I wish I could enjoy the moment of relief that like-minded friends and colleagues at HEC Paris and beyond experienced when last night’s results came in. Yet, amid the political turbulence characterizing our Western societies, I just can’t. Elections aren’t sports events with winners and losers. In our highly-polarized nations, an electoral victory no longer ensures, nor translates, into societal acceptance and popular support for change.
I predict that French society is set to grow more divisive and polarized than ever as a result of these elections. While the two-round electoral system has historically fueled such an electorate split, this time is different: no candidate obtained a quarter of the votes and bitterness pervades the big losers.
First, the language, tones and attitudes of the candidates have shattered the so-called “Overton window,” that range of ideas, behavior and language the public will accept. After witnessing the emergence of this phenomenon in the U.K.’s Brexit vote, then in the United States’ presidential election, now it is France’s turn. Scandals have dominated debates, mainstream media have been rubbished, alternative news has gone viral on social media, candidates have reneged on promises of having exemplary codes of conduct.
Second, the far right made it into the final round of a presidential election again and outgoing President François Hollande’s center-left PS party is in total disarray.
Third, the gap between the two emerging presidential candidates is virtually unprecedented, even smaller than in the 2002 duel between Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jacques Chirac.
If Emmanuel Macron proposes an open, liberal and pro-EU candidacy, Marine Le Pen offers a closed, protectionist and Eurosceptic future. They represent two models of society that are so divergent that their inherent worldviews are impossible to reconcile.
Yet attempting to reconcile the two is the challenge the emerging President and their government must tackle, and that regardless of the final May 7 electoral result. June’s General Elections could make France almost ungovernable with a divided Parliament reflecting the fractious politics of the five main candidates in the first round…
Given his consensual style, Macron is no doubt better placed than Marine Le Pen to see and grapple with this uniquely French dichotomy. But even the best-intentioned politician might not be able to deliver on that Herculean task. The question is whether Macron will be able to transform the endorsements he cashed in for the first-round victory into a solid parliamentary majority in the forthcoming General Elections. And if so, how?
As an EU citizen convinced of the absolute necessity of not only maintaining but advancing the European Union’s project, I am extremely concerned about the prospect of a fresh outbreak of anti-European sentiment. Fewer than 50% of French voters backed pro-EU candidates (49.44%, against 49.31% who voted for the two Euro-skeptic representatives). Macron stands for a model of society that too many in France are not ready to believe in, as it is perceived as excessively liberal and Uberized. This will make his vision of a more open and liberal France in a strengthened and reformed European Union difficult, if not impossible, to translate into reality.
Germany – and its two contenders for its upcoming General Elections – is set to be the final obstacle to this frontal attack on the values such as openness, fairness and justice we have been raised to not only cherish but also practice in our daily European lives. Yet this won’t and should not suffice to save us from ourselves.
Today in the Paris metro and then in the classroom at HEC I couldn’t help feeling odd. Yesterday’s elections have and will continue to split our French society. This is fundamentally new and unsettling for my generation, in the Old Continent, but it should become a source of concern for the older and younger ones.
More than ever before, Europe’s future is in our hands.