Today, barring a huge upset, Emmanuel Macron will be re-elected president of France.
However, if polling was always accurate President Hillary Clinton would be in her second term in the US and the UK would be still a leading member of the EU.
The election in France revolves in part on how toxic the embrace of Vladimir Putin proves to be as his forces grind on in his war against Ukraine. The once fractious and enfeebled EU and Nato have been roused from their previous torpor, imposing swingeing sanctions against Moscow and rapidly arming and resupplying Ukraine. None of this was predicted before the first Russian troops crossed the Ukraine border on February 24.
Macron’s opponent in today’s election, Marine Le Pen, could not, before the invasion, have forecast the electoral cost of her warm embrace of Putin and the bankrolling by Russian banks of her National Rally party.
Macron hammered her relentlessly on her Putinesque bias on Wednesday in the sole television debate before the poll.
There are three interesting takeaways here of wider relevance.
First, it is noteworthy how the far Right, of which Le Pen is a core member in Europe, embraces Putin and equivocates, at best, on Russia’s unbridled aggression and disdain for international law and sovereignty. Here she is joined by an undistinguished cast of fellow illiberal European leaders including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, recently re-elected on an anti-EU and anti-Ukraine ticket; Italy’s far Right leader Matteo Salvini; and Serbia’s reactionary populist leader President Aleksandar Vucic, who boasted of his close ties to Moscow.
Across the ocean, Donald Trump described Putin as “a genius” for invading Ukraine, a remark he subsequently walked back when the US polls — Trump’s only moral compass — went in the other direction.
This is the sort of fetid company kept by local Putin-embracers — allegedly of the Left — from President Cyril Ramaphosa and our pirouetting international relations minister Naledi Pandor (who first opposed Russia and then recanted), to the EFF. Ramaphosa this week did a slight shift — telephoning Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, though without the obsequious public effusions following his earlier chat with Pretoria’s fast friend, Putin.
Politics — especially in time of war — makes for interesting bedfellows. Or maybe illiberal nationalists, xenophobes and populists hang together across international and racial boundaries.
The second aspect of the race for the French presidency is also not confined to the Fifth Republic. It is the phenomenon of how a president as competent, intelligent and attractive as Macron is so disliked by so many voters in France — even those who will hold their noses and vote for him. If the polls are correct, his victory tonight will be far narrower than his blowout win, also against Le Pen, four years ago.
“Elite”, “out of touch”, “pro-rich” and “arrogant” are among the traits most attributed to the French president, curated in a new book with the revealing title, Macron: Why So Much Hatred?
Macron also stands for something of wider significance: he is a cosmopolitan liberal globalist at a time when closed border chauvinism and racial nationalism remain sure-fire vote-winners. Just ask our home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi. He called this week for “foreign rascals to be locked up and the keys thrown away”. This from a member of an organisation that proclaims, through the other side of its mouth, a pan-African solidarity.
Finally, it is a political curiosity how competence and improving lives often go unrewarded at the ballot box. Macron delivered a far more effective Covid strategy than other European leaders and his economic reforms have cut French unemployment significantly. Yet he remains unloved, although luckily for him his opponent is even more disliked.
Here at home, one party in one province delivers far more competent services to far more people, including the poorest, in a far less corrupt fashion than any other governing structure. Yet the negative epithets flung at Macron are applied in spades — plus a pro-white bias tag — to the DA. The party also stands broadly for the liberal causes championed by Macron.
This week a DA politician in KwaZulu-Natal, a province battered by floods, death and collapsed infrastructure, complained of how much abuse DA councillors were receiving from enraged residents. “This is because we are the only people with our cellphones on. And the municipal response has been hopeless. It is very dispiriting,” he told me.
The DA MP was not quite correct. Not every ANC councillor switched off their phones during the extreme weather there. Last weekend a beleaguered resident of Durban’s Springtown suburb sought the help of her local councillor, Themba Mkhize of the ANC.
Mkhize’s pithy response, via WhatsApp, was “F*** u.”
He later apologised after the comment went viral. Just like his premier, Sihle Zikalala, who was caught on video with the municipality sending a tanker of water to his La Mercy home, when ordinary residents had their taps switched off.
Zikalala reminds one of another French ruling figure of older and more regal vintage than Macron. “Let them eat cake” is the attributed response of Marie Antoinette to her subjects’ desperate pleas for bread.
Her bloody end is a useful reminder to rulers everywhere who disdain their citizens and hog resources for themselves, especially in a land of searing inequality. And these days social media mean there is no place to hide.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA