure in that he offers to work by consensus, and no one trusts him.
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Fillon has nevertheless endorsed a vote for Macron, and so has Hamon, though no one gives a damn. The endorsements mean that Le Pen has very much reduced chance of winning the second round election in two weeks.
Jean Luc Melenchon has, conspicuously, failed to endorse Macron. Speaking at the party of his support group, FI, France Insoumise (France Unsubmissive — but the letters also suggest Fourth International), held at a bar called Belushi’s near the Gare du Nord at the hip end of Paris, Melenchon had initially said he was not accepting the declared result, based as they were on voting projections, which did not include some of the larger cities.
But with 90% in, the vote hadn’t shifted, and at ten in a room divided evenly between people ecstatic to have hit near 20% vote for a genuinely, fully socialist candidate, and those devastated that they hadn’t cracked it for the runoff, Melenchon made a speech in which he conspicuously omitted to endorse Macron. Noting that none of his voters had given him instructions on where to throw their vote, he as not going to break that trust. By that Melenchon doesnt mean a vote for Le Pen is acceptable — he meant that the choice was between Macron and abstention.
For many of Melenchon’s supporters, Macron is simply Fillon-lite, a social neoliberal who thinks France needs far more structural change than many people want, in the country’s ultimate “best interests”. Had the self-proclaimed “Thatcherite” Fillon triumphed, the left would have unquestionably abstained in large numbers, giving Le Pen a chance at victory. Melenchon will use a refusal of endorsement for leverage on Macron, to some degree, but more importantly to avoid a split in a left movement that broke through the 17% ceiling many had imposed on it.
Macron will most likely be president in two weeks time. But it won’t solve the problem: that half the population voted for candidates from left and right who want France out of the EU, and reconstituted on national lines, and the next five years will make them more not less convinced of that path. For the moment, it’s a fortnight in which two very different ideas of what France could be will be offered to a France that has two very different ideas of what it is now. Turnout was 69.42%. A soixante-neuf and the meaning of life. How much more French can you get?