30 May 2019
Qui a gagné? Qui a perdu?
The French European Parliamentary elections.
By Richard Pooley
I spent last Sunday in the company of five French men and three French women in a minibus. We travelled some 800 kms from Brive to Pau and back in order to watch a rugby match between Brive and Bayonne to decide who would be champions of France. The fact that this was the championship match of France’s second division, ProD2, and not that of the premier division, the Top 14, made no difference to the 18,000 supporters in black and white (Brive) or light blue and white (Bayonne). Nor the fact that whoever lost would still get promoted to the Top 14 next season if they beat Grenoble (thirteenth in the Top 14 this season) at home next Sunday. This was a match that must be won for the honour of one’s region, whether the Corrèze or the Basque country. For us Brive supporters to go meant being unable to vote in the European Parliamentary elections and not being able to be with our families on Mothers’ Day (always celebrated in France on the last Sunday in May). No contest. The three grandmothers in the back of the bus spent much of the trip on WhatsApp or FaceTime sending bisous to their petits enfants and giving advice to their enfants on how Sunday lunch was to be cooked. We men talked rugby when not waving flags out of windows or klaxoning any car or bus sporting Brive’s colours on the motorway. Only one matter was taboo throughout the 8-hour drive, the 2-hour picnic lunch and the match itself: politics.
When in the UK for a fortnight in April, Brexit was the one subject friends and family avoided discussing unless we were absolutely certain everybody in the room shared the same opinion. More often than not, we didn’t all think the same, making conversation strained. My usual Socratic approach, it was made clear on day one, would only lead to accusations of treachery, bigotry and anti-democracy. So too in France, although here the subject is President Macron. Last Saturday night, over dinner, I asked my French hosts whether they would be voting. Cue a diatribe against Macron – arrogant, only for the rich (the phrase which I hear and read everywhere), loathed by one and all. I pointed out to Marie that the opinion polls had consistently showed his party, La République En Marche!, getting the support of more than one in five people. With a record 34 party lists on offer, only Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, was scoring higher at around 24%. Marie dismissed all such sondages as wrong. The far left France Insoumise would come second, she said, although adding swiftly that she could not stand them and their fiery Marxist leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, either. Her husband, Philippe, thought the Greens, Europe Écologie les Verts, would come second.
Marie was right not to trust one pollster. Ipsos issued a mea culpa on Tuesday. They had badly underestimated the support for the Greens, who got 13.5% of Sunday’s vote, coming a strong third and doing far better than in 2014. And they had overestimated how many votes the Républicains would get. The centre-right Gaullist party, for so long one of the two most powerful parties in France and the equivalent of the UK’s Conservative Party, scored a miserable 8.5%. The party is riven by factions, having still not come to terms with what happened to them in the 2017 presidential election, which so many of the pollsters at the time predicted they would win. So, very equivalent to the UK’s Conservatives. But Marie was utterly wrong in her prediction of how the party lists of Macron and Mélenchon would do. The president’s REM list got 22.4% while France Insoumise came fifth with 6.3% of the vote, 0.1% more than the other great party of the past, the Parti Socialiste, equivalent to the UK’s Labour Party.
So, who won? Le Pen claimed she did, the Rassemblement National having scored 23.3%. But Marine (and Marie), you got a lower % than five years ago and only just beat the president’s party, which didn’t exist in 2014. And you lost a seat. What sort of victory is that?
In truth, little has changed since the presidential election. It’s still Macron versus Le Pen. The Greens did well and should be able to carry their success on to future national and regional elections just as their colleagues have done in Germany. The two clear losers were the Gaullist Républicains and the Socialists. Macron’s La République En Marche! stole their supporters in 2017 and they have not returned. France has moved and stayed Right. Half the country supports either a centrist party (LREM will sit with the UK’s Liberal Democrats in the new European Parliament) or a far right one. Will the same happen now in the UK?
Longer term, the winner of this election in France did not take part in it and has remained quiet: Marion Maréchal, the 29-year old niece of Marine Le Pen and grandaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, to whom she is close. She became France’s youngest ever MP in 2012 but left politics in 2017, ostensibly to spend more time with her daughter, born in 2014 (two months after Marion Maréchal got married, a union which lasted two years). She dropped the Le Pen bit of her surname last year. She has set up a right-wing business school in Lyon, received the backing of such luminaries as Steve Bannon, and has made no attempt to deny that she is aiming to be a candidate in the 2022 presidential election, presumably for the Rassemblement National. Photogenic and an assured orator and interviewee, she will be much harder for Macron to defeat in any televised debate as he did her aunt in 2017.
Oh, and Brive gave away a penalty in the last minute of their final against Bayonne and lost the match by two points. It was a long journey back up the motorway, past the stadium of mighty Toulouse. Shall Brive be playing there next year? We talked of it and of bent referees and the unfairness of it all. But of Macron, not a word.