No sooner had the election officers finished counting most of the ballots of the penultimate vote, when one of the two remaining contenders attempted to drop a bombshell. Marine Le Pen ‘temporarily’ stood down from the leadership of FN. Her reasoning was that she intends to fight the second round of the presidential election free from partisanship. That is either a self-deluded or cynical explanation. The electorate know both who and what she is and what the word ‘temporary’ means. Immediate polls following the first round placed Macron on 63%, Le Pen on 37% in a poll of 145 polls, none of which puts Le Pen anywhere near her rival or ahead of him and leaders of declared parties recommending supporting Macron across the board. Macron and his team went to a fashionable but quite downmarket restaurant in Paris for dinner. So, one candidate was vying for attention, the other relaxing.
Campaigning and anti-campaigning have been, to say the least, more interesting than usual. After the first round, there was a lull. Jean-Luc Mélenchon refused to declare for several days, when he did his La France insoumise movement had started a campaign of ‘Ni Le Pen, ni Macron’ (neither Le Pen nor Macron) and an online poll of 240,000 of roughly 440,000 members of the movement broadly rejected support for either candidate in the runoff election. About 34.83% supported a vote for Macron, whereas calls for a blank vote received 36.12% and abstention, 29.05%. FI was claiming that a vote for Macron’s opponent Le Pen in the runoff was not an option in the vote therefore none of the three questions referred to her or anything indicating changing their votes to her. So it was hardly a scientific, weighted poll yet was picked up by media and opened up a new debate of the value of the blank vote, vote blanc, being a vote for Le Pen in essence.
Slugging it out at the end of the last round with blows below the belt
The one on one, two and a half hour television debate the Wednesday before the vote was mainly a display of careless footwork by Le Pen, more measured by Macron but far more jabs below the belt as they hurled insults at each other. She appeared the least able to provide policies and answers despite a sizeable pile of colour sheets of papers in front of her that she constantly read from. He had nothing on paper, answered questions, countered attacks and responded on the policy matters to the extent that where he has policy gaps he admitted that and said that he had not got as far as such issues as the environment and education in his campaign preparations, but that Le Pen simply did not respond to those questions, avoiding showing any FN policy whatsoever.
The televised debate
Le Pen made one significant and remarkable error. She held up one sheet of paper that was a print out of allegations connecting Macron with offshore finance in the Bahamas. As it was, the allegations were already out in the open whereby it was already proven to be a fake including a forged signature anything but like his, a company that does not do precisely what has been alleged and also its source had been traced. It was faked by a right-wing group in California, not the Russians immediately accused, but to which some kind of FN connection is suspected to exist. Macron registered a complaint of defamation with the prosecutors, Le Pen claimed she did not defame him but simply wanted an answer as to whether he had connections or not, which he said he did not and that the document is forged. Her greater mistake was pushing further for a response then making a lack of the words she wanted to hear into some kind of evidence. At first, it looked like a score in her favour but the press turned that sour for her next morning. No media bar the extreme right wished to associate itself with that well below the belt punch.
Where I live is traditionally left wing. Although overall Macron carried the first round of the elections, Mélenchon was very close behind, winning some electoral cantons convincingly. There are a few islands of FN support in poorer communes, at least mayors are known to support Le Pen, but they did badly. At first people were supporting Mélenchon’s vote blanc demand, but three days before the election there are placards saying ‘pas de vote Le Pen’ (no votes for Le Pen) or using similar paroles, showing that perhaps abstention and blank votes is no longer absolutely supported because of the risk of putting her in office unintentionally.
Dirty fighting before the final punches
On the Friday evening before the election En Marche! made a statement about the posting of a massive email leak that ‘clearly amounts to democratic destabilisation as was seen in the USA’. With less than 48 hours until the runoff vote, around nine gigabytes of data was posted by a user called EMLEAKS on the document-sharing site Pastebin that allows anonymous posting. It was, as intended of course, not immediately clear who was responsible. Data consisted of ‘diverse documents such as emails, accounting documents and contracts’ hacked a few weeks ago from personal and professional accounts of some En Marche! personnel. They stated ‘many false documents’ had been added to genuine stolen documents on social media “in order to sow doubt and disinformation” as part of an operation to discredit Macron and that “clearly intended to harm the movement”. The genuine documents were apparently all legitimate and “reflected the normal functioning of an election campaign”, thus their publication “does not alarm us as to the prospect of any questions being raised about their legality”. The cache of data contained several tens of thousands of emails, photographs and attachments up to 24 April. Whoever was responsible was attempting to get in at the very last moment before rules prohibiting any remarks liable to influence an election that came into effect at midnight local time on Friday and will remain in place until all polling stations have closed on Sunday could come into effect, therefore the last pre-election ‘news’.
Scoring the final points at the end of the fight and the victory
The final poll of polls from 151 polls showed Macron on 61.8% and Le Pen 38.3%, the 0.1% being a small margin of error toward either candidate. Early on Monday morning, the Interior Ministry was declaring to be 66.06% to 33.94% with some results still to go in. The turnout, however, was the lowest in 40 years. Despite losing, this was a historical high point for the French right, thus Le Pen said she was the leader of the biggest opposition force in France and vowed to rename and radically revamp her party in her declaration speech. The results will be officially proclaimed by the constitutional council on11 May, 14 May, is the end of Hollande’s term in office and the latest permissible date for the inauguration and transfer of power to Macron.
Macron will now be charged with taking France out of an economic and social crisis that has left the country so divided and downcast that millions of voters turned to the political extremes instead of the parties that have held power for all of living memory for the majority of people. Whether or not he can turn the country round depended not only on winning but doing so with an overwhelming mandate. This is the case with two-thirds of the vote. Macron, who has never held an elected post, has promised change, an end to corruption and misuse of powers in political life and a more optimistic future. He now has to deliver fast with no formal political party behind him; En Marche! has never fielded any candidates in local or national elections, which is at least a clean slate.
Macron has been accused of being Hollande Mk 2 so will need to act fast between now and the June legislative elections if he has any chance of securing a majority of seats in the national assembly. Should he not achieve that, there is a risk that France will be politically paralysed thus making the two-round general election as important as the presidential vote. There are already pundits predicting the electorate may deliberately vote in such a way as to block Macron, as it probably would have had Le Pen won. The French constitution gives the president the role of a supreme political leader who then chooses a prime minister, who in turn recommends government ministers, all normally members of the president’s party. If Macron is able to achieve an outright majority from a starting point of no seats in the assembly he will be able to enact policies in line with his manifesto which are Europe-friendly and economically liberal. On the other hand, should he be confronted with a hostile majority and has to appoint a prime minister from outside his party, he faces a period of what is known as ‘cohabitation’, which means he will accomplish little up against constant opposition. The third possibility is that En Marche! could gain the biggest group of MPs, although no majority, thus giving the Macron government only limited room to manoeuvre but not entirely blocked. Now all eyes must turn to the legislative elections on 11 and 18 June to elect the 577 members of the 15th National Assembly of the French Fifth Republic. Thus far it looks like an uphill battle but given that so recently people knew so little about Macron, indeed many had never heard of him despite having been economics minister, then when he entered the presidential race was seen as an outsider with little or no chance of winning, he has changed the face of French politics and there may be no turning back. If he at least musters a powerful number of supporters then France may be in for a time of turbulent change that will thrust it in the 21 century and consolidate Europe as never before. We shall see.