France Still Waits for a Revolution’s Outcome

The police and protesters clashed during a demonstration called by labor unions in Paris on Monday. Credit Thibault Camus / Associated Press
The police and protesters clashed during a demonstration called by labor unions in Paris on Monday. Credit Thibault Camus / Associated Press

In a city where Emmanuel Macron got 90 percent of the vote, there was no outpouring of joy on Sunday night. No horns blown, no street parties, no Champagne corks popping in Paris’s cafes. Those who did want to celebrate had to line up for hours to go through security to the grounds of the Louvre, where the newly elected 39-year-old president made a spectacular entrance, with a carefully scripted speech to thank his flag-waving supporters.

All of France had just defeated a demagogic populist by a 2-to-1 vote, but it remains in a revolutionary mood amid the collapse of an ossified political system. So Paris is reserving its victory parties for soccer games. The political system is undergoing changes so dramatic that Sunday’s election of a young, neophyte outsider as president is just one step on the long road toward the necessary radical transformation. It is anybody’s guess whether this transformation will end up looking like the one Mr. Macron advocated in the book he published last year, aptly titled “Revolution.” The next signal may well have to wait until parliamentary elections in June.

To be sure, Mr. Macron’s victory, with 66.1 percent of the vote, is in itself a revolution. Never before in the Fifth Republic has a politician been elected to the highest office barely a year after making a mark on the national scene and without a political party behind him. This is a country of lifelong political ambitions, where a run for the presidency is normally built on decades of experience, grounded in local roots and traditions, and negotiated in the corridors of power. It took François Mitterrand, a Socialist, and Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, three attempts to succeed.

Not since 1958 had a presidential runoff election been fought without one of the two major political parties, center right and center left. Never before were the best-known, well-established leaders of those parties so brutally eliminated by the voters. Mr. Macron won not so much on his program but on the promise of renovating the political scene.

Suddenly on Sunday night, the familiar faces analyzing Mr. Macron’s victory on TV — those well-known politicians — looked outdated. Even the youthful-looking François Baroin, 51, who will lead the center-right Les Républicains in the coming legislative campaign, seemed oddly out of sync. We are now entering uncharted waters.

Marine Le Pen’s 33.9 percent, an unprecedentedly high score for her far-right National Front, also reflects the revolutionary mood. Nearly 11 million French citizens voted for her, despite her calamitous performance in a television debate last week and an incoherent campaign against the euro. Ms. Le Pen claims to be “the voice of the people” and to express “the anger of the silent majority,” contending that her aggressive style “echoes the social violence waiting to explode.” This anger is now a fixture of our Western democratic battlefields. Experts describe the victories of populist demagogues as “electoral insurrections.” The rage is everywhere.

A sign of the system’s breakdown was the inability of democratic forces to unite against Ms. Le Pen by reviving the “republican front” that emphatically stopped her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. Xavier Bertrand, a center-right politician who beat Ms. Le Pen in regional elections in 2015 with the help of the Socialist Party, was shocked that some of his colleagues could not get themselves to call on the electorate to support Mr. Macron in the second round. “This atmosphere of civil war in politics has to stop,” he told a local paper, L’Aisne Nouvelle. “The political system is completely dead. It’s dead, it’s over. People are fed up with it.”

Millions of people were so fed up that they decided not to vote at all or to express their anger through a blank ballot. Many of them were among the 19.3 percent who voted in the first round for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a former Socialist turned far-left politician who calls his party “La France Insoumise” — the unsubjugated. He has been compared with Bernie Sanders — but unlike Mr. Sanders, who rallied to support Hillary Clinton in the general election, Mr. Mélenchon refused to back Mr. Macron. He has now vowed to fight him in the June parliamentary elections. His supporters were in the streets of Paris on Monday, marching toward the Bastille in a noisy demonstration.

Heated debates took place between the two rounds, within families and among friends, on what some called choosing “between the plague and cholera” — Mr. Macron or Ms. Le Pen. Young voters, including many with college degrees, have been the most bitter. In an email exchange, my 26-year-old niece Nina explained why she did not believe in voting in the runoff. Mr. Macron, she wrote, would not be able to fix the deep problems of our society.

“I know Le Pen may make them worse,” she said of the problems, “but I cannot spend the rest of my life trying to feel good by voting every five years to block the National Front and thus end up leaving the country in the hands of politicians who, because they refuse to see that our system is dying, sacrifice thousands of people whom they don’t even know.”

This distrust in a system that has failed to solve mass unemployment and allowed an increase in inequality is hardly surprising. What is new is the level of rejection publicly expressed in many quarters of the far right and the far left, with people openly wishing for chaos. “Monsieur Macron, you are hated, you are hated, you are hated!” the radical filmmaker François Ruffin warned the future president in Le Monde last week. Some see in this confrontational mood an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1970s.

The old system — “l’ancien régime” — will not surrender without a fight, and this includes both the mainstream and the established extremes, far right and far left. This is a fractured country, not in two, but in four, maybe five parts. Mr. Macron acknowledged just that in his acceptance speech, vowing to take into account “the divisions, the anger, the anxiety and the doubts of the nation and to protect the most vulnerable.” The new president understood the country’s mood very early on, grasping the thirst for fundamental change when establishment politicians were in denial. He bet that his message of truth, hope and audacity, of confidence in liberal values and a united Europe could convince a pessimistic country to elect an optimistic president — and he won.

By putting him in the presidential Élysée Palace, a majority of the French have signaled that they are ready to embark on a new experience. It may be a leap into the unknown, but the mainly young supporters waving flags at the Louvre on Sunday did not look scared. It is now up to President-elect Macron to transform the negative energy that infused this bitter campaign into a new constructive mood. Or as he put it, to do all he can so that the French “will never have a reason to vote for extreme candidates again.”

Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer.

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