A presidential election that revealed a fractured France

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The writer is the author of ‘Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940—1950’ and ‘Notre-Dame: The Soul of France’

France is a country on the move. And for the third time in 20 years, he faces a stark choice between electing a leader from the political mainstream or a far-right leader.

In 2002, Jacques Chirac, the outgoing president, was elected with more than 80% of the votes against Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front. Fifteen years later, in 2017, Emmanuel Macron became president after winning the second round with 66% of the vote against Le Pen’s daughter, Marine.

Next weekend’s second round between Macron and Le Pen should be much closer, however. The latest polls suggest the president will win by a margin of 53% to 47.

So what has happened since the FN (renamed the Rassemblement National in 2018) first appeared on the French political scene in the mid-1980s after socialist President François Mitterrand changed the voting system for legislative elections ? How to explain the growing weariness, even the detachment, of many voters who, until recently, had always rallied to the so-called republican front to remove the far right from the Elysée?

Thanks to a revolution that imposed on an unruly people the idea of ​​a common language, destiny and story, the French have aspired for 200 years to an ideal of republican belonging, or unity. Today, however, that ideal is a tattered standard.

The shock election of 35 National Front deputies in 1986 should have been a wake-up call. But rather than seriously tackle the burgeoning national conversation on racism, immigration and multiculturalism, Chirac – “cohabiting” with Mitterrand as prime minister – decided to abandon proportional representation in a bid to banish the extreme right in parliament at the first opportunity.

Meanwhile, larger sociological forces were at play. The inexorable decline of Catholicism and Communism, as the two structuring forces of French society, allowed individualism and the questions of identity raised by the children of the first generation of North African immigrants to become progressively more politically significant.

Economic factors, including rising unemployment and deindustrialization, have also helped to redraw the political map. Disgruntled working-class voters in former industrial centers in the north and east of the country have turned to the far right where previously, for generations, they had embraced the French Communist Party.

The left is rather rooted in the Ile de France, in the Paris region, in the multiethnic suburbs, or suburbs, and in university towns.

The distribution of votes during the first round of last Sunday’s election perfectly shows the shifts that have taken place over the past thirty years and to what extent, in France today, geography determines how you live, what you think and how you vote.

Some cards say a lot. Jérôme Fourquet, political scientist, expert in electoral geography and author of the 2019 bestseller the French Archipelago, has a card for everything. One of them shows that the further people live from a train station, the more likely they are to vote for Le Pen.

the yellow vests movement, which violently disrupted the first two years of Macron’s presidency, highlighted the decisive new tension in French politics between center and periphery. The closer people live to a city center, the more access they have to services, cultural activities, quality public infrastructure such as transport, hospitals and schools, the more likely they are to be optimistic about their future. And, it seems, to vote Macron.

The 44-year-old French president embodies a perceptible trend since the 1990s. He is today the face of the convergence of right and left of the progressive and educated bourgeoisie who advocate the deepening of European integration and the necessary adaptation from the French social model to globalization.

In 2017, journalist and military expert Jean-Dominique Merchet published a thought-provoking book titled Macron Bonaparte. According to Merchet, we are witnessing the birth of a one-party system of government under Macron, in which the traditional post-war parties have no alternative but to rally behind him. The pitiful scores obtained in the first ballot last week by the candidates of the Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains seem to support Merchet’s thesis.

However, this new constellation is besieged politically – on its left by parties like La France Insoumise, whose candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon almost beat Le Pen and claimed a place in the second round, and by the RN on its right – and sociologically by the most economically disadvantaged voters.

But perhaps the greatest danger to the movement that brought Macron to power in 2017, and may well keep him there for another five years, is that he still dreams of a united France — while in In reality, the French today prefer to keep themselves to themselves, to live alongside others, rather than together as one.

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