13 Million: Macron, Le Pen, and the Struggle for Democracy in France
April 28, Puyloubier, France
GARDANNE IS A SMALL INDUSTRIAL CITY in southern France, roughly 10 miles from the regional capital of Aix-en-Provence. In the 1830s, significant deposits of coal were discovered in Gardanne, and it's been coal ever since. The miners came first, then the industries that require cheap and convenient energy—soap makers, tile factories, the Péchiney aluminum company, and, in 1963, the enormous power generating facility, La centrale thermique de Provence, until recently the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe. The coal mines and the factories brought foreign workers, too— from Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Armenia, and North Africa. They’re still there. Unlike Aix, its wealthy neighbor to the north, Gardanne remains a working-class and immigrant community.
It’s not surprising, then, that Gardanne’s municipal government was dominated for much of the 20th century by socialists and communists. Victor Savine — miner, metal worker, union leader, resistance fighter, militant socialist — became Gardanne’s mayor in 1929. With the exception of the World War II years, Savine occupied the mayor’s office until 1971. He was succeeded by Philémon Lieutaud, another miner and militant socialist. In 1977, Roger Mei, a teacher and militant in the French Communist Party (PCF), succeeded Lieutaud and remained in office until 2020. The community center in Gardanne is called La Maison du Peuple and the public library is named after Nelson Mandela.
Toward the end of the communist era in Gardanne, things began to change. The last of the deep shaft coal mines closed for good in 2003. In 2020, the coal-fired power generating facility that supplied electricity to local factories and the national grid was shut down by the administration of Emmanuel Macron as part of its strategy to address climate change. Substantial public and private resources were committed to an alternative biomass plant, but strikes by plant workers, alarmed at the loss of jobs in the transition, interrupted its testing and it has never gone online. The hulking Altéo aluminum factory continues to operate, but its ownership has changed hands amid rumors that it, too, might close.
The long-serving communist mayor Roger Mei announced his decision to step down in 2019. In the election that followed, his apparent successor and fellow communist party militant, Claude Jordan, won a razor-thin first-round plurality of votes over the moderately conservative candidate, Hervé Granier. But in the second and decisive round, Granier came out on top. It was the first time since 1929 that Gardanne’s mayor was not a socialist or a communist.
Earlier regional and national elections had signaled what might lie ahead. Already in the first and second rounds of the departmental elections of 2015, extreme right candidates and platforms made impressive showings against left-wing coalitions. And then in the first round of the presidential elections of 2017, the first of several bombs — Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, defeated the radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon by several percentage points. Emmanuel Macron was a distant third. In the second and decisive round, a coalition of conservative and leftist anti-Le Pen voters enabled Macron to prevail, but the writing was on the wall. In the first round of the presidential contest three weeks ago, Le Pen once again beat Mélenchon, and this time by a margin of six points. (Fabien Roussel, the candidate of the PCF, earned a feeble 3.5 points.) In the second and decisive round in Gardanne, Le Pen prevailed over Macron by a surprisingly large margin of nearly 10 points. A bastion of left-wing politics since the 1920s had moved solidly into the camp of the extreme right.
There were great sighs of relief in France last Sunday when the news of Emmanuel Macron’s 17-point victory over Marine Le Pen was announced immediately after the polls closed at 8 pm. And it was even better news that Macron won pulling away, exceeding the margin of victory predicted in polls just days before. Amid some doubts going into the final stretch of the second round, “the republican barricade,” as it is known here, had once again prevented the extreme right from controlling the powerful executive branch of France’s government.
But as Le Pen told her disappointed followers in her concession speech, there are reasons for supporters of the Rassemblement National to feel heartened by the results. In 2017, Le Pen won a total of 10.5 million votes; in 2022, she won more than 13 million. Macron, by contrast, lost almost two million votes compared to 2017. The Rassemblement National also made geographical progress, picking up regions, departments, and municipalities across the country. Most important of all, Le Pen made progress in places like Gardanne, working-class communities where her populist messages found greater resonance in 2022 than in 2017. Had Le Pen been able to pick up more of the voters who supported the extreme left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, the final results would have been much closer and perhaps different.
And they might be different next time. As in the United States, many voters who were once predictably in the folds of the Democratic Party (in the U.S.) and the socialist and communist parties (in France) are moving, to the surprise and dismay of progressives, to the right and into the embrace of rightwing, populist, and nationalist politicians who have found ways to articulate their grievances. Some of those grievances stem from the deep economic disruptions caused by the decades-long pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the migration of whole industries to distant places (primarily China and other parts of Asia in the U.S., Eastern Europe and the Maghreb in France). At the same time, economic inequality in both countries has grown, less dramatically in France than in the United States, but still markedly.
There are other similarities. In France as in the United States, Trump’s and Le Pen’s styles of populism have taken hold primarily in micro-urban and rural parts of the countries. In France as in the United States, voters on the extreme right tend to be older, less affluent, and less well educated. In France as in the United States, anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals have been a big part of the programs of the extreme right, notwithstanding important differences in the sources, nature, and impacts of immigration in each country. And in France as in the United States, populist and nationalist rhetoric and proposals are tangled up with autocratic and anti-democratic energy and intentions. In both countries, there is significant and growing hostility toward economic, political, and cultural elites.
Immediately after the election was called last Sunday, journalists and politicians began giving Macron advice about what he must do during his new term to stem the advance of the extreme right. Almost invariably, that advice begins with leadership style. Cool and aloof by nature and instinct, Macron’s style in his first term might be described as dignified distance, an approach that earned him the nickname “Jupiter.” In a campaign defined by the economic challenges faced by working and middle-class people, Macron’s cool remove contrasted sharply with Le Pen’s folksy, down-to-earth, “I’m one of you” manner and appeal. Everyone seems to agree that Macron needs to get reconnected to daily life and to real people and to demonstrate that a moderate national government can work for them.
There’s nothing wrong with this advice, but it only goes so far. The deeper political issue in France right now, the one that threatens its democratic legacy and order, is economic and structural. It’s the problem in places like Gardanne in the south and la vallée de la Fensch in the north, where industries supporting working-class communities are struggling or have disappeared altogether, and where Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and populist rhetoric has found fertile ground. As Macron adjusts his personal political style, “the political class” in France needs to develop broad economic and industrial policies that reestablish the economic conditions of democratic institutions and practices. This is a long-term project that will certainly outlast Macron, but acknowledging the problem and making some small, even symbolic headway in the next five years will be critical to the preservation of France’s democratic legacy and future.
« Un consortium implanté en Guinée prend le contrôle d’Alteo, leader de l’alumine, » Agence France Presse, 7 janvier, 2021.
“Les résultats de l’élection présidentielle 2022,” Le Monde, April 24, 2022.
Elsa Conesa, « En exportant leurs emplois industriels, les Etats-Unis ou la France ont alimenté une menace pour leurs démocraties », Le Monde, 21 avril, 2022.
Anthony Villeneuve, « Dans la vallée de la Fensch, en Moselle, un vote au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle ‘pour faire péter’ le système », Le Monde, 19 avril, 2020.