Tuesday, May 9, 2017

France and Interpreting Elections

First, best of luck to the voters of British Columbia who are voting in their provincial election today. I eagerly await the results! Make good choices.

As important as the British Columbia provincial election is it is not the election that garnered the most attention recently. The presidential election in France garnered much attention, especially leading into the second round when far-right Marine Le Pen faced off against moderate Emmanuel Macron. While analysts suggested that Le Pen's popularity was disturbing that put her chances at winning as quite remote.

Thankfully, prognosticators were correct and on Sunday Macron defeated Le Pen in the second round. Macron garnered about two-thirds of the vote to Le Pen's one third. However, that means Le Pen was able to gain support from her initial 21% base.

From here I want to briefly take a moment to discuss how we talk about elections. Journalists, pundits and observers have been quick to cast this election in familiar ways. The most obvious one is that Le Pen is a stand-in for Donald Trump and will France make the same error that the United States did. This is a sloppy and poor way to interpret any election. If you talk to any voter they will have complicated reasons for choosing the candidates they do. Moreover, voters perhaps cannot articulate their less apparent motivations. Trying to conceive of elections in our own terms, ignoring context, is a quick way to make incorrect caricatures. When Trump was elected I pointed out how he may be an American manifestation of the far-right resurgence we have seen in Europe, but I sincerely doubt Trump and his advisors saw him as part of the Front National, and British National Party, etc.

Le Pen was, and is no Trump. She, her party, and her family have been part of the French political scene for decades. She was definitely excluded from the French mainstream, but still a well-known personality in political life. Likewise, casting Macron as the defender of the status quo also misses the point. Macron formed his own political party (approximately a liberal or centrist party) to win the presidency. Despite the fact that he is a former cabinet member, from what I can tell he was a relative minor figure in France before he made the push for the executive. At 39 he is the youngest person to win the presidency.

The two main political parties/factions that have governed France and been the challengers in elections were kicked out of the final round: the Socialists and their right-wing opposite, presently Republicans. Macron and Le Pen, from my point of view, were both outsiders. They represented a general dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron's victory seems in equal parts a rejection of Le Pen's brand of extremism, and continued commitment to the centre/status quo. France is not yet ready for radical alternatives, but are dissatisfied with the standard responses. France's political history has often dealt with centrists trying to deal with extreme left and extreme right challengers. Perhaps Macrons En Marche party will unify the centre of the political spectrum to try to lead France into the future, but none can say for certain. France is holding legislative elections next month which will definitely give us a sense of where France is heading for the next few years.

The French presidential election is a warning about France in specific and perhaps the world in general. The extreme right is becoming an accepted part of many countries' political discourse. Voters in many countries are frustrated by the  status quo and seeking unusual alternatives. Macron will, hopefully, be an ally for the remaining 'liberal' world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau.

So best of luck to France as they move forward, and thanks for clearly picking the lesser of evils.

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