French History @ IHR: A Discussion of the French Presidential Election

Date & Place: Monday 15 May, Wolfson Room, IHR, London

Speakers: Sue Collard (University of Sussex); Sonia Delesalle-Stoper (UK Correspondant for Liberation); Mayanthi Fernando (University of California, Santa Cruz); Sudhir Hazareesingh (University of Oxford); Imen Neffati (University of Sheffield) Session chaired by Daniel Lee (University of Sheffield.

Roundtable Topic: A Discussion of the French Presidential Elections

Click HERE to listen to an mp3 recording of the paper (right click to save).

From left: Daniel Lee ; Sudhir Hazareesingh ; Imen Neffati ; Sonia Delesalle-Stoper ; Mayanthi Fernando ; Sue Collard

On Sunday 7 May 2017, Emmanuel Macron was elected France’s new president, beating Marine Le Pen with 65,8% of the votes against her 34,2%. The stakes had been high, and the fear had been real. A year ago the world had no idea who Macron was; suddenly he became the Golden Boy who could alter the course of history following Brexit and Trump. The only one who could challenge the Front National. It was by no means a sure win, what with François Fillon’s considerable experience, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s sudden surge and of course Marine Le Pen’s popularity. Amidst all of this, Macron won, becoming the youngest president in the Fifth Republic, a president who had never before been elected to office.

A week after Macron’s historic win, four scholars and the UK correspondent for Libération reflected on the French presidential election. From Michel Rocard and centrism to the politics of emotions, from gender and islamophobia to abstentionisme and vote blanc, the speakers unpacked the many questions, issues and surprises of the campaign – not least the substance, narratives and discourses of various political campaigns such as Macron’s continued use of the phrase ‘en même temps’.

macronOne of the main questions was about the nature of the Fifth Republic: has Macron changed the rules of the game? For Sue Collard, the historic divide between left and right is being radically challenged for the first time. It is not that centrists had never existed, but rather they had struggled to survive in the Fifth Republic. Then again, Michel Rocard, one of Macron’s political mentors, had not had the power or freedom the French president currently has to re-shape the French political scene – will things be different now? In five years, will we be talking about La république du centre, asked Collard?

In a careful analysis of the discourse and symbols of the Macron campaign, Sudhir Hazareesingh suggests that the president’s transgressive nature is not as radical as some may think. Yes, the rules for how to become the president of France have been completely overturned; but En Marche is a polished operation nonetheless, one which is fully aware of the rules of politics and communications in the twenty-first century. And whilst Macron wants to change things, the traditionalism of the swearing in ceremony, the centrality of the president within his government and the endurance of ideology show a real continuity with the Fifth Republic we have come to know. ‘The Fifth Republic is dead,’ declared Hazareesingh, ‘mais en même temps, Long Live the Fifth Republic!’

This presidential election was also a deeply emotional one, one which begged many questions about the current state of France. The French are tired, Sonia Delesalle-Stoper explained. Le Pen voters are more tired than they are virulent xenophobes or racists. The economic struggles and terrorist attacks have borne their weight on the nation’s mental state. Amidst this, Macron’s campaign was not one of fear, but one of optimism. This note of optimism which distinguished him from all other candidates appealed to a tired nation, but also to the world. The most vociferous pro-European candidate, he stepped out to Ode to Joy on his victory night, showing the hope for renewal at a national and international level.

Ni-abstentionniste-ni-abstentionniste-le-mot-d-ordre-de-Charlie-Hebdo-pour-le-second-tourBut not everyone was – or is – optimistic about his presidency. Aside from the many obstacles Macron has to face, the fact is that millions of French people did not vote for him. They preferred not to vote for him even if this meant risking a Le Pen presidency. Obviously, the risk of Le Pen winning was possibly not as great as people assumed, which is why people felt they could abstain. But abstentionnisme and the vote blanc, Imen Neffati stated, still reveal that millions of French people do not back this president. Even Charlie Hebdo took leave of its tradition of irresponsible journalism to voice its view of ‘ni abstenionnisme, ni abstentionnisme’, a view which was very critical of the left who did not vote in favour of a Macron win. They called it a betrayal. For a newspaper who stays outside of party politics, here they could not. The moment was too serious. Thankfully, Charlie Hebdo went back to their ‘irresponsible’ journalist with a sexist cover on 10 May: Il va faire des miracles ! they wrote, with an image of a pregnant Brigitte Macron.

mélenchonGender was certainly another theme of this French election. It did not feature in the same way as in the American elections, commented Mayanthi Fernando, but it certainly featured. Marine Le Pen’s gruff demeanour and aggressive discourse (like in the final television debate) were a performance of masculinity. She ‘tried to do a Mélenchon’, who has a messy appearance and interrupts his opponents – not least Le Pen herself in the televised debated before the first round – and embodies an old masculine image of the saviour and protector from capitalism. By contrast, Macron transgresses gender norms. He does not embody traditional masculinity, not least by marrying an older woman and not having children of his own.

There were many more issues discussed – such as the absence of a discussion of islamophobia especially in the second round – but you can just listen to them on our podcast above. In the meantime, we have five years to see how the situation in France unfolds… and we hope to invite our speakers again in over the years to continue the conversation.

Images taken respectively from The EconomistEurope 1 and Le Monde.


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