It may have looked easy, but it should have been much easier. Emmanuel Macron won a sizable 58 percent majority over his far-right rival Marine Le Pen in Sunday’s second round of voting. Yet in truth, the election was always his to lose.
For the second time in five years, Macron’s pitch to the nation boiled down to, “Don’t let the extremists in.” As in 2017, when he also faced Le Pen in the second round, Macron framed himself as the only reasonable choice. He was right, of course, but there is a limit to this constant refrain of “apres moi, le deluge.” If France is now a country of extremes, it is in large part due to Macron’s five years in power.
During the last election, the French president said he would do “everything in the five years to come so there is no more reason to vote for the extremes.” The exact opposite has happened. France’s two historic parties of government were comprehensively sidelined in the first round of voting. Le Pen’s far-right party won its highest share of the vote and came second in the election. Think of that: In a major European democracy, a nuclear power and a pillar of the western-built global order, a far-right party came second.
Nor is it only Le Pen’s party. France’s political extremes of left and right have prospered in the past five years.
For an illustration, look at campaign spending. In France, presidential candidates have to abide by strict spending limits, and only those who gain more than 5 percent of the vote are eligible for major reimbursement by the state. In this election, eight of the 12 candidates failed to pass the 5 percent threshold. Among those who failed to pass were the candidates of the center-right party, The Republicans, and the main center-left party, the Socialists. That means that the parties of the previous two presidents before Macron failed to gain even 10 percent of the vote, an astonishing demise for the two parties of the center.
Worse, of the four candidates who topped the poll, three are extreme; the two far-right candidates of Le Pen and a far-right newspaper columnist, and Jean-Luc Melenchon, a far-left candidate.
Far from stopping the French voting for the extremes, five years of Macron have ensured the majority of French voters voted for nothing else.
The question therefore is why. Part of the reason is Macron’s pitch to occupy a center-ground, beyond left and right. By trying to be all things to all people, Macron has opened the door to extreme parties. After all, why settle for thin gruel when you can have strong beer?
This pattern can be seen playing out with Melenchon, the left-wing candidate who came third.
Politics is a game of inches, and in the first round, barely 1 percent separated Le Pen from Melenchon. A few votes either way could have meant Melenchon would face off against Macron in the second round, leading to a whole new way of considering the election.
But the rise of Melenchon is directly attributable to Macron’s way of governing for the past half-decade, which was broadly center-right. By merely offering a handful of “left-wing” concessions – such as tapering a proposed raising of the national retirement age – voters were encouraged to go towards the “real” thing, not only a center-left party but a fully left-wing alternative.
The exact same dynamic took place on the right. When Macron said five years ago that he wanted to stop people voting for the extremes, it appeared he meant by making those with extreme views vote for him. The French president has been at pains to make life hard for Muslims in France, pushing through a controversial “anti-separatism” bill last year, ostensibly to enshrine French secularism in public services, but in reality targeting just one faith. In the past two years, 700 Muslim institutions have been closed. No other religious group has seen anything comparable.
Yet such a tilt to the right did not end up stealing the far-right’s clothes; it merely made their views apparently respectable. It says much about how far Macron has pushed the national conversation towards the extremes that two of the top four places went to far-right candidates. Macron also alienated his own supporters – by one estimate, a quarter of Muslims voted for Macron in 2017. This year it had dropped to just 14 percent, with Melenchon receiving a great deal of support from the Muslim community.
This is now the French political landscape that Macron will occupy for the next five years. In some ways, it suited him to be the only centrist presidential candidate amid a sea of extremes. But governing in that way is complicated, because it requires constantly tilting one way or the other in order to accommodate the populism of left and right. Another five years of such constant seesawing will only empower the extremes further.
In 2027, it may not be a centrist facing off against the extremes, but two political extremes scrapping for the presidency. If so, it would be in large part Macron’s doing. By trying to make a vote for extreme parties impossible, Macron’s legacy has been to make them inevitable.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.