France votes: Macron’s frontrunner status conceals deep rifts in society

Gilles Lermet has had enough: enough of 45 years of work, enough of the interminable left-right cycle of French politics about to start again in next month’s presidential election, enough of cars being set alight by hooligans on the street, enough of the shortage of doctors, of declining public services and of immigration.

“There are too many migrants,” he says from behind the counter of his bar in La Ricamarie in the industrial valley of the L’Ondaine river that joins the Loire near Saint-Etienne, mirroring the complaints of France’s far right. “It’s not that they take our jobs, because there aren’t any. But we have to pay for them.”

La Ricamarie is the kind of post-industrial town where the liberal president Emmanuel Macron and other establishment politicians from centre-left to centre-right are scorned by residents living with the bitter legacy of poverty, unemployment and bad housing left by the closure of coal mines and factories since the 1970s. 

Every opinion poll suggests Macron is likely to win another five-year term at the Elysée Palace in the French elections, which begin on April 10. But the lingering resentment towards the Paris elite in places such as La Ricamarie suggests a Macron victory would not for long suppress the anger in French society that erupted with the anti-government gilets jaunes protests, or defang the extremist French politicians who try to exploit it.

A map showing the location of La Ricamarie in the Loire department of central France

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the EU’s eastern borders since the end of February has given Macron, who has regularly spoken to President Vladimir Putin in pursuit of a diplomatic resolution, the status of a wartime leader and increased his lead in the national polls.

The political issues highlighted by Macron’s rivals on the campaign trail — immigration, especially of Muslims, and crime — suddenly seem less important when European cities are being besieged and sacked by Russian troops and millions of Ukrainian civilians are seeking refuge with their EU neighbours.

But the distractions of the conflict have also given the incumbent French president an excuse not to debate economic and social policies or the rising cost of living with his rivals.

That risks feeding the already widespread perception that Macron is arrogant and distant from the concerns of ordinary people. Many citizens say they are likely to abstain completely — pollsters say about a third have no plans to vote, which would mean a record low turnout — and commentators say that could undermine Macron’s legitimacy in the next five years, despite France’s relatively strong economic performance since he took office.

High abstention and a strong performance by Macron’s far-right and far-left rivals would also ensure France remains a key battleground in the global struggle between liberal internationalists and the forces of nationalism and populism. These were the forces that triggered Brexit in the UK, elected Donald Trump in the US and brought strongmen leaders to power from Brazil to the Philippines.

Gilles Lermet, a bar owner in  La Ricamarie, says ‘there are too many migrants. It’s not that they take our jobs, because there aren’t any. But we have to pay for them’
Gilles Lermet, a bar owner in La Ricamarie, says ‘there are too many migrants. It’s not that they take our jobs, because there aren’t any. But we have to pay for them’ © Victor Mallet/FT

For Julian Jackson, the historian and biographer of Charles de Gaulle, Macron’s likely victory will disguise the reality that France’s status as a beacon of liberal democracy is “holding by a thread”. He recalls that the far right made inroads in French postwar politics as early as the 1980s and continues to grow.

“He [Macron] is holding it off, but for how long? One worrying thing is that his almost certain re-election is faute de mieux, it’s by default. There’s no great Macron swell to the extent that there was last time.”

Fertile ground for the far right

The 4,800 voters in La Ricamarie played little part in the surge of support that swept Macron to power in 2017 with a promise to govern from “neither right nor left”. Instead, they shunned the centre ground and chose the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon followed by the far-right Marine Le Pen as their top candidates in the first round of voting.

At his bar-café on La Ricamarie’s main square, Lermet’s views on immigration make clear that he is more in favour of Le Pen and her Rassemblement National party than Mélenchon and his La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). He has run the Bar Roulette for the past 36 years, and it is here that white working-class men in their sixties come to find solace with a glass of pastis or cheap wine.

The mood is un-Parisian and small-town friendly — each man typically shakes hands with the half dozen already inside after he enters — and there is palpable nostalgia for les trente glorieuses, the three decades of economic growth and industrial development post-1945.

“There was work, there were the old miners, there was camaraderie,” says Lermet. “It was marvellous . . . 20,000 people used to go to Firminy every day to work at Creusot-Loire [steelworks] and the other companies down the road. Now there’s unemployment.”

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Cyrille Bonnefoy, the town’s Communist party mayor, also recalls the good old days of coal mining, heavy industry, strong trade unions and thousands of jobs that drew in waves of migrants, first from southern and eastern Europe and later from France’s former north African colonies.

Since the 1980s, new migrants have come from rural Turkey and as refugees from the former Yugoslavia, but now jobs are scarce and there has been an exodus of the middle class. Bonnefoy says 16-17 per cent of the local workforce are unemployed — more than double the national average — and three-quarters of the town’s homes are either government housing or dilapidated flats and houses in need of repair.

All this is rich pickings for the far right. Bonnefoy, who also works as a nurse at the local hospital, remarks wryly on the ability these days of Le Pen’s supporters to campaign unmolested in what used to be a solidly leftwing town. “I would never have believed that a Rassemblement National bus could come through this valley and stop everywhere and deliver leaflets and no one say anything,” he says. “‘That would not have been possible 30 years ago.” 

Polls suggest Le Pen, whose Euroscepticism and plans to curb immigration have won the backing of many former Communist working-class voters, can expect the backing of about 19 per cent of voters in the first round of the election on April 10. That puts her second only to Macron on 28 per cent and would qualify her for the runoff against him two weeks later — a repeat of the battle at the previous election.

Another far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, a television talk-show polemicist who is an even more vociferous critic of immigration than Le Pen, is currently in fourth place with about 11 per cent; last week, he proposed setting up a new ministry of “remigration” and expelling 1mn foreigners in five years.

Naella Amman, a law student and supporter of the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, says President Emmanuel Macron ‘has continued the destruction of public services’
Naella Amman, a law student and supporter of the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, says President Emmanuel Macron ‘has continued the destruction of public services’ © Victor Mallet/FT

And many of the conservative Les Républicains who should in theory vote loyally for their candidate Valérie Pécresse after she won the party primary have ill-concealed far-right sympathies as well, which may deter them from supporting her moderate manifesto.

It adds up to a very substantial far-right vote, and in the most recent polls on second round voting intentions Macron’s lead over Le Pen has narrowed to 56-44 from the 66-34 outcome in 2017.

Such a result would be the far-right movement’s best since it was founded by Le Pen’s father in the 1970s and would put it within touching distance of power in France.

Next time they might go even further. If Le Pen is defeated in the presidential vote, liberals fear the far right will reconstitute itself, perhaps under a combination of Zemmour and Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal, a youthful star of the right who has joined his campaign.

Staring into the void

Yet the divisions in this country are not simply between the establishment politicians on one side and the far right on the other.

Naella Amman, a third-year law student at Saint-Etienne’s Jean Monnet university, is just as fed up with the state of France under Macron as the bar owner Lermet. Far from blaming immigrants, however, she is a Frenchwoman of Algerian origin herself and a fervent supporter of Mélenchon and his party.

She says her political awakening started with the rise of the anti-immigration extreme right before the previous election, and was completed during the Covid-19 pandemic by what she felt were Macron’s improvised and dictatorial decisions to deprive the French of their liberties with periodic lockdowns and the “absurd” health pass that gave access to public transport and entertainment.

A man displays campaign posters in Nantes. France’s far left and far right share an anger against the establishment and a sense of economic exclusion
A man displays campaign posters in Nantes. France’s far left and far right share an anger against the establishment and a sense of economic exclusion © Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP/Getty

All the while, Amman says, the country’s once-exemplary health and education systems were collapsing and the situation became “unbearable”. Macron, she says, “has continued the destruction of public services”. 

She has chosen to support Mélenchon and his radical manifesto, which includes guaranteed jobs for all, increasing taxes on the rich, welcoming immigrants, legalising cannabis and withdrawing from Nato.

The veteran leftist has had a late surge in the opinion polls and is now running third behind Macron and Le Pen with 14 per cent of first round voting intentions. But his past hostility to Ukraine, and sympathy regarding Putin, have been seen as a liability. Amman rejects this criticism. “We are opposed to the ultra-imperialism of the US, but that doesn’t mean we are soft on Putin,” she insists.

For all their ideological differences, in France the far left and the far right have much in common: anger against the establishment; a French nationalism that distrusts globalisation, Nato and the EU; alienation from traditional politics; and a feeling of economic exclusion. Amman says both her parents survive on the minimum wage, and Lermet complains that his monthly pension is just €955 after a lifetime’s work.

The gilets jaunes demonstrations that began in late 2018, which shook the Macron administration before petering out during the pandemic, sometimes brought together left and right in incongruous street marches.

They started as conservative motorists’ protests at suburban roundabouts against a green fuel tax, briefly attracted supporters of the far right and then the left and finally degenerated into city street marches infiltrated by anarchists who fought the equally violent French riot police.

Protesters call for a rise to the state pension in Nantes. The resentment towards the Paris elite suggests a Macron victory would not suppress French anger © Loic Venance/AFP/Getty

Macron’s demolition of the traditional party system, especially the conservative Les Républicains and the centre-left Socialists, has created “a kind of wasteland in which the conventional right and the conventional left have been sucked into his centre”, says Jackson. “It leaves a terrible void into which this populist, violent rhetoric can propagate itself.” 

The risk to Macron

Even if Macron wins his second term as convincingly as the polls predict, it is clear he will face big challenges. One of the first will be the legislative elections in June, which his political supporters will need to win if he is to govern France effectively.

Another problem is his own unpopularity among large numbers of the French. Marc Lazar, a professor of political history and sociology at Sciences Po, told an online seminar for the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research that Macron was the target of “unprecedented detestation” from all sides. “He is hated by the left, by the right and by the popular class,” he said. If he was re-elected without a real debate on economic and social issues the post-election period could be “very problematic”. 

As ever in France, unrest is a possibility. A recent survey of 8,000 young French people aged 18-24 that Lazar co-authored for the Institut Montaigne think-tank found that a remarkable 22 per cent of them found the use of violence justified to protest or defend their ideas. More than a third (37 per cent) said it was acceptable or understandable to break into a government ministry building by force.

“The opposition may be in the street rather than in the parliament, and that’s a problem,” says Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, though he thinks an “uprising against democratic institutions” is unlikely. “The French are pretty highly educated, and pretty patriotic. Many French voters would not want to be participants in the destruction of French democracy.” 

Eric Zemmour stands in front of Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece and a youthful star of the right who has joined his presidential campaign
Eric Zemmour stands in front of Marion Maréchal, Marine Le Pen’s niece and a youthful star of the right who has joined his presidential campaign © Photos Creation/Panoramic/Reuters

Macron and his campaign must not be complacent about these risks, one of Macron’s confidants in the government tells the Financial Times. “We the elites, because we live well, we don’t see that a majority of French people want disorder, a radical change.” Brexit and Trump left the UK and the US deeply polarised, the person says. “I don’t want the same to happen in France. If France tips over the edge, it’s the whole European continent that goes.” 

If Paris again erupts in violence it would come as no surprise to those in La Ricamarie. “Macron’s like [the magician] David Copperfield,” says a disgruntled Lermet. “He’s made the unemployment numbers go down and yet he still closes factories . . . We’ve continued with the same governments that impose their austerity plans and cut the police. It’s been going on for 40 years, left, right, left, right.” 

In the car park-turned-market outside his bar, there are bargains to lure the low-paid — 12 bottles of leftover Leffe Christmas beer for €6 or a pair of shoes for €3 — and there is a hubbub of voices in French, Arabic and east European languages, some of them grumbling about the clowns who they say run the country.

And the door of the public toilet next to the market is plastered with posters rejecting the injustice of capitalism and sending a pointed message to politicians in the capital. “We must revolt against the electoral farce!” it says. “Boycott 2022.”

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