France’s next leader will inherit a tinderbox

Whoever is announced as France’s next president at eight o’clock sharp tonight, whether Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen, had better savour their victory lap. For awaiting them on Monday will be a country more sharply divided than at any time since 1940 – and a government enjoying the genuine support of, at best, a third of the electorate. Either would face a toxic coalition of citizens united more by their detestation of the winner than any positive sentiment. That is not a good place for a country to be.

It used to be reasonably easy to pick your side in a French presidential run-off, because the words “Right” and “Left” still had a meaning. This is no longer the case; and Macron must bear the blame. His shock victory in 2017 – that of an unknown technocrat who’d never stood for elected office (you don’t need to be an MP to be a minister in France) – can be explained by an older French political reflex in times of crisis: Bonapartisme.

A graduate of ENA and former finance minister, Macron ticked the competence box. He was young, looked enthusiastic, and intensely annoyed the old political warhorses on either side of the aisle. He miraculously seemed to offer a safe answer to the “kick the incumbents out” reflex that is never entirely absent from French politics. Macron campaigned as the candidate of a new world, beyond old, tired politics: he called this “En Même Temps” (at the same time). You could be both Left and Right, pick the best from both sides; policies, people, voting blocs. What mattered was “Notre Projet!” (our project; and by the first person plural he meant “mine”). What he really invented was Populism 2.0, and that is what the French got.

France is by nature a top-down, hierarchical country, so it took some time to realise that Macron was a different animal to big beasts such as François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, even Nicolas Sarkozy. A political cuckoo, he was tied to no party: he plundered both Socialists and Républicains for his Cabinet, always careful to pick lacklustre politicians who would give him no trouble. The one competent minister he kept on from the Hollande Cabinet, Jean-Yves Le Drian, Macron soon moved from Defence to Foreign Affairs, because he feared Le Drian’s closeness to the Army chiefs, who approved of his expertise.

Beholden to no-one, Emmanuel Macron even disdained to turn his ad hoc movement, En Marche (the Leader’s initials are no coincidence) into a proper party. His short experience as a Socialist minister instilled a contempt of political disagreements. The name became LREM (La République en Marche); of grassroots there were none. This matters today because to many voters, Macron, his clone-like ministers and docile young MPs remain aliens.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of a softened but still hard-Right populist movement, is, like her father, liable to fire anying expressing independent ideas around her. It is for this reason that Eric Zemmour managed to win 7 per cent of the popular vote and create a real party with 120,000 paid-up members in just 10 months.

Should Le Pen be elected, she would find assembled against her a hostile coalition of enemies drawn from Left and Right, and probably led by France’s answer to Jeremy Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Mélenchon, an admirer of Putin and Castro, came within 400,000 votes of the run-off. Abroad, the EU and the US will brand her “unacceptable”, France would replace Britain as the pariah of Western Europe. All of this would no doubt inspire a new cohort of domestic opponents no doubt led by one very, very annoyed Emmanuel Macron.

Regardless of tonight’s outcome, we can safely expect the French to follow an even older political tradition, taking to the streets in frustrated fury.

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