Even though Emmanuel Macron, who topped France’s first-round poll on Sunday with just 23.75% of the vote, is expected to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round on Sunday week, the issues in play are so very great that anyone who believes that the European project still offers a far better future than a return to fractious, often bellicose nationalism may have sensibly kept their Champagne on ice. It will, if, when, Macron prevails in a fortnight, taste all the sweeter.
The probability that Le Pen’s National Front (FN) will fall at the last hurdle, a hope strengthened by endorsements for Macron by the republican and socialist candidates, François Fillon and Benoît Hamon, would break the pattern of the last year when one candidate or one idea more extreme, more implausible than the other seduced angry electorates abandoned by long-established political parties or institutions.
Later this week Donald Trump — who, like Macron, had not stood for public office before running for his country’s presidency — will mark his first 100 days in the White House. A Brexit-driven British general election campaign will gather pace and, just as a Macron victory is anticipated, anything other than an increased Tory majority seems all but impossible. That prospect stands despite the narrow 52:48 vote to quit the EU and a deeper, more sober appreciation across Britain of what a hard Brexit is likely to mean.
That 52:48 ratio is the very same endorsement granted to the autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan two weeks ago, a vote that strengthens his capacity to continue to rule with virtual impunity. That coronation was decided by rural voters. A similar pattern was seen in France. Le Pen won just 5% of the Paris vote (Macron got 34.83%) but FN support in rural France surged. Not only do we face ever-sharper ideological divisions, we also face a deepening divide between rural and urban communities. The global swing towards urbanisation — and automation — will exacerbate that.
The Macron vote has been welcomed all across Europe —the EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, broke protocol to wish him well as did German Chancellor Anglea Merkel — but it also offers a stark warning to well-established parties traditionally happy to rotate power between each other.
America elected an indescribable fraud and liar last year; Turkey endorsed a conservative Muslim dictator; and Britain redrew the long-celebrated blueprint for its future. France has, by rejecting Les Républicains and Parti Socialiste resoundly, taken the first step towards breaking with its past too. That the country has done that by supporting the enigmatic, mercurial and largely unknown Marcon is another indication of how trust between the political establishment and those they govern has collapsed.
The established Irish parties have shown no indication they understand that they are not immune from this spring cleaning or that they need to change to regain trust or remain in power. As ever, the strongest card they have is the lack of an alternative but even that argument is near its sell-by date. As ever, unyielding conservatism is the very best guarantor of change — the only issue is timing.