Saro Thiruppathy analyses France’s mixed response at the polls to elect a new president

At first glance, it appeared as if the French voters had said a firm ‘no’ to populism and xenophobia. But apparently they had much more on their mind when Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election in the 7 May run-off.

Macron’s 66.1 percent of the vote last month was more than double the 23.7 percent he garnered in the first round on 23 April when there were eleven presidential contestants. Meanwhile, his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen’s 21.5 percent rose to only 33.9 percent in the final round. In a paradigm shift, the traditional parties could not earn sufficient votes to go for a second round.

This preliminary result heartened those who don’t favour racism or ‘Frexit’ but that did not necessarily mean that the masses were in favour of a centrist elitist like Macron to take the helm either. This dilemma translated into a protest vote which saw 37.4 percent of the voting population of 47.6 million French people choosing to either spoil their ballot or abstain from casting their vote.

PROTEST VOTE The Macron win is being viewed as more of protest against Le Pen, and her xenophobic and Frexit rhetoric, rather than an overwhelming endorsement of his watery wish list. According to the French Ministry of the Interior – 11.4 million (25.4%) voters abstained from voting while a little more than four million (12%) voters spoiled their vote exercising an age-old practice of ballot blanc or white ballot.

The protest form of the ballot blanc is said to go back to the post-French revolutionary era and this time, the 12 percent of white ballots is said to be the highest since the 1958 Fifth Republic was established by Charles de Gaulle.

A CNN article quoted 46-year-old Guillaume Castevert from Bordeaux who cast a white ballot on 7 May when his preferred hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon lost in the first round. Castevert was not enamoured with Le Pen’s politics nor did he agree with Macron’s thinking – so he voiced his protest through a ballot blanc.

His dissatisfaction with the French electoral process, which he says is undemocratic, is reflected across 15.4 million French voters.

Emmanuel Macron appears to have understood the dilemma facing the French people. Following his victory, he addressed Le Pen’s supporters directly and said he understood the “anger, anxiety and doubt” among the people who voted for her. This means that he knows that populism hasn’t been banished – it’s still lurking in the shadows.

Macron’s political convictions are mostly liberal while he is a strong advocate of globalisation. As a former businessman, Macron says he will make France more business-friendly and lower corporate taxes.

While being pro-European Union (EU), he believes that changes are needed to make the EU stronger. And while Macron supports strengthening the external borders of EU countries, he believes that closing national borders would not necessarily improve security.

Macron also deems that limits on immigration should not be handled at the national level. Moreover, he feels that the country’s security policies have unfairly targeted the Muslims in France. At a rally in October last year, Macron tried to woo the Muslim vote by saying: “No religion is a problem in France today. If the state should be neutral, which is at the heart of secularism, we have a duty to let everybody practise their religion with dignity.”

All eyes are on the elections to the French National Assembly that are to be held mid this month. To gain control of the Assembly, President Macron announced that his political movement will now be called La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move) party; and even though the party has no representatives in the National Assembly, Macron is heartened by the support he has received from his vanquished political rivals representing both the conservative right and socialist left.

VOTER UNEASE So what is it about Macron that has voters feeling anxious? There are concerns about how Macron plans to implement his campaign promises. He has promised to cut the corporate tax rate from 33 to 25 percent. And he wants to maintain the legal work week at 35 hours while leaving the negotiation of real work hours to companies.

But low-wage earners would not receive certain welfare benefits under Macron’s proposals.

Even though he has pledged to implement economic reforms, Macron has yet to indicate how he plans to encourage meaningful social dialogue between trade unions and employers.

And while Le Pen has a solid support base among workers, Macron’s policies are more employer-friendly. So it is possible that he’ll upset many working people when he reforms the labour code. When his predecessor ex-president François Hollande attempted to enact mild labour reforms, French workers took to the streets in protest.

Macron‘s announcement that he would limit debate and govern by decree to enable economic reforms is also of concern to the democratic process of citizen participation, particularly since he hasn’t presented any plans to further democratise representative government even though France is in need of tools for direct democracy.

Though Macron has uttered vague references to parliamentary reform, he has provided no real plans to reduce the number of parliamentarians or introduce some form of proportional representation as originally pledged by Hollande during his 2012 election campaign.

Any loosening of austerity measures and stimulation of the EU economy will need to be headed by Germany. But France’s support will no doubt encourage the Germans to infuse more capital into the European Investment Bank, signalling good news for Macron although it will take time for the investment to produce results while benefits will need to be shared among other EU member states as well.

Therefore, it isn’t likely that France will witness any major reduction in unemployment in the near future. Macron therefore, will need to keep his people optimistic about what the future can bring.

DISENCHANTMENT Marine Le Pen may be down but she certainly isn’t out. It’s estimated that about 44 percent of France’s young voters (18 to 24-year-olds) cast their ballot for Le Pen in the first round of the presidential election.

She received the support of more women than men and 63 percent of manual workers. Le Pen has also managed to successfully court the religious Catholic voters.

Analysts claim that Le Pen’s youth support base is mainly from the working and lower-middle classes.

The migration issue, high levels of unemployment, reduced job security and lower social mobility are factors that have contributed to the disenchantment of the French youth with the current system. The rate of unemployment in France at the end of last year was 9.6 percent compared to Germany’s 3.9 percent, while the UK’s count in October was 4.8 percent.

TREADING LIGHTLY President Emanuel Macron has his work cut out and needs to tread carefully as he finds his way through the French voter demographic. Disregarding citizen participation, ignoring environmental issues, threatening to rule by decree and riding roughshod over worker rights will only anger French voters.

He also needs to keep a close eye on the issues that Le Pen campaigned against because ignoring them could set in motion an uncontrollable wave of dissent.

The words of Mark Grant, chief strategist at Hilltop Securities, are particularly insightful and should serve as a warning to the new French President: “I think Mr. Macron is in for tough challenges from both the left and right, and the country may in effect become ungovernable before all is said and done.”

And he adds that for investors, “the rejoicing may be brief.”