French election between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen highlights danger to democracy of negative politics – Kenny MacAskill MP

Being the least bad option isn’t much of an electoral selling point.

For many French voters, Emmanuel Macron's main selling point is that his is not far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (Picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)
For many French voters, Emmanuel Macron's main selling point is that his is not far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (Picture: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

What does it say about candidate or party that they’re dependent on not being the other guy, rather than what they stand for or what they propose to do? It’s also deeply damaging for democracy as it encourages abstentionism, as well as fuelling cynicism about politics in general.

Yet, worryingly, it’s becoming much more prevalent. The clearest example’s the current French presidential election. To be fair, the system resulting in a run-off between two candidates tends towards that but other systems and especially first-past-the-post elections do likewise. That said, much is also down to the absence of policies and an ‘I’m not them’ position being taken.

For many French voters, it won’t be a vote for Emmanuel Macron but a vote against Marine Le Pen. Given her neo-fascist credentials, that’s understandable. But there’s a growing weariness about being asked to support someone you neither want nor agree with. It worked for Macron last time but it’ll be harder this time.

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That’s evident in recent polls and even voting directions by defeated candidates. The left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who nearly pipped Le Pen for a run-off place, has spoken out against support for her but refrained from endorsing Macron.

That’s understandable when polls showed his support was breaking almost three equal ways in the run-off. Only a third will vote Macron with the other two thirds either abstaining or spoiling their ballot.

Further investigation also showed many people are going to choose one of the latter options after holding their noses and voting for Macron in the previous presidential poll.

But having tacked to the right, been hostile to immigration and even espoused sentiments interpreted as being hostile to Islam, Macron’s crossed a line for many of them.

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Enough of other candidates’ supporters, whether of Mélenchon or others, will no doubt put Macron over the line and back into office, but it’ll be closer than before.

Not being Le Pen simply isn’t good enough and turnout will accordingly decrease as contempt for the system increases. It’s damaging for democracy as alienation increases, leaving the way open for extremist politics and manipulation by influential oligarchs.

It’s not an exclusively French problem. Here in the UK and even in Scotland, Labour and SNP are both focusing on not being Boris Johnson and his Tories rather than what they stand for. Send a message to Boris as advocated by the SNP, and similar comments from Keir Starmer, highlight the negativity.

Of course, Johnson’s odious but Scotland knows that, having comprehensively rejected him in 2019. But both SNP and Labour, as with Macron, have tacked to the right since then.

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Labour’s position on Brexit epitomises that and it’s matched by SNP endorsement of the free market in energy, where a failure to deliver a state energy company’s leaving many bereft.

As in France, many might just decide that there’s less to choose between them and little difference to be found in any of them. Democracy’s the loser with this ‘vote against the other guy’ type of politics.

Kenny MacAskill is Alba Party MP for East Lothian

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