The evening of Sunday 24th of April was one filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves across France and the wider world. Europe won the night as the results revealed a comfortable win for Macron with 58.2% of the vote. The win was greeted with as much relief in Brussels and Berlin as it was on the Champs de Mars.
The political context in France provided a fertile ground for a nationalist-populist narrative: rise in the cost of living of every French, recovery from a pandemic-induced recession, a transition towards a greener and more just economy, and finally a war in the continent.
And yet, Macron ran the most pro-European candidacy in French history, favouring proposals that are always difficult to convey, such as deeper cooperation and integration with the European Union.
The defeat of Le Pen capped a good night for the EU with the populist Slovene Prime Minister Janez Jansa suffering an electoral defeat. This would all suggest that right wing populism is on a downward trajectory across the continent but there are still challenges ahead.
So, what’s next for pro-Europeans in France and the rest of Europe?
1 - Continue building coalitions in France, and beyond
In France, the attention now turns to the parliamentary elections in June. The Presidential election has shown that French politics is deeply divided into four distinct quarters: the liberal group led by Macron, the far-right led by Le Pen, the far-left led by Mélenchon, and the final quarter failed to turnout to vote. This fragmentation of politics makes gaining a majority in parliament incredibly difficult.
It is therefore crucial for the stability of France and progression of European integration that cohabitation is avoided. If a coalition is created between La République en Marche and other pro-European parties it would allow for the progression of numerous EU programmes and maintain the common European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The use of pro-European coalitions have emerged in many areas of the continent. The most recent example was in the Slovene general election, which took place on the same night as the French Presidential election. A group of similar minded green and liberal minded politicians and parties merged to form a new political party, Freedom Movement. They fought the campaign on a pro-European, green, and democratic platform. Freedom Movement managed to win 41 out of the 90 seats in parliament. This result pushed the populist conservative Prime Minister out of office. This serves as not only as an example to France but to all of Europe that pro-European coalitions can work.
2 - Reaching beyond our base: the fight for the rural vote
Macron managed to win every age group with particularly strong support in the 18-24 and 65+ age groups. The rural vote was evenly matched but Macron comfortably won the major urban centres. These included Paris where he won over 85% of the vote. This was repeated across many large urban centres. The major city where Le Pen achieved her best result was Nice.
This problem is not new. In his 2015 book “La France périphérique,” geographer Christophe Guilluy highlighted the widening gap between Paris and wealthy cities, on the one hand, and small towns and declining rural communities, on the other. Identifying the associated political tensions, Guilluy anticipated the rise of the yellow vests and their protest against Parisian elites.
It is therefore crucial that pro-European parties recognize that there is a problem in getting their message across to voters outside the big cities. This population has the feeling of being ignored by the elites and perceives that their life has not improved due to belonging to the European Union and the phenomenon of globalization.
The fight for the rural vote is therefore key if the pro-European parties want to continue to be a credible force in national politics. How to achieve it?
First, pro-European parties and their leaders need to spend more time in rural regions and less time attending think tank events in their capitals.
Secondly, it is necessary to prioritize the problems that directly affect this sector of the population, such as the lack of job opportunities, depopulation or the need for better infrastructure.
Finally, it is necessary to explain how the European Union is having a positive impact at the local level, whether it is creating new jobs or investing in sustainable agriculture.
A close example is that of Spain, where the coalition government created a ministry for the "Demographic Challenge" with the aim of giving back to those forgotten places of the so-called "emptied Spain" their prominence and thus prevent the population in these areas from giving their vote for the far-right party, VOX.
3 - Get people out to vote
Le Pen managed to receive 41.5% of the vote but the major talking point was the low voter turnout with less than 72% casting a ballot. This was repeated across many regions with especially low turnout in many overseas territories and Corsica. In fact, Corsica had the lowest turnout of any metropolitan French region with a turnout of less than 61%.
The fact that Le Pen won the areas where there was a lower turnout would suggest that the far-right was better at getting their voters out. It would also suggest that possibly that the far-right has hit it’s peak in France.
It is therefore crucial that pro-European candidates and parties convince their voters to cast a ballot to protect democracy and prevent nationalist and populists taking power in Europe. An increased voter turnout will not just benefit political parties but will also aid in the legitimacy of elections and European values.
This article has been published by the European campaign playbook.
Special thanks to Declan O’Donoghue, who is a third year student of Government and Political Science at University College Cork.
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