My Macron hangover

Stop sending me congratulatory messages about the French elections, says Françoise Poilâne. French voters may have resolutely said "non" to a right-wing presidency, but now we have Macron. We might be vaguely 'relieved', but happy?

Image for My Macron hangover
Photo by Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stop sending me congratulatory messages about the French elections, says Françoise Poilâne. No more than one out of five French voters actually voted for Emmanuel Macron… have them celebrate. The rest of us? We might be vaguely ‘relieved’, but happy? Definitely not!

While Germany’s media, political leaders and pretty much everyone I know in town seem ecstatic at the outcome of our voting, I, like the majority of French people, woke up this morning with a serious case of political hangover. Following a brief sigh of relief – Le Pen didn’t make it, but, call me presumptuous, we knew she wouldn’t anyway – came the sobering realisation: we elected Macron!

Germans love him more than we do…

We knew foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel and Der Spiegel would vote Macron if they could (media were obsessed with Putin’s intervention in the French elections, but who noticed that Gabriel predicted Macron would win “for sure” as early as April 4?). As for Merkel, she gave him her blessing last March by granting him a one-hour chat while he was still one of four front-runners and looking for foreign cred. Unsurprisingly she was the first leader to congratulate him on election night. With the exception of pro-Marine AfD and the leftists of Die Linke (who deplore Macron’s neo-liberalism), Germany was all euphoria. After all, he’s the European anthem guy (he played the “Ode to Joy” after his win), the antithesis to Brexit, the most fervent believer in Merkel’s Europe. But we, the French people, are a lot less ecstatic. As a matter of fact, I was in France before and during the elections, and besides TV reports of Macron’s celebrations at the Louvre, I didn’t see or hear much demonstration of joy. As I and fellow travellers to Berlin were anxiously standing in front of a TV screen in Charles de Gaulle waiting for the countdown to the live results, I almost heard their heartbeats rise with mine. But once results materialised on the giant screen at 8pm on the dot, we all gave a small sigh of relief, and that was that. No trace of joy or celebration – and I’m talking about a Sunday night flight packed with commuters to Berlin, where Macron scored a staggering 90 percent among French voters!

That’s when congratulatory messages from German and American friends started to rain in on my phone and haven’t stopped since. The texts from my French friends and family, on the other hand, all read like condolences. None of them had voted Le Pen. Almost all went for Macron. Like many Bernie Sanders supporters who ended up voting Clinton ‘against’ Trump, they’d opted for the ‘lesser evil’. They were just more successful at it than the US Democrats!

The ultimate ‘by default’ candidate

As a matter of fact, I was surprised and slightly pissed off to realise that many of my leftist friends had voted for Macron as early as the first round, depriving their vote of true political meaning and the French system of its intrinsic beauty: first you vote with your heart, then you vote with your head. In the second round, you have a chance to correct potential collateral damage and bar anyone you really don’t like from being voted into office. The problem this time was that corrupt conservative Francois Fillon could well have ended up making it against Le Pen, or so strategised my leftist friends. After all, the French Republicans were this election’s absolute favourite before ultra-con Fillon got caught for embezzlement. So Macron was the ultimate ‘useful’ vote, as a barricade against their number one nightmarish scenario; a second round opposing Fillon to Le Pen. And it worked out so well that as Der Freitag observed a week before the election, we ended up instead with the no-less-ultimate ‘democratic choice’: “Macron vs Macron”. Anyone willing to escape the paradigm was automatically witch-hunted and guilt-tripped as a pro-Le Pen fascist collaborator. That’s how most of my friends who deep down wanted nothing but change ended up electing the candidate of ‘more of the same’.

We wanted ‘new’ and ‘change’

As expressed in the first round, many French voters were pretty desperate for change: an alternative to the middle-of-the-road politics and neo-liberal economics to which they’d been subjected by presidents of the left and right, from Sarkozy to Holland. Promises with every new election, but little change to the status quo. Of course Marine Le Pen represented change, Frexit nationalist style. But the two main left-wing candidates did too, on the other side of the political spectrum. The fact that Benoit Hamon won Hollande’s Socialist Party primary against Prime Minister Valls was emblematic of this thirst for bold new ideas – with his universal basic income and resolutely left-leaning social platform, Hamon was a grassroots coup  against party leaders’ expectations and their best opportunistic judgement (so much so that many broke from party discipline to jump on the Macron bandwagon). Mélanchon, our French-style Podemos phenomenon, and his historic 19.5 percent was another expression of the left’s yearning for alternatives: the German media mostly caricatured him as a dangerous ‘anti-European’, the ultimate insult since Brexit, and disqualified him on par with Marine as an enemy to Germany, failing to grasp the hope he represented for millions of resolutely progressive democrats fed up with austerity and conservative politics. Add to that a record number of blank/protest ballots, and you get an approximate idea of the deep yearning for change among French voters.

How new is Macron?

Okay, let’s acknowledge that our wish for change did materialise in some cosmetic ways. Macron is literally new as a political figure – no one knew him before Hollande appointed him as economy minister three and a half years ago. He’s also new as in young (“not yet 40”, France’s youngest state leader since Bonaparte, in case you missed this it every headline) and his political style is ‘”fresh” and “novel” (he organised his presidential campaign as a “startup” complete with Mac-powered staffers). Then there’s “Brigitte”, his wife, the leggy blonde 25 years his senior whose schmancy wardrobe and glamourised tale of “French teacher falls for pupil Emmanuel over drama workshop” captured the tabloid limelight. No other First Lady has captivated as much before. Not even Sarkozy’s Carla Bruni.

The problem is that, beside his age, style and wife, Macron has little new to offer. Which explains why only about a quarter of French voters actually support his platform. Do the maths yourself: a record 12 million didn’t go to the ballot, 3 million voted ‘blank’. All in all one-third of French voters either abstained or cast a protest vote. Out of the remaining two-thirds, 10.5 million (24 percent) voted Le Pen, 20.7 million voted Macron – but how many voted for him out of political conviction? Only 40 percent, according to surveys. And you want us to rejoice? There must be a maximum of 10 million out there who really can. I don’t know a single one of them.

Maybe I should enjoy the “triumph against fascism”, as my American friends call it. We French demonstrated we were mature and responsible. We wouldn’t let a radical right wing nationalist rule us. The Brexit/Trump nightmare didn’t materialise in France,

Hallelujah. Call me a killjoy, but over 10 million voted for Marine Le Pen, and another 12 million refused to vote (a record 25 percent!). We wanted change and we’re good for a five-year term of more or less the same good old Merkel-infused austerity. So sorry, but stop sending me congratulatory messages; I’m not happy.

Next? Parliamentary elections in June. Can’t wait!