In the French 'banlieue' of west-London there was a sigh of relief after Sunday's first round in the French Presidential election. French Londoners are not friends of Madame Le Pen. She managed a meagre 2.8% of the expat vote, compared with Mr. Macron who came away with a whopping 51.4%. Macron is the favourite to win the second round on 7 May. Polls conducted both before and after Sunday's election have him comfortably ahead of Le Pen. However, things may not be as they seem. The reason for this is the unpredictable behaviour of a segment of the population that voted for the far-left candidate Mr Mélenchon. Now, hang on a minute, you will say, how is it possible that voters of a far-left candidate turn in just two weeks to supporters of the far right?
Let us explore the position of a fictional left-leaning voter. We shall call this chap Pierre. Pierre works as a teacher in a Parisian primary school. He is on modest pay, but aspires to a state-sponsored career, which will guarantee a steady improvement in his salary, coupled with the security of a permanent job. He is a self-proclaimed lefty and supported Mélenchon in the first round of the election. Pierre hates Europe. For many in the 'radical' left, French and British alike, Europe is a neoliberal nightmare. They consider that this ever-closer Union by stealth is building a market obsessed leviathan that sucks away sovereignty and effectively outlaws any policy incompatible with economic orthodoxy. Pierre always held this view, but two recent developments have solidified his position as an enemy of the EU.
The first is the crisis in the Eurozone and the treatment of Greece. The depression in Greece, Pierre argues frequently, gave birth to a left alternative. This however was stifled by the EU, which will go out of its way to undermine and subvert democracy, to crush dissent. The German finance minister, Schaeuble, will roll over anyone who objects to German ordo-liberalism. Pierre and his friends are sure of this. The second is the TTIP negotiation. For decades Europe, while pursuing a liberalising agenda, had resisted American influence for full-scale marketisation. Some protection remained for certain market sectors and a European welfare state survived to a degree. While this was not optimal in Pierre's view, it was still better than the do-or-die American culture. Then the European Commission embarked on secret negotiations towards a grand trade deal. A trade deal that would bring the worse of Anglo-saxon capitalism to Europe, a deal that would even lift corporations out of the jurisdiction of national courts, creating 'special' investment tribunals tasked with protecting the expectations of the market against the rights of citizens.
All this was too much for Pierre. He dreamed of the May 1968 student uprising against orthodoxy and capitalism. He wished he could be part of a revolution too. Mélenchon was the carrier of this message, the way to subvert the system. But now, Mélenchon is gone. Macron is nominally centre-left, but he is portrayed as a banker, a friend of capitalism, a Europhile, a does-not-care-about-us business-as-usual offshoot of the establishment. For all of Macron's talk of change Pierre sees the reality, a continuation of the status quo.
What will Pierre and the other 7 million people who voted for Melenchon (19.6% to Macron's 24%) do in the second round? They may ask themselves which one of the remaining candidates stands for revolt against the establishment. Is it so preposterous that Mélenchon, who has declined so far to endorse Macron, inadvertedly delivers a Le Pen win? These things don't happen, until they do. It was working class discontent, normally the domain of the left, that delivered a Trump win in the United States. It was working class, former Labour supporting constituencies, that voted massively for Leave, delivering Brexit. Are we so sure that the left will move lock stock and barrel behind a former Hollande minister?
What about turn-out? How sure can we be that those who voted for other candidates in the first round will turn out to support the 'not Le Pen' option in the second? The 8th of May is a bank holiday in France. If you were a left-leaning voter, would you go vote for a 'banker', or would you go to the beach for the three day weekend? Those who are excited about their candidates turn out to vote. Le Pen, unfortunately, has a lot of excited supporters. Macron has a lot of 'anyone but Le Pen' supporters. Are you still feeling confident about a Macron win?
Opinion polls aside, a disaster for France and a new nightmare for Europe is around the corner.Suggest a correction