History Shudders, but Paris Shrugs (4/24)     Print Email

WalterNicklen2015By Walter Nicklin, Paris

Cool and sunny.  That’s the weather in Paris the morning after the first round of the Presidential elections.  That also seems to capture the mood: cool and sunny.  Among the normal crowds along the Seine as well as the outer arrondissements, there is no sense of “morning-after” shock, as had been the post-Presidential-election case in the United States last November.   For unlike in the U.S., the national polls pretty much predicted what would happen. 

With ballots still being counted, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen were the clear winners in a crowded field of 11 Presidential candidates.

Similar to Donald Trump’s electoral roadmap, Le Pen, 48, did well in rural areas plus those more urbanized places, like France’s “rustbelt” north, with high unemployment and low wages.  Never before had the National Front of Le Pen or her father achieved more than 18% of the vote.  Her pledges to stop immigration and renegotiate France’s relationship with the open-bordered European Union resonated in a nation where terror attacks can now seem almost commonplace.

While Le Pen exploited fear, Macron successfully played to hopes that “establishment” solutions offer the best way forward. Indeed, En Marche! – “Forward!” – has become the brand of the Marcon movement.  Like Hillary Clinton,  Macron dominated in economically dynamic areas and large cities, such as Paris and Bordeaux, where his pro-business and socially progressive platform attracted educated, well-off voters.

In his ability -- without the benefit of any established political party -- to unite diverse factions searching for stability, Macron, 39, is sometimes compared to a youthful Charles De Gaulle, whose election in 1958 led to the creation of the Fifth Republic.  

In the rejection of France’s traditional, competing mainstream parties – known as the clivage gauche-droite -- Sunday’s election means that neither the Republican nor Socialist party will claim the Presidency.  It’s the first time this will have happened since 1981. And it is the very first time in the Fifth Republic’s nearly 60-year history that two outsider candidates will be on the final ballot.

Sorbonne students with whom I shared morning-after coffee at a Boulevard Saint Michel sidewalk café expressed disappointment not to have their preferred candidate,  Jean-Luc  Mélenchon, as a possible winner in the May 7 runoff election.  Disappointed but resigned, they did not share the shocked, despairing reaction, however, of their liberal soulmates at colleges on the other side of the Atlantic upon learning that Donald Trump would be their new President. Here seemed neither the need for suicide hotlines as at some American colleges in the wake of Clinton’s defeat nor desire for angry protests as their Sorbonne predecessors had done in the spring of 1968.  

But if Marine Le Pen is actually elected two weeks from now, that might be a different matter! 

So far Mélenchon has yet to endorse Marcon in the final match-up.  Moreover, some of his most passionate supporters – who share Le Pen’s anti-elitist sentiment toward the European Union – indicated to reporters at his campaign headquarters that they will simply sit out the second round of voting. 

On the other hand, both François Fillon and Benoît Hamon have both told their supporters they must now cast for their votes for Marcon in order to stop Le Pen:  “There is no other choice,” in the words of Fillon.  Or in similar words from Hamon, Le Pen would be “disastrous” and “take France backwards.”

Fillon and Hamon’s endorsements of the centrist Marcon make manifest the motivating premise behind the two-tiered voting system of De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic: precisely to prevent an extremist candidate like Le Pen from achieving power.  Financial markets on Monday reacted accordingly, as both the Euro and France’s main stock exchange, the CAC, surged.

In the context of Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum, French citizens seem well aware that their election choices have consequences far beyond their own national borders.  This is only fitting, right and proper – any man on the street will tell you -- given France’s place in the birth of the Enlightenment and the development of the European idea. 

So theirs is now a starkly existential choice on May 7: between hope and fear, between populism and progressivism, to embrace or dismantle Europe’s “administrative state.”  But except for some overflowing trash bins at voting precincts of unused ballots from the day before, evidence of this momentous decision is hard to find today on the streets of Paris, where life goes on as always.  Still, change is in the forecast – in the form of rain.  It is much needed, not only to wash away the pollen for the city’s allergy suffers but to alleviate dry conditions in much of the rest of the country this spring.

A veteran editor and publisher, Nicklin has written for The Economist and Washington Post, among other publications, and served as the founding editor of the European Union’s “Europe” magazine.