Perhaps April 24, 2022 will signify the end of an era in French politics; the last election for some time of an avowed centrist as head of state.
In the end Emmanuel Macron won easily, though for an opponent branded as ‘far right’ to register over 40% of the vote is something to concentrate minds in France, and across an otherwise jubilant Europe.
French populism continues to advance, as in countries such as Hungary and Poland.
Given the economic strictures in Europe following the pandemic and contingent upon the war between Russia and Ukraine, it is unlikely to have peaked yet.
Marine Le Pen has upward trajectory
In 2002 Marine Le Pen’s father, a Holocaust denier and as near to a fascist as western Europe has seen leading a political party in this century, lost to Jacques Chirac by 82% to 18.
For her to do so well as she did against Mr Macron is ominous for the centrists.
Not only does the French constitution prevent Mr Macron from fighting again in 2027; his trajectory is downwards, while Ms Le Pen’s and that of her Rassemblement National is upwards.
The traditional parties of left and right – the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains – were pitiful in their impotence during the campaign and in the first round.
Ms Le Pen, in her speech acknowledging defeat, appeared far from demoralised, but rather energetic as she launched her campaign for the legislative elections this summer.
Given the deep divisions in France, the huge hostility against Mr Macron and the loathing of the entrenched political establishment that was voiced during the campaign, he and his colleagues will have their work cut out to keep populism at bay.
I do not just mean the populism of the right (and I am not sure just how ‘right wing’ Ms Le Pen and her programme were: some of it was remarkably socialist).
French appetite for radical Left and Right
Jean-Luc Mélenchon only narrowly missed the second round, and it is clear there is an appetite in France for radical socialism just as there has been an increased appetite for radical nationalism.
The sense is growing that radical change is needed; it is far from clear who Mr Macron’s heir apparent will be, or indeed whether his LREM movement will survive him.
It must be on the cards that the 2027 presidential contest will be between the hard left and the radical nationalists.
Some commentators were swift to predict that this was the last time we shall see Ms Le Pen in a presidential election; I would not bet on it.
She will only be 58 at the next election, 10 years younger than Charles de Gaulle was when he became president and seven years younger than François Mitterrand.
She has registered an astonishing achievement for her movement in getting more than 40% of the vote.
She might, of course, be written off if the RN cannot greatly increase its representation in the Assemblée nationale; but five years is an epoch in politics, and if she wants to fight the presidential election in 2027, it is hard to see anyone in her party stopping her.
Mélenchon as prime minister?
Mr Mélenchon will be 76 by the next election, but his chance might come before then.
His supporters are confident that the left, motivated by Mr Macron’s victory and Ms Le Pen’s managing to get into the second round, will mobilise sufficiently to give La France Insoumise enough of the 577 seats in the Assemblée nationale for Mr Mélenchon to have the chance to become prime minister.
On verra, as the French say: but it cannot be ruled out. What is certain, whether he becomes prime minister or not, is that Mr Mélenchon, like Ms Le Pen, will be harrying Mr Macron relentlessly.
Without much of a machine behind him, Mr Macron may find the political battle increasingly wearing, and the Assemblée nationale may make his attempts at further reform extremely difficult.
Macron not interested in democracy
To be fair to Mr Macron, he did start to reboot the French economy and managed to cut unemployment; and he had a pandemic to handle.
However, his reward was to be despised by both extremes, castigated for his egotism and for embracing globalism, and for his identification with the European elite.
Their club is viewed by the populists of both types as something that offers nothing to the ordinary French, and is not especially interested in democracy.
Macron isolated in Europe
The more his European counterparts heap praise and congratulations on Mr Macron, as they did from the second of his re-election, the more the populists will hold him in suspicion and seek to attack and undermine him.
And if the European Union becomes more fragmentary – Brussels’ current relations with Hungary and Poland are hardly promising, the pressure will pile up on Germany to end its business relationship with Russia, and once the pandemic is over the need will arise to address the severe predicament of several EU nations, notably Italy – then Mr Macron will become even more beleaguered.
Macron must make everyone’s lives better
But now re-elected he needs to set about, as a priority, reaching the parts of the French electorate that he did not in his first quinquennat.
That means raising the standard of living of the less well-off French; of re-gearing the economy to improve pouvoir d’achat; of healing divisions and creating a greater sense of harmony in the country.
Regarding the latter, I do not just mean the divide between those who support Mr Macron and those who do not, but between the growing number of alienated people, especially young men, in the banlieues and the rest of France, that look upon the government with mounting suspicion and even fear – and I do not refer only to the Muslim population.
Doubtless Mr Macron is delighted to have won; a sign that France is doing well will be if he stays ahead.