On Sunday April 10, the French Department set out to animate an otherwise sleepy campus morning by bringing politics and coffee to Dwinelle Hall’s Library of French Thought. The first round of France’s presidential election was announced at 11:00 AM PST. Leading up to the announcement, conversation percolated into beamish or bleak anticipation for France’s five years ahead.
The matinée was organized by lecturer Claire Tourmen who, along with her students in French politics, have been talking about the “roller-coaster” campaign since its rocky début in late January. The event brought together more than forty-five students, staff, and Francophones from UC Berkeley, le Cercle Français, and l'Alliance Française de Berkeley. And while the turn-out was enormously impressive, the snacks were a close runner-up. From the croissants from Fournée Bakery, home-baked macarons and cheese boards to the DIY coffee bar, everyone was well fed (and rather caffeinated) long before the announcement.
Being in the company of colleagues, friends and family seemed like an appropriate way to observe France’s democratic process as well as celebrate the students’ fearless engagement in international politics throughout this year. In many ways, general uncertainty has become this election's defining characteristic. Mid-campaign, Russia's invasion of Ukraine provoked Europe-wide impacts and steered all eyes towards foreign affairs - a new precedent for France's presidential elections. Occupied by international negotiations, incumbent President Emmanuel Macron postponed his candidacy to March, giving his opponents ample time to rouse their voters and solidify their campaigns by the time Macron put his name on the ballot. What's more, it seemed like the fundamental structure of France's left-right political spectrum was retreating altogether. Historical government parties Les Républicains and Le Parti Socialiste continued to fade from the polls, and quick to fill their absence were the younger parties of the center, far left, and far right.
Votes were still to be counted at the time of the broadcast, but the initial results were clear. For a second election in a row, Emmanuel Macron (28,8%) of République en Marche will rival Marine Le Pen (23,2%), far-right candidate of Rassemblement National, at the second round of the election on April 24th. Evidently, the duo didn’t upset expectations. Earlier that week, 18 of the 19 students who had shared their predicted outcomes were able to correctly project the Macron-Le Pen match up with Macron in the lead.
A much more surprising outcome arrived with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left La France Insoumise, who finished with 22% of the votes. Lagging behind Le Pen by less than half a million votes, Mélenchon's command over the left was a bittersweet reckoning for left-wing voters, who had been skeptical about the left's durability throughout the election.
While waiting for the results, students voiced their concerns about the future of France. “Whoever wins will signal what’s to come,” said a student in the French For Politics (Fr137) class. Other attendees echoed such wariness, hypothesizing that a Le Pen presidency may function as evidence of far-right radicalization across Western democracies. “Leftism is losing its appeal,” shared a concerned student. The majority of folks predicted Macron’s narrow victory and the continuation of a rather stagnant executive branch. The interviewees say that a great transformation of France’s socioeconomic landscape isn't in the books, at least not yet.
It's difficult to overlook the desire for fundamental change in France's government and politics, perhaps best evidenced by Mélenchon's proposal for a new constitution under a 6th Republic. Still, democratic trends warn us that desire for change doesn't bring everyone to the polls. The abstention rate was high this year (26%); down 4% from the 2017 presidential election. An attendee suggests that “abstention is telling of a greater discontent for the candidates," a sentiment that was consistent among those who didn't choose Mélenchon, despite having been urged towards the strategic vote. A French citizen tells us that we should look at the blank voters, too. “People who are center-left, center-right choose to vote blank rather than polarize [towards the two extremes]." Perhaps ambivalence towards the ballot might be enough justification for a non-political strategy. Let’s now turn our eyes to the second round, on April 24th, with nothing less than the future of the European Union at stake. Students are also going to gather on April 24th, 10-12 am in front of Valley Life Sciences Building (open to all), to follow the final results of the election. Everybody is welcome!
Sabrina Hammon, Rosa Beschi and Claire Tourmen