This blog is hosted on Ideas on EuropeIdeas on Europe Avatar


France 2017: Old fault lines, new salience

‘France has voted like it never did before’, was the headline of Spiegel Online on Monday morning, and many other foreign observers expressed similar views on the manner in which the traditional parties of the Left and Right were kicked out of the competition by an overwhelming desire of renewal of the political class.

Irreconcilable 3

The old new fault line.

But once the dust has settled on this shake-up and on the performance of Emmanuel Macron, who may well be the most surprising shooting star French politics has ever seen, it will become clear that the basic voting patterns of the French electorate have hardly changed at all over the last quarter of a century.

It suffices to compare the map below published by Le Monde yesterday with the maps of the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in September 1992 and the referendum on the European Constitutional treaty in April 2005. In an excellent post-referendum booklet named ‘The Day France said No’, edited by the Jean Jaurès Foundation and published by Plon (2005), demographer Hervé Le Bras (see his 2017 analysis here, published yesterday on the nouvelobs site) very convincingly demonstrated to what extent ‘The memory of the territories’ determined electoral behaviour over time. And Sunday’s first election round is a compelling confirmation of his findings, despite the undeniable progress of the Front National in the North, the South and the East, including the Alsatian region (though not in the urban centres Strasbourg and Colmar).

Fault-lines-2017-2Which provides once again striking evidence for the thesis that the deepest fault line across French society is the one between what Christophe Guilluy famously named ‘peripheral’ France and what I would (less famously) call ‘participating’ France, a dichotomy which is not exactly synonymous to ‘rural’ and ‘urban’, but which is in certain ways well rendered by the maps above. It’s the dichotomy of openmindedness and opportunity-seeking as opposed to the withdrawn, reproachful, self-fulfilling pessimism that the French themselves sum up in the well-known sigh ‘Tout fout le camp!’ (‘Everything’s going down the drain’). If it did not sound so simplistic, I would simply refer to it, beyond economic indicators, as ‘happy’ and ‘unhappy’ France.

And the most dividing issue, the one which crystallises it all, is … Europe, and everything that it stands for: globalisation and free markets, open borders and multiple cultures, shared sovereignty and common currency. Grossly simplified, last Sunday’s results suggest that half of the French population – the 50% who voted for Macron, Fillon and Hamon – is pro-European, with considerable variations in enthusiasm – and the other half of the electorate (including extreme right, extreme left, and fringe candidates) is resolutely against the European Union, even if their motives and the manner in which they voice their discontent vary.

What is new and different, however, is the explicit salience of the old fault line. Emmanuel Macron took three major symbolic risks in his fundamental ideological layout of the En marche! movement. Not only did he decide to be resolutely positive and optimistic in a country haunted by pessimism, but he also boldly set out to give the adjective ‘libéral’ a new meaning outside the semantic dogmas of the Socialist Party. And last but not least, he was unapologetic about being enthusiastically European, bringing together his personal conviction and the firm belief, as MEP Sylvie Goulard pointed out to Politico, that a rather silent majority of French citizens were profoundly attached to the ‘acquis communautaire’ of cooperation and friendship, especially with Germany.

Emmanuel Macron in Nantes, 19 April.

Emmanuel Macron in Nantes, 19 April.

In marketing terms, European enthusiasm was Macron’s ‘unique selling point’ – and what seemed to be a niche market has turned out to be a rather large, untapped market share, whose potential was reinforced by the lucky circumstance of having the likes of Farage, Trump, Wilders, Putin and Erdogan reminding everybody in a timely manner that the EU may actually be worth defending. Surprisingly, Macron even managed to underpin his pro-EU arguments with a symbolic renewal. Following Le Pen’s demand of removing the European flag – tenderly nick-named ‘your oligarchic rag’ by the FN’s No. 2, Florian Philippot – for a television interview, he turned his rally in Nantes into a genuine profession of faith, waving the European flag and having the audience sing the Ode to Joy. Totally surrealistic for everyone who has followed the political debate in France since … 1992.

The post-election TV debates on Sunday evening already foreshadowed that Europe and the Euro will be used by both remaining candidates as one of the major ‘key differentiators’ over the next two weeks. It will no doubt also be one of the central issues of the television showdown scheduled for 3 May.

Needless to say: whatever the result of the second round of the presidential election and the looming legislative elections, the fault line will remain. The polarisation of society has not yet reached American levels, but it will take a person of outstanding negotiating and compromising skills to bridge this deep divide. European leaders – most of all the next German government – would be well advised to help Macron make European integration (and everything that it stands for) acceptable again to the 50% of the French population who have so vigourously voted against it last Sunday and who have been hardened in their opposition by the insistent rhetoric of the populists and the efficient frustration machine that the Fifth Republic has become.

Albrecht Sonntag

This is post # 19 on the French 2017 election marathon.
All previous posts can be found here.


Recent Articles

France 2017: That ‘pschitt!’ feeling

Published on by | No Comments
Cork pschitt

‘Pschitt!’ is – at least in colloquial French – the disappointing sound of flat champagne, a deflating balloon, or a damp firecracker. It is also a good description of the feeling that many French voters will inevitably have on Sunday evening in front of their television screen. With an unprecedented degree of uncertainty, with virtually […]

France 2017: Ready for the Fake Presidency?

Published on by | No Comments

Oops – they did it again! They made us believe that the Fifth Republic provides its president with a particularly wide array of prerogatives, little constrained by checks and balances, and reigning well above the heads of a weak parliament. And with all the hype around the presidential election, this highly personalised ‘encounter of a […]

France 2017: Where have all the flowers gone?

Published on by and | No Comments

Over the last twelve months the Greens have had quite a few celebrations across Europe: Winfried Kretschmann was re-elected as minister-president of Baden-Württemberg in March 2016; in December Alexander von der Bellen succeeded in stopping the rise of the Austrian populists in the presidential elections, and in the Dutch general elections, Jesse Klaver quadrupled the […]

France 2017: And then there were eleven

Published on by | No Comments
Angers, April 2017: the first time ever that the term 'Frexit' appears on a campaign poster.

Why do they do it? Just for four precious weeks of fame? For seeing their faces on billboards and being invited to Parisian television studios? For walking into the polling station on election day and finding their names printed on the ballots in the same font and size as the big political celebrities? For fulfilling […]

France 2017: Polling paradoxes

Published on by | Comments Off
Sondages 1

The French take delight in pointing out that they are World Champions in producing political opinion polls (only to shake their heads in disbelief and despair about their own addiction). While the claim to this honorary title may not be corroborated by empirical data, it confirms the impression of saturation that a politically interested individual […]

France 2017: Could she possibly win?

Published on by | Comments Off
Presidente Cover

What if the good old ‘scarecrow’ effect did not work anymore? What if Marine Le Pen managed to break the famous ‘glass ceiling’ of the French electoral system, which has kept her out of governmental responsibility so far? What if voters were no longer willing to rally around a ‘front républicain’ between round 1 and […]

France 2017: Protestant protests

Published on by | Comments Off

Not a good week for French democracy. It started with the communication of false figures from the first round of the Socialist primary, followed by the verdict sending Sarkozy’s former minister Claude Guéant to jail for his ‘automatic cash teller’ practices while in office. It ended up overshadowed by what is now known as #penelopegate, […]

France 2017: The Party Formerly Known as Socialist

Published on by | Comments Off
Socialistes et Europe

On a study trip to Brussels about fifteen years ago, a major French socialist MEP gave a good lesson in French political semantics to my student group. In a nutshell, she explained that she and her group were perfectly at ease working with all the Social-Democrats from Germany or Sweden and elsewhere, as well as […]

France 2017: Two years on, how Charlie can you be?

Published on by | Comments Off
Two years on still Charlie

Already two years since the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which in hindsight look like a prelude to a series the end of which does not seem to be in sight. Is Europe still Charlie? Many Europeans, the large majority of whom had never heard of this magazine before, still claim they are, and there is no […]

Subscribe to a fortnightly email featuring posts from Ideas on Europe hosted blogs

UACES and Ideas on Europe do not take responsibility for opinions expressed in articles on blogs hosted on Ideas on Europe. All opinions are those of the contributing authors.