French election in context

If anyone is missing the days when election controversy dominated our news, they should set their sights on Europe for more nation-dividing, temper-flaring, confidence-in-political-systems-destroying election drama.

On April 4 2022, Emmanuel Macron won his second consecutive term as President of France. This was the first time an incumbent has been reelected president in French history and Macron did so by defeating Marie Le Pen, the same controversial figure he faced in 2017. Same opponents, same result, so what’s the big deal? Macron may have come out on top again, but five years has done a number on the reputation of both France’s president and its politics. 

Macron entered the political world in 2012 as an outsider after working as an investment banker. He served as a senior advisor to left wing president François Hollande, giving the impression he was a leftist himself, but ran under a party of his own formation in 2017, which claimed to be centrist with a pro-Europe stance. 

That year, he was the answer to the bogeyman that was Marie Le Pen, an infamous figure of racism, xenophobia, and even fascism within France. Her goals to slow immigration and remove France from the European Union shocked many. The blank slate of Macron rallied voters to “faire barrage” meaning to “stand in the way” against a right wing flood that could weaken democracy in France. According to a native French student studying in Lyon who shared their opinion with me, there was little choice: “It’s him or chaos” was the general consensus in their perception. Macron’s call for moderation over extremism ended with him stomping Le Pen at the polls, claiming a massive 66.1 percent to 33.9 percent victory. 

Taking the reins in France, Macron proved to be a steady hand in times of crises. He strengthened ties within the European Union, which praised his election victory. He handled the COVID-19 pandemic with swift and strong measures and has put up a strong front against Russia from the start of their invasion of Ukraine, while providing Ukraine with weapons. But when it comes to regular governance, Macron has faltered. “Macron is amazing during crises,” said my correspondent in Lyon, “But during peacetime he was catastrophic.” Macron’s policies have leaned more right than left within the French political spectrum during his term, leading some citizens to feel they had been duped into voting for him. Displeasure with his leadership was shown in 2018 when citizens took to the streets to decry economic inequality under his administration as a part of series of Yellow Vest Protests. Citizens donned high-visibility vests and blocked roads, sometimes developing into ugly clashes with police.

Macron has garnered plain hatred due to popular perceptions of him as both elitist and aloof. Small statements from the president have been received as insults towards the working class, as he once described a train station as a place “where one encounters people who are succeeding and people who are nothing,” or when he told an unemployed citizen: “You’re searching for a job? Just cross the street and you’ll find one,” as reported by the New York Times.

Le Pen’s public image has changed as well since 2017. She softened some of her stronger stances in a bid to appeal to more voters outside of the extreme right. The shift may not have been enough to win her the election in 2022, but coupled with strong hatred towards Macron it meant a less decisive victory margin of 7 percent compared to the 32.2 percent in 2017. While this margin is still uncommonly high in France, the victory was further dampened by the lowest voter turnout for a French presidential election since 1969, suggesting the population is less willing to get behind Macron in order to oppose Le Pen. 

Much of the frustration surrounding the election has been felt by the French youth whose concerns have seemingly fallen on deaf ears. While Macron was the youngest elected president in France’s history, his decisions have been targeted at the old in France, who represent a larger voting block. This election cycle, talk has centered around issues of the old like retirement ages with less attention paid towards problems like unemployment or environmental policy which affect younger citizens. “It’s cool to care for the end of our lives, but can you care for the beginning? Like our educational systems for example?” my friend in Lyon went on to say.

This lack of consideration for the youth has led to more protests, the biggest of which saw students barricade the main building of the University of Sorbonne in Paris for over a week, blocking classes in a stand against the election between two right wing finalists. Students made similar demonstrations across the country, sending a message directly to Macron that their concerns should be his concerns during his second term. “Look at what we can do,” my correspondent in Lyon concluded, “Look at the mess we can make and if you don’t do anything for us we will continue to make a mess because we have the power to do so.” 

 

rogers16@stolaf.edu

Sean Rogers is from 

Osceola, Wis.

His major is biology.

 

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