Voices: Vote for Macron — even if you don’t like him — or face what we faced with Trump

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Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen debate each other on 24 April 2022 in Paris, France (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen debate each other on 24 April 2022 in Paris, France (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)

On April 21, 2002, I was 10 years old and huddled in front of the television with my family. We were watching the results of the first round of the French presidential election. In France, people vote for their president twice: the first time, they pick between a handful of candidates across a variety of parties, and the two people who get the most votes make it to the second round; the second time, people vote again, and whoever gets the majority of votes out of that final two is elected president.

In 2002, Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate, was widely expected to make it to the second round alongside Jacques Chirac, the sitting president running for re-election. I was born in 1991, at a time when the Socialist Party was a given contender in any election. It was the de facto left-wing party, and it would face off against the de facto right-wing party (whose name changed a few times over the years).

The 2002 election shattered those expectations. I can still picture my family, staring with disbelief at the screen as the faces of the top two first-round contenders were revealed. Chirac led with 20 percent. And trailing right behind him was… Jean-Marie Le Pen, with 17 percent of the votes. Jospin came a close third with 16 percent.

Watch an archive clip of that moment and you will hear presenter David Pujadas call the results an “enormous surprise”. “Jean-Marie Le Pen seems to be second,” he says, unable to bring himself to present the results as irrevocable fact. His hesitation is understandable: the results were so unexpected as to seem unbelievable.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of the current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, was the leader of the Front National, a far-right party. The Le Pen name brought to mind deep infamy. Jean-Marie Le Pen has since been convicted for hate speech after a number of racist and anti-Semitic remarks, including Holocaust denial, though at the time he had not been legally held to account for doing so. In 2018, The New York Times (accurately) described him as an “unrepentant extremist — on race, World War Two, the Holocaust, gender, torture, immigrants”. He was expelled from his own party, by his own daughter, in 2015.

But this was not the end of the story. The 2002 election was the start of a shift to the far-right in the French political mainstream, a shift that continues to this day. Marine Le Pen was the second-round contender against Emmanuel Macron in 2017; the two are facing off once again in the ongoing election. Marine Le Pen got 23.15 percent of the vote; Emmanuel Macron 27.85 percent. The second round is taking place this weekend.

Marine Le Pen has sought to portray herself as less extreme than her father, but her program for 2022 is classic ultra-conservative, far-right fare. The top two proposals in her “22 measures for 2022” pamphlet are curbing immigration and “eradicating Islamist ideologies” (the word choice feels very intentional here). The French newspaper Le Monde pointed to “a lot of continuity” between her 2017 and 2022 programs and her father’s program in 2007, the last time he ran for president.

As the far-right has wormed its way into the French electoral cycle, the left has been pushed out. The Socialist Party won the election in 2012; this year, it didn’t even come close to making it to the runoff, earning a paltry 1.75 percent of the vote. In 2022, as in 2017, left-leaning voters have been forced to pick between a far-right candidate and a center-right candidate. (Macron describes himself as a straight-down-the-line centrist, but his decisions on taxes and crime, his relative libertarianism, and the fact that a “bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools, and sports clubs” to “safeguard France from radical Islamists” and to “promote respect for French values” was described by the AP as one of his “landmark projects” suggest otherwise.)

In 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the runoff against Chirac, plenty of people reluctantly voted for Chirac even though the sitting president did not represent their beliefs. People did the same in 2017 when Macron went up against Marine Le Pen. They did so a bit more reluctantly the second time around: in 2002, Chirac won by a historic landslide, with 82.2 percent of the vote. In 2017, that percentage dropped to 66.1  percent for Macron.

This time around, I’ve heard an alarming number of people saying they might not vote at all because they can’t bring themselves to give Macron their vote. I understand the frustration. But I think not voting at all, rather than voting for Macron, is a serious mistake.

(Others have said they might vote Le Pen for a change, or because it might be a way to express their disapproval of Macron. “People are fed up with Macron,” a 20-year-old told France TV Info while discussing her plans to vote for Le Pen. “He wasn’t a catastrophic president, but he didn’t change a lot of things.” A 22-year-old Le Pen supporter said: “The problem is that France accepts everyone. I’m not racist, but to each their own country.”)

I moved to the US in 2014. When Donald Trump was elected in 2016, I had just received my green card. Some people sought to assure me Trump wouldn’t be as bad as I thought. In a way, they were right: Trump was worse. What you see on the campaign trail is the job interview, the best-case scenario. It’s always worse after far-right provocateurs take office.

The Trump years were spent, for a lot of Americans and people living in America, in survival mode. They had to be experienced one day at a time. There was exhausting anger and complete bewilderment. I held my breath for four years.

But when those years ended with the election of Joe Biden in 2020, it wasn’t like we all got to breathe easy again. What I didn’t realize at the time (because I was busy holding my breath for four years) was how the Trump years would extend beyond his four years in office. When a far-right candidate is elected, their impact doesn’t stop where their presidency ends. It changes the course of history. It changes the fabric of a country.

When the far-right holds the presidency, an ideological shift happens: everything slides a little further to the right. Moderate leftist ideas — like affordable insulin, reproductive healthcare, or government support for colleges or college graduates — suddenly seem extreme. The far-right now has a platform much larger than they could ever have imagined, and far-right leaders aren’t generally shy about using it, nor are they concerned about fair play (or respecting the basic rules of democracy).

The intensity of it all is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine if you haven’t experienced it firsthand. A French person on Twitter recently remarked that they felt Trump had faded away, that he wasn’t talked about anymore. And sure, he certainly occupies less of the public discourse than when he was 1) president and 2) on Twitter. But his legacy is here. It was here when Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene heckled Joe Biden during the State of the Union. It’s in the Supreme Court, which will lean conservative for (most of) the rest of my life. It’s in every person looking to overturn Roe v Wade and suddenly seeing an actionable path.

“Change” cannot be discussed in a vacuum, separate from substance. Marine Le Pen cannot be conceived of separately from her ideas or from her political history. Trump has left the White House, and still, his ideas linger. Far-right sentiment has been emboldened. It will remain so for years to come.

When you elect someone president, you’re not just doing so for the duration of their time in office. You are putting them in a position to write a page, or several pages, of a country’s history.

Yes, it’s a terrible feeling to be put in the position, yet again, of having to choose between two candidates you dislike. But one is worse than the other. That’s worth a vote.

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