Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Not yet, at least. Despite the abundant parallels between Trumpism and the populist rage powering Marine Le Pen, the French contender isn’t a mirror image of the American president—and she’s not likely to prevail in next month’s run-off.
If the results of the French presidential election’s first round are a major upset, they’re not exactly a surprise. For months, analysts have been predicting the result of yesterday’s voting, which saw the French electorate spurn the country’s two major political parties to vote through independent centrist Emanuel Macron and far-right populist Marine Le Pen to the second-round run-off, due to be held on May 7.
This long-predicted result is still something of a shock. A frustrated electorate appears to have punished France’s establishment, voting in the largest numbers for representatives of two parties that have never held presidential office, Macron’s En Marche! and Le Pen’s Front National. Internationally, Le Pen’s success (albeit second to Macron’s) has sent out the most shockwaves, with an Anglo-American public on tenterhooks after Trump’s win and a pro-leave result in Britain’s Brexit referendum waiting to see if another country will fall domino-like to the chaotic, populist right.
But seeing France’s elections as a simple mirror of the American political scene would nonetheless be a mistake. France has its own version of the rural/urban divide but it’s an intricate, complex one that doesn’t throw up easy answers. And while Le Pen has, like America’s current president, both played the political outsider and (until recently) courted Russia, it would be a mistake to cast her as the female Trump. In certain ways, she’s worse: Trump’s connections to the violent, racist extreme-right fringe are based largely on his advisors and associates like Steve Bannon, and more generally on the fandom he’s aroused among white supremacist organizations. With Le Pen, the links are more explicit, and built on decades of direct experience.
In order to understand the new French political geography, it’s worth looking closely at the results. This was very close to being a four-horse race. Ahead with 23.9 percent of the vote is Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European liberal who was formally a finance minister with the Socialist government but broke away to form the centrist En Marche! last April. Trailing close behind him at 21.4 percent is Marine Le Pen, the second scion of a budding far-fight dynasty who, having taken over leadership of the Front National from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011, ran on an anti-immigration, economically protectionist ticket. Less than two percent behind her came Francois Fillon, candidate for the right-leaning Republican Party, with 19.9 percent. Once the favorite to win, his campaign was hurt by allegations that he created fake jobs in order to pay his wife and children. Breathing down Fillon’s neck at 19.6 per cent was Jean-Luc Mélenchon of recently established leftist party La France Insoumise, whose unexpectedly strong showing was arguably the campaign’s greatest surprise. Far behind these four was socialist Benoît Hamon, whose pitiful 6.35 percent showing saw the party currently ruling France effectively demolished at the ballot box.
Now the stage is set for a polarizing run-off. One the one side, a free-market liberal who favors open borders, an easing of regulations that affect entrepreneurship, and a relatively smaller state. On the other, a candidate who espouses muted economic protectionism, albeit heavily dictated by open hostility to outsiders, minorities, and the EU. This might have echoes of last year’s Trump/Clinton battle, but, as with March’s Dutch elections, the parallels with America are by no means clear cut.
Firstly, France’s results don’t reveal the same rural/metropolitan standoff. Macron’s base is urban, while Le Pen has fared better out in the countryside. But zoom in on the exact details of last night’s results, as is possible with this interactive map, and a more complex picture reveals itself. Among the top four, three out of the four candidates scored majorities across urban, suburban, and rural districts rather than being restricted to one type of community. Macron, Fillon, and Mélenchon each carved out a piece of inner Paris—Fillon grabbed six districts in wealthier west, Mélenchon carved out two in the poorer east while the remaining 12 went to Macron. Each of the three also did well in places far beyond France’s main metropole. Macron came first in many backwoods areas of Western France, Fillon scored well north of the Loire and in the Alps, while Mélenchon snatched gold in many parts of France’s other major mountain ranges, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees.
There is an exception to this trend, however, and that’s Le Pen. While the Front National candidate did well overall, Le Pen failed to score a majority in almost any district in one of France’s major cities. Bar one or two outlying districts of Lyon, Le Pen didn’t do well in their suburbs either. If you zoom in on the districts she dominated near Paris, they are ex-urban villages surrounded by farmland, not suburbs. Even in regions where the FN is historically strong, such as Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Alsace (on the Belgian and German borders respectively), Le Pen failed to score well in the major cities of Lille and Strasbourg. That’s not to say that Le Pen’s vote is necessarily rural. She scored better in second- and third-tier cities, especially in ex-industrial centers near the northern border (think France’s Rust Belt).
That bodes ill for Le Pen’s chances in the second round. Macron, so far in first place, has already been endorsed by Republican and Socialist candidates Fillon and Hamon (but not Mélenchon). This suggests that, if Macron wins the second round as polls predict, it may well be on an Anything But Le Pen ticket.
The strong feelings Le Pen stirs up are largely justified. The most positive perspective presented of her politics is that, after having inherited the Front National’s leadership from her more thuggish father Jean-Marie in 2011, she has succeeded in steering the party away from its extreme-right racist excesses to become a more inclusive, consensus-building party. The best evidence of that: The expulsion of Jean-Marie Le Pen himself from the Front National in 2015, following his refusal to attend a disciplinary hearing after referring to Nazi gas chambers as a “detail” of World War Two.
The problem is that Marine and her sister Marie-Caroline have played a key role in their father’s publicity machine since the 1980s. While Jean-Marie complained that the French national soccer team had too many black players, or stated that people with HIV should be quarantined in an “Aids-atorium,” his daughters presented a more acceptably feminine face for the party. Marine stood by her father’s side when he was found guilty in 2000 of physically assaulting a female MP. It was Marine who claimed (with no evidence) that all meat sold in the Paris region was secretly halal and she who denied this year that France bore any responsibility for the Vichy-led roundups of over 13,000 French Jews at Paris’ Winter Velodrome. Just last week, she sang the praises of French colonialism.
All this makes Le Pen unacceptable for most French people, which is probably why she is currently predicted to gain only a third of the run-off vote. Her success in the first round is still historic, an unprecedented high for her party that might presage electoral success at some point in the future. And while it might be tempting to see a vote for Macron as a vote for stability, details of the centrist candidate’s electoral remain vague, meaning that his future policies are liable to upset at least some of his supporters. As the leader of a new party, Macron faces governing a country where he has few automatic allies in the National Assembly. Chances are (famous last words) that France will not be voting in Le Pen as their president next month. But it would be wrong to assume that she will go quietly—or at all.