The first round of elections in France outline a political landscape of extremes | International

Election posters of Marine Le Pen that have been torn, this Saturday in Paris.
Election posters of Marine Le Pen that have been torn, this Saturday in Paris.JOEL SAGET (AFP)

It could seem like a script for that gloomy future that Michel Houellebecq likes to draw so much in his novels. The first round of the presidential elections on Sunday have confirmed, and even sentenced, the decomposition, which began in 2017, of the traditional parties that have been the backbone of France in recent decades. An increasingly radicalized political landscape remains at the extremes, with a center option as the only porous alternative. His future is also uncertain, at the latest from 2027, when Emmanuel Macron, whose figure has engulfed the moderate left and right, can no longer continue to run for power, since the Constitution only allows one consecutive re-election. All this with a lack of braking mechanisms in the face of new (and according to many analysts, almost certain) social conflicts, after the accelerated disappearance of intermediaries such as the unions, which, in the last five years, have lost a good part of their power.

Paradoxically, those who celebrated the electoral results the most on Sunday night were the militants of France Insumisa, whose leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has been eliminated, and those of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, whom most of the polls show as a loser again in a second round, although in a much less pronounced (and, therefore, less certain) way than five years ago.

It is understandable jubilation: since Sunday, both on the left and on the right of the macronismalmost only scorched earth remains before reaching the ends of melenchonists Y lepenists, after the almost irrelevant votes obtained by the Socialist Party (1.7%), the Greens (4.6%) or the Communists (2.28%), but also by the Republicans (4.7%). Such low figures endanger their parties, since the State only returns campaign expenses to candidates who obtain more than 5% of the vote. Both the conservative Valérie Pécresse and the environmentalist Yannick Jadot launched an urgent cry for help on Monday asking for donations with which to cover expenses that, in the case of the conservatives, amount to seven million euros. The prospect of ruin is not an empty threat.

One third ultra vote

Five years after the first great defeat of the French socialists who came to govern, “we are talking about the complete disappearance of the left of government”, warns the political scientist Dominique Reynié. “Only small pieces remain. There is only one protestant left, that of Mélenchon”, explains the director of the Fondapol think tank. Similar landscape is drawn on the right. “Now only the extreme right remains. When the votes of Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour and Nicolas Dupont-Aignan are added, we arrive at a third of the French vote. It is something completely unprecedented. It had never happened, in 2017 we were at 27% ”, he points out in an interview in his office in Paris with European correspondents.

But Reynié goes further in his calculations: “If we add the total number of anti-system or protesting voices, [los trotskistas] Nathalie Artaud and Philippe Poutou, Mélenchon, and [los ultras] Le Pen, Zemmour and Dupont-Aignan, we reached 55% of the votes”. In 2017, remember, they were 48%, it was already high. And if you count not only those who actually turned out to vote on Sunday, but all the French registered to do so – that is, including the other almost record for this first round, 26.3% abstention, the second highest figure since 1965—, the sum continues to rise: “We reached two thirds of French people who no longer recognize themselves in the moderate parties, among which I even include the Communist Party.” It’s “spectacular,” he says in a worried voice. What consequences could it have in the second round? And in the legislative? And for the next five years? “We entered unknown territory,” admits Reynié.

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This political uncertainty has as a backdrop a tense social environment after Macron’s first term marked by crises: social ones such as that of the yellow vests and long strikes, like the one that led him to withdraw his retirement reform (which he is now bringing back); the coronavirus health crisis and the anti-vaccine protests. And now the Ukraine war.

Since 2019, Fundapol has carried out six studies on populist risk in France. With a special focus on the yellow vests which, Reynié warns, are far from being a thing of the past. “We never measured as much sympathy for them as in March 2022. 49% sympathy in the last study!”, She highlights. Their reports also confirm what other surveys have been pointing out for a long time: among young people, who this Sunday voted mostly for Mélenchon (34.5% among voters aged 18 to 34) and Le Pen (the most voted by voters aged 25 to 49 years), “support for yellow vests, anti-vaccines and anti-health passports is very high”. Up to 66% among voters aged 18 to 24, he points out.

These data show “a kind of social unrest behind this vote that, of course, will not end in two weeks when the winner of the election is designated,” he warns. And this brings about another problem in a political landscape where not only moderate parties seem erased from the map, but also unions and other possible social mediators in times of tension. “If there are no longer any parties or unions and you want a political solution to your social protest, you have to present a candidate. Marine Le Pen, today, represents the political solution in which the yellow vests, the anti-vaccines and the anti-health passport had not thought. How is this boiling society, which has been left without intermediary agents, not going to use presidential elections to express its protest? And how can a moderate candidate get in there?

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