Five years to save France – and the EU

Why a potential President Macron has only five years to preserve France from a shift to one of the political extremes, and why the biggest challenge is to reconcile his political agenda with France’s highly divided electorate

Emmanuel Macron is currently coined as the favourite to become France’s new President. Macron of the liberal movement “En Marche” is the clear favourites in the second round of the presidential election opposing him to Marine Le Pen from France’s right-wing party “Front National” (FN). Yet, having witnessed British and American voters demonstrate the limitations of electoral polling in the EU referendum and the US presidential election last year, it is very important to remain cautious about declaring Mr Macron the winner of this election ahead of time.

Mr Macron is currently polling at 63% of likely voters, over the estimated 37% of votes attributed to Marine Le Pen. In a collective appeal known as the “Republican front”, all defeated parties from the first election round, except for the radical left party “La France insoumise”, have pledged their support to the moderate, democratic candidate Macron to ensure that the extreme right does not get hold of the French Presidency. If only a decent share of their voters turns out at the polls for Macron, then he should carry this election quite comfortably.

This “Republican Front” has been successful in the past. In 2002, when Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential election, the then incumbent President Jacques Chirac was able to defeat the challenger Le Pen, by earning more than 80% of the popular vote. In the aftermath of the election, political experts were baffled how an extreme right-wing party could have gathered almost 20% of the electoral vote. 15 years later, the Front National under Marine Le Pen is expected to receive close to 40% of the vote. And today, no one appears to be surprised.

At this time in 2002, people demonstrated in large numbers to express their rejection of what they considered the rise of fascism. Today, this resistance is much weaker: the movement of opposition to extremism in France appears to have lost energy and determination. Arguments to counter extremists have lost their effect. In the meantime, promises for easy solutions made by Marine Le Pen and the FN have now seduced even more voters, probably even some of those who marched against her father in 2002.

Marine Le Pen and her Front National are inching closer to taking power with every passing election. There are different reasons for that. First, Marine Le Pen has worked on her party’s public perception. For what used to be a clearly xenophobic party in the public eye, the Front National is now perceived as a democratic force, a patriotic movement, a political union across the board fighting for sovereignty and resisting globalisation. Mrs Le Pen has learned to balance her rhetoric just enough to attract voters from the mainstream of French society, without alienating her extremist base. She has become “electable”.

Second, people are sufficiently tired with the socio-economic situation of the country as it is to be tempted by a radical alternative. The unemployment rate is hovering at 11%, almost one in four young adults is out of a job. And although many may not consider themselves as supporters of Marine Le Pen’s movement, their political fatigue over governments that are incapable of real change may be enough for them to choose something radically different. Just like in Donald Trump’s election, some voters may be tempted by the “human hand grenade”. A person that promises to “blow up the system”. Someone who is able to break with the status quo. The longing for fundamental change is great. This trend that is backed by the unprecedented amount of votes that went to the political extremes (45%) in the first round of the presidential election, left and right.

Third, the French are increasingly in deep disaffection with their own political elites. Nothing seems to be more popular these days than to beat up on the affluent and influent. Everyone in France seems to be blaming the elites for the current status quo, even the elites themselves. There are good reasons for that. France is home to a very exclusive and powerful elite. Political centralism has led to the creation of a highly influential, wealthy, and very exclusive high society.

For years, these exclusive Parisian inner circles have evolved around a few political parties that can be described as France’s political establishment. The main political parties in France are involved in almost every economic or societal decision of importance. Therefore, its members have amassed and distributed great amounts of wealth amongst their ranks. The amount of uncovered political scandals, including cases of clientelism, fraud, tax evasion have risen in recent times. In the midst of a situation of great economic hardship, they have further eroded the trust of the people in their public officials.

There could not have been a worse time for candidate Macron to run for President. In different times, the making of Emmanuel Macron as President probably would have triggered enthusiastic reactions from a wider part of the population. Candidate Macron has so much going for him: A young, dynamic, tolerant and outward-looking candidate, with a popular potential first lady, and an interesting life story. A fresh face in the political landscape.

Yet, Emmanuel Macron is not the radical, disruptive, revolutionary political figure many of the electors in France had hoped for. France is at one of its most difficult and decisive moments of its history. There has never been so much at stake. Once an economic powerhouse, France is only a shadow of its former self: low economic growth, high unemployment, stagnating wages. Furthermore, France is facing a substantial security challenge, with terrorist attacks having become part of an unsettling routine.

Under these conditions, Macron appears to be an inexperienced candidate. His youth is seen as a disadvantage. The immediate aftermath of the election’s first round demonstrated the candidate’s lack of political tact: Macron was seen on the evening of the presidential election’s first round celebrating his victory a little too excessively. While Marine Le Pen disappeared quickly after her speech to refocus on her campaign, Mr Macron was chased down the streets of Paris by TV cameras to a fancy French bistro in one of the hip Arrondissements of Paris. Bottles of Champagne were opened, as if the most difficult part of the election had been surmounted.

Macron celebrated his win against the “established political parties”, in a way only established political parties celebrate election victories in France. More than picturing Macron as an arrogant young politician, it showed just how little he realised the immense significance and serious of the situation. With the more experienced candidate, Marine Le Pen only one step away from the Élysée Palace, and with Macron being the last obstacle in her way, many would have hope for a less joyous, more sober candidate Macron. And while Macron’s performance during the final presidential debate was certainly better than the one of his opponent Le Pen, many perceived him to be “professorial”, attempting too often to educate Marine Le Pen on economic issues.

However, Mr Macron has an even bigger image problem to solve than his occasional display of arrogance: He could not be more elitist if one dreamt it. Emmanuel Macron studied at the infamous École Nationale d’Admnistration (ENA). The ENA is the best university in France for someone with big power ambitions. He then went on to work for the investment Bank Rothschild, known for its handling of big international mergers and acquisitions. Mr Macron earned big bucks in some of these transactions, and therefore is regularly portrayed by the left and the right as the candidate of unhinged globalisation.

Emmanuel Macron was recruited as State Secretary for President Francois Hollande at a very young age and subsequently rose to the position of Minister for the Economy in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. For many voters across the board, this further rounded off his image as a chosen candidate, by and for the elites. Macron tried to break with the political heritage of the Hollande Presidency, quit his job as minister and went on to create his own political party.

Candidate Macron then decided to name his new movement: “En Marche”. The slogan is the equivalent of “Forward!” or “Let’s get going!” in English. But mostly, the first letters of his party’s name also coincidently are the initials for his own name “Emmanuel Macron”. Details like these are revealing as to how much his political project is about his personal ambition rather than a common, populous political movement.

Then there is Macron’s political dogma. Macron, a pro-European, economic liberal and free trade candidate is now the favourite to win the presidential election. Europhile political analysts across Europe hailed the election result as a turning point, a victory for European ideas in France, and the thrive of the French people for reform and more economic competitiveness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The vote in the first round of the presidential election demonstrated just how fragmented the French electorate has become. If you take a closer look at the result, more than 45% of voters cast their voice for demonstrably Eurosceptic candidates. Voters who chose Mélenchon (19,5%),  Le Pen (21,5%) and Dupont-Aignan (4,7%) put a big question mark behind France’s membership of the EU and the Euro. Going further, both Le Pen and Mélenchon’s voters (40%) chose a candidate that refuted all globalisation, capitalism and free trade.

A further 19,9% voted for the Republican Party (“Les Républicains” or LR), whose voters can partly identify with some of the patriotic ideology of the Front National on issues such as immigration, nationalism, but only differ from FN voters on the aspect of Europe. Some will vote Le Pen. Many of the Republican voters despise Macron. They see him progressive force: Macron’s views stand in total contradiction with some of the conservative, religious views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

The Socialist Party or “Parti Socialiste” (PS) has the largest amount of likely voters amongst its ranks that are supportive of Macron. However, the party has seen better days: Their candidate Benoît Hamon gathered a mere 6% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election. And even in the ranks of the PS, Macron is perceived as a traitor, defecting the socialist government in difficult times.

The proximity to acting President Hollande and former Prime Minister Valls are hurting Macron. President Hollande was polling around 4% of popular support in recent polls. The many mainstream politicians from other political movements who endorse Macron, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Francois Bayrou are not helping the candidate either. With every endorsement from a personality of the establishment, Marine Le Pen is able to hit Macron harder, depicting him as the choice of continuity and the saviour of France’s panicking elite, as she repeatedly did during the final presidential debate.

Finally, many voters are struggling to understand what Macron truly stands for, to see through the core convictions of the candidate: Mr Macron has been very good in bringing together people from various political and societal backgrounds. He has taken many of the ideas, from left and right, to create a programme that for France’s circumstances, can be defined as a programme of political centrism. Yet amongst all these different proposals, people are struggling to understand what his true political convictions are.

Beyond the question of whether Macron will secure a large enough victory to convince the people of France he is a legitimate president is to ask: How much legitimacy can a president have, that so few will have elected out of conviction, and such a large majority fundamentally disagree with? The presidential election will probably be the easier of the two challenges for Emmanuel Macron in the upcoming weeks.

The legislative election will show, just how much of a mandate French voters will give Mr Macron to govern. Macron is unlikely to get a full majority by himself and will have to rely on other parties to govern. Taking the trend from the presidential contest as reference, France’s electorate appears to be particularly heterogeneous at this time. This could make the challenge of governance ever so great. Who will want to cooperate with the political novice that is Emmanuel Macron? The Republic Party (LR) is already campaigning against future President Macron in view of the legislative elections.

The establishment sees him as a threat to their own. Both PS and LR have a history of partisan politics rather than cross-party cooperation. The far left has no interest in supporting a progressive liberal economic agenda. The Front National will likely use any opportunity to torpedo any of Mr Macron’s potential reform efforts.

The challenge for potential President Macron could become very tricky. Macron would have to work fast: Five more years of stagnation would hand extremists the last percentages they need for an ascension to power. If French voters give the establishment another chance, it will surely be its last. Mr Macron can make use of his youth and inexperience to try and work across party lines. He has no choice, but to overcome the tradition partisan bigotry, come with an open mind, and navigate his way to find compromise.

Moderate forces will have to consider the enormity of the challenge for the next five years and put nation before party. Provided that Mrs Le Pen does not create a massive political upset, Macron and the future Members of the Assemblée Nationale (France’s Lower chamber) have five years to prevent an extremist party, left or right to enter the Elysée Palace. Five year to save the Fifth Republic. That also means they have five years to save the European Union from its likely dissolution.

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