French President Macron re-elected in a disappointing campaign
Further notes on the failures of French politics
Two weeks back, after the first round of the presidential elections, I wrote some thoughts on the collapse of the fifth French Republic, made obvious even for incurious people by the collapse of the parties that gave that regime its legitimacy, by connecting the people & the state. I contemplated writing on Mme. Marine Le Pen, who challenged M. Macron in 2017 & again now in 2022, but the little one might want to say was said better by the witty Anne-Elizabeth Moutet. The three-hour debate between these two sorry options for the French presidency—which is not intended to imply other countries have better options for elections—was also not obviously a worthy subject of conversation; it was TV…
Yesterday, the French nation re-elected their president, for the first time since 2002, which, incidentally, was the first time a Le Pen ended up in the second round of the vote, despite the intentions of the French elites. The Le Pen family is somehow tied up with the death of the republic, not because they caused it in any way, but because decadence gave them a certain glamour as anti-elite politicians; the embodiment, if you will, of the ugly truths on which the nation is choking for lack of the seriousness & intelligence needed to deal with them.
Since this republic is dead, we may as well look at the silly numbers games politicians play in order to pretend that they have democracy on their side. In 2017, M. Macron was elected president in the second round with ~20,7 million votes against Mme. Le Pen’s ~10,6m. The turnout was 74.6% of registered voters, down from 77.77% in the first round. So in one sense, M. Macron won 66.1% of the vote, against 33.9%. Much worse than M. Chirac’s 2002 victory against M. Le Pen, which was ~80-20%, but a handsome victory nevertheless, reassuring all respectable people—the institutions of France remain untouchable. In another sense, however, the majority he won in 2017 is fake, an artifact of numbers games. After all, a quarter of the registered electorate didn’t even bother to vote, so he in fact only won ~43.6% of registered voters. Of course, the ~48m registered voters in turn stand for the population of France, which as a whole is in fact much larger, at ~67m. That includes kids, who cannot vote, & others, who may be excluded from democratic judgment—still, the numbers are worth keeping in mind, since popular opinion matters a great deal in a democracy & it cannot so easily exclude those who do not vote; I believe the French people believe they have a democratic way of life, not that their republic has much to do with it anymore…
Now, in every way, 2022 was a worse year for M. Macron & everything he represents. To begin with, turnout dropped to 73.69% in the first round & 71.99% in the second, the lowest number in 50 years. Further, M. Macron did significantly worse, only winning ~18,7m votes to Mme. Le Pen’s ~13,2m, or 58.5% to 41.5%. Given the lower turnout, this time M. Macron’s majority only means 38.52% of the registered voters. Disappointment follows on disappointment everywhere one looks—the youthful president, only 44 now, was primarily the choice of the oldest Frenchmen, the retirees, in short. A sad, shabby state of affairs, but I hold out some hope that these old Frenchmen & women are facing it with some kind of strength, even if it’s only endurance. Old citizens are the most reliable vote in any democracy, one of the truths we daren’t face about the problems with our systems of “universal voting,” but they have nothing to do with the empty promises of future developments in technology, energy, & the economy which are supposed to make M. Macron seem competent, confident, in control. M. Macron is without a doubt the politician of the rich & the prestigious in France, but the youth prefers radical alternatives—M. Melenchon on the left, who is equal parts silly & mad, & whoever will succeed Mme. Le Pen on the right.
In 2027, M. Macron will be out of office, indeed, it is expected, out of politics, because of term limits; nobody expects him to achieve much until then; he has pretended to create a party, christened with typical French pomposity “La Republic en Marche!” & the people have pretended to believe in it, so that it has a majority in the French legislature. Elections for that legislature, also in two rounds, are coming up this June, & they are not expected to give anyone hope or to show the decisive preferences of the French electorate with regard to any of the important political problems facing the country, not even whether the country is going left or right… The expectation, as with these presidential elections, is paralysis, for those who are shocked to see what has come of France; or continuity, for those who think things are going swell.
France has neither leaders now, nor political debates—this is the impressive achievement of M. Macron, making politics almost unimaginable in a country that is nevertheless not content with its institutional arrangement. An unhappy order prevails, since it is very difficult to see alternatives & impossible to persuade anyone that looking to the country’s great past will provide the necessary education & even the inspiration that could lead people to believe they act on their disappointments & make something better of the state, the gov’t, & the various electoral institutions. France has, in short, no political parties worth the name now, nor any great ideas about how to form parties, a problem that goes back to World War II. To speak very briefly, the cause of this problem is the fact that the French legislature is a joke, without constitutional legislative powers & without any ability to attract intelligent men of public spirit or the kinds of competent advisers & assistants required to acquire the political knowledge on which legislation depends. That is all the job of the executive & with M. Macron, the way the executive bribes people of ambition into a disloyal obedience has been brought into the open for all to see.
I’ll close with some remarks about names in politics. French parties of the now-defunct fifth republic keep changing their names, especially on the right, showing how little consistency can be expected of them.1 On the one hand, the problem is that ambitious politicians, however venal, are fractious, nobody really believes they’re doing anything with a view to the long term—it would be worse than laughable to bring up words like honor; on the other, the problem is that ideas in the 20th c. were widely associated with intellectuals, with the spectacle of debate in publications, making it impossible to connect the political elite to the people. So parties have been vehicles for electing impressive politicians without ever adopting the principles which may be said to be implied in the campaigns, rhetoric, & policies of those presidents. Electoral victories were held to prove nothing about political association; they were held to prove everything about how supporters can be used to achieve a personal victory. Partly, the problem is that the French state is assumed to be competent & in control, leaving politicians merely confidence—or conning the population, or audience… Or if you will, it is held that only an unusually great man can control that state. Partly, the problem is elsewhere: Politicians speak to the people without being able to say quite what are the forms of this address. The French legislature is called the National Assembly, which shows you the problem. France is a nation, surely, perhaps the first nation, but it is not politically a nation. We may say it was a nation politically under de Gaulle, but not before, nor since.
M. Macron talks about “the republic on the march,” a phrase intended to hjiack Gaullist names for the political intentions of the fifth republic which failed & became slogans. M. Macron must mean a death march—the march to national dissolution into the EU. The “republic” as understood by the elite which supports M. Macron is a vehicle for silencing popular dissent, persecuting those who believe France matters to the French, & proving to everyone that it’s in their best interests to not care about politics, certainly not to get involved in any way. It’s not merely an oligarchic republic, it’s anti-republican, anti-democratic, of course, & anti-political ultimately. It aims to identify M. Macron’s party with the state & with the EU.
For there to be a legislature in France, it would indeed have to be something of an assembly of the nation & therefore the elections to that legislature would have to be understood as debates & decisions regarding the French nation; if you will, the ongoing education of democracy—everyone gets to vote—in political affairs: Voting is for the good of France, the nation: The various parties & their various ideas are attempts to achieve that good. But it would go against every prejudice of French intellectuals & bureaucrats, i.e. the very elite that makes oligarchy both inevitable & hated, to have a legislature & a nation on whose behalf men legislate. On the other hand, we have no choice but to say that de Gaulle was right, only a president can found a legislature in France. He didn’t do it, but then he was very limited by the crises he inherited…
The Socialist Party is a post-68 creation—it collapsed in 2017, short of 50 years, is now a mere legal formality.
The also-collapsed Republicans, on the right, are the ~2015 version of the UMP (“Union for a popular movement”—an even emptier pomposity than Macron’s), itself the 2002 version of older versions of the political supporters of de Gaulle; Chirac’s previous Gaullist vehicle, from 1976, had been called “Rally for the Republic.” All this goes back to the de Gaulle’s forming of the “Rally of the French People” party in 1947…
Mme. Le Pen redubbed her father’s party National Rally, also appealing to the Gaullist memory, still the only source of respectability in French politics.
Other parties have their own funny, pretentious names, some more telling than others. The party currently promoting egalitarian ideology, post-Marxist, largely tied up with students & Muslim immigration, is called La France insoumise (that is, refusing subjection, presumably to capitalism), of which all one can say has been said in the M. Houellebecq novel Soumision.
The new party of M. Zemmour is called Reconquête, alluding to the Spanish reconquest of their peninsula from Islam, although it is hard to say whether the party is more anti-Muslim immigration or anti-elite, the source of that problem.