TThe results of the French election first round show that France’s future is clear, regardless of who wins the presidency. It is likely that the now-familiar face-off between the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron (far-right leader), and Marine Le Pen will continue in the second and final round.
With just 27.8% of the vote, to Le Pen’s 21.1%, it might seem to many outside of France that Macron’s win is in the bag. According to the latest IFOP survey, Macron is likely to win with about 55 % of support and Le Pen only 45%. However, this isn’t a straightforward rematch of 2017, the presidential election runoff.
We can learn from the past few years of worldwide populist electoral triumphs that it is important not to undervalue anti-status-quo votes. These voting blocs may comprise a greater percentage of people than voters who are in favor of the status. It is obvious that the wild card can win big, from America to Brazil.
Macron’s dissolution of traditional political right and left saw him closely followed by far–right and far-left candidates. They were trailed by traditional parties, which would otherwise have won, or been at the very least strong contenders, in this battle. Anne Hidalgo was for the socialists and received 1.8%, which is an indictment on the center-left.
There were a number of surprises in the first round, which was indicative of the general mood throughout the country. France’s far-right ideas have taken over to such an extent that 30% of voters have supported its candidates. Macron and his party often endorse some of these positions.
When added together, far-right votes, which include Eric Zemmour are 30%. Not by the fact that polls show there are substantive concerns about the cost of living or the COVID-19 pandemic but rather by the increasingly inflamatory TV debates on Islam, secularism, immigration, this election’s mood has been dominant.
In the run up to the election, 80% of French people deemed the presidential campaign to be ‘poor’. It’s hardly a revelation that at a time when the French, like many in the post-pandemic era, find themselves economically squeezed, most are concerned by wages, health and standards of living, issues which the “margins” seized upon. Jean-Luc Melenchon from the far left, third place, was also concerned with this issue. On the other side spectrum, but also concerned with the “working” woman’s standard of living, is far right Le Pen. The parties’ increasing popularity speaks volumes about the importance of their concerns. They have outperformed traditional parties in meeting increasingly basic French needs. How will they make it?
The rise of the far-right is often presented as only a peripheral threat, but in France, it has been dictating the terms of the political debates for the last decade, as 2022’s presidential campaign proves. The French media have supported it with their complicity, and some instances even support. The owner of one of France’s main media hubs Canal+, the French billionaire businessman Vincent Bolloré, provided racist polemicist and presidential candidate Eric Zemmour with the platform and prominence necessary to turn him into a household name. It is arguable whether Zemmour would ever have been able to run for presidency, let alone achieve the success he did, without Bolloré’s backing.
Read More: Rural Voters in France Embrace Le Pen’s Vision
Le Pen’s party has made gradual and consistent political gains over the last two decades at almost every level of the French political system—it now holds local and regional seats across France, since 2014 it has seats in the Senate and a majority of the French seats in the European parliament. At around 40% and 70%, the military and police support the far-right. In April 2021, on the 60th anniversary of a failed putsch to derail Algerian independence, over a thousand members of the French military, some with known ties to the far right , published an open letter to President Macron, threatening a military if he didn’t take a harder line on tackling ‘Islamism’, increasingly not so subtle code for Muslims, persistently depicted as France’s fifth column.
Le Pen applauded the message, which was an ominous reminder of the fact that the far-right today is more than just a political party, regardless of the outcome at the polls: It is also an ideology movement and a grave threat to France’s democratic institutions.
Most people will look to the presidency as the next frontier in Le Pen’s political expansion, but for many French voters, this simply would not be the tsunami it has previously been thought of. Macron admitted that Macron has acknowledged the fact that the Republican front, once used to be a coalition against the far right, is now in decline. Nearly half of French people don’t fear the Le Pen presidency today. Many reasons can explain this.
The party’s efforts at normalizing its image, successfully boosted by the regurgitation of far right themes, such as “the great replacement,” is certainly one reason for this shift. Today, it’s no longer taboo to say on French TV that France is incompatible with Islam or to openly exaggerate figures suggesting that “half of France will be Muslim by 2050,” or even to write a bestselling novel fantasizing about an Islamist takeover of the country.
The main reason that a Le Pen presidency has not been feared is the fact that, in power, or not, far right ideas regarding anti-Muslim discrimination, are now the norm.
In fact, Le Pen’s discourse on Muslims can appear tame next to that of even Macron’s ministers. Interior minister Gerald Darmanin, speaks of the need to “halt the ‘ensauvagement’ [wilding] of society,” a fascist trope that Marine Le Pen has used repeatedly. In a debate against Le Pen last year, Darmanin lambasted her for being ‘too soft’ on Islam, and it was Darmanin again who intervened personally to prohibit the construction of a previously approved mosque in Strasbourg. In its bid to appeal to Le Pen’s voters, the LREM has quite literally sought to out-fascist the fascists.
As the sociologist Hicham Benaissa points out, the more Islam has become a French religion, the more it has become defined as a “problem, ” by virtually every segment of the political class. Of course, Macron is more subtle, referring Islam as a religion in “crisis,” or in code, “Islamism,” in need of French regulations and secularism to curb its extremist tendencies. Others have been more direct: “Islam is the antithesis of France and incompatible with the country,” Zemmour told viewers during a campaign debate in September.
The cultural battlefields have been reconfigured as cultural battlegrounds. The right echo the idea of Muslims as a security concern, while the left take up the cultural narrative, of Islam’s alleged incompatibility with French values, namely laïcité. In either direction, Muslims are now an accepted “problem.”
There is no real opposition to the fascist movement. Once the mortal enemy of the far-right, secular leftists have been among the most vocal critics of the visibility of Muslims in public spaces, calling for ever more far reaching bans on the headscarf, on the ‘burkini’ (deemed “incompatible with French values”), on mosque construction, and calling on Muslims to be “discreet.”
As the academic Jacques Ranciere points out, in the battle to uphold Republican principles, the left mobilized traditional leftist ideals but subverted them in an effort to appeal to Le Pen’s growing audience. The result was a new, racialized Leftism that has totally abandoned the Black and Brown working classes. The convergence with Le Pen’s national socialism is striking. Her party won many ex-leftist voters and polls indicate that half of those on the left do not support a left-leaning front. In the run up to the second round, she called on voters “from left to right” to vote for her “social justice” candidacy, in a nod to the far-left voters of Jean-Luc Melenchon, 30% of whom, polls say, will vote for her.
France’s space for resistance to racist policies and authoritarianism is shrinking. Right-leaning ideals seem to be growing every where you look. Macron sought to be the middle ground. His relative success in his first round suggests that there is an appetite for this line.
But the far right don’t need to win the presidency. In a country that considers them the main opposition and the policy-makers, they must be considered as legitimate. This should be enough to worry everyone.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME