What is the political mood in Emmanuel Macron’s home town this week? How is his campaign faring alongside the Le Pen supporters, among the Whirlpool factory workers, the old and young?
Talking in the run-up to Easter to campaigners for French election frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in his home town of Amiens and it’s clear to their minds that he has a certain saintliness, even godliness.
Nicolas, a marketing director for a luxury fashion brand in his mid-thirties who studied at the same lycée as Macron and his younger brother describes an event he worked on with Emmanuel, a ceremony for newly graduated bakers.
“We had to stay one hour. He was there for three hours without any cameras. There was a person in a wheelchair who told us, ‘I’ve met dozens of ministers, and Macron is the only one who talked to me crouching down, not sitting in a chair or standing up. He was talking to me on the same level’.
“He’s a philosopher. Above all he's a humanist, clearly. He's interested in people of every kind. When people say 'he's a banker, he worked four years for Rothschilds', then I say OK - so what? He knows how to work in the private sector. That's not the case with François Fillon, who’s been an Assembly deputy for 34-35 years”.
Nicolas is from a socialist family, the son of two teachers, and was previously a campaigner for François Hollande before coming over to Macron because of his position on social issues and freshness of vision. He speaks warmly of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the other Left candidates, but feels Macron’s platform is “the only way for us to be pragmatic, to have a real global vision of France”. When I challenge him about what the 39 year old former Economy Minister stands for, alluding to a report that many of his supporters couldn’t name his policies, he comes back at me sharply, asking if I have read the manifesto. He spells out Macron’s appeal to him – the symbolic power of his support for gay marriage; his planned reforms of health insurance to make it easier for small firms to take on more staff, and of out-of-work benefits to encourage people to move on from jobs they hate.
Beyond the sterile game?
With his emphasis on mutual respect, “Macron got citizens to talk one to the other” she says.
Other activists in the En Marche! insurgency, founded by Macron in Amiens a year ago this month, alight on different things. Laure, who works for non-profits and has recently returned from working abroad to the small town-turned-suburb of Amiens where she grew up, draws a diagram that puts him in the dead centre of the political spectrum, crossing out unsuccessful moderate candidates on the Left and Right to show how polarised politics has become. With his emphasis on mutual respect, “Macron got citizens to talk one to the other” she says. In her early 30s, she is going to spread the word among millennials – “where they play football or basketball, where they’re holidaying”. Lawyer Muriel, who has never previously been involved in politics, draws hope from his disavowal of the “sterile game of the parties” and En Marche’s new parliamentary candidates from civil society - “people like you and me”.
But despite Macron still leading in the polls, and being odds on to defeat Marine Le Pen in the final round, there’s nervousness in the En Marche! camp. The fuzziness of Macron’s support has reduced considerably since February, when only a third of those backing him said they were certain to turn up at the polls, putting him ninth out of 11 candidates looking at this category alone; but as of an April 4 survey, he was still trailing Fillon and Le Pen among committed voters. As the “ultimate insider”, in the words of Olivier Royant of Paris Match, he attracts brickbats more than he does bouquets. He – of the most gilded educational background – is resented for his meteoric rise without ever facing a democratic test (he went from François Hollande's backroom advisor to his deputy chief of staff before his appointment as Economy Minister in 2014). And while he resigned from the Cabinet last August after establishing En Marche! and has declared he is neither Left or Right, for many he remains tainted by his association with the Hollande government - "Micron" in online jibes, a Lilliputian cipher for the political establishment. His policy thinking is mocked by rivals as vague and vapid, and the area he is most passionate about and where he has political form, reforming the French economy, puts him on a collision course with workers and the unions.
In the era of Trump and Brexit, for a leading election candidate to have double the backing among high earners as working class voters, and support that correlates most closely with highest level of educational attainment is an uncomfortable perch. The rallying of support for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, suggests Agnès Verdier Molinié of thinktank IFRAP, may mean that regardless of his politics, the charismatic 65 year old looks more like a President to thousands of conservative-minded voters than En Marche’s gap-toothed young pretender.
Amiens is like France
Amiens (pop.132,000), famous for its cathedral, its role in the world wars and, fittingly, its Macarons (macaroons) is “like France” socially and politically, my host for the weekend tells me. There are neighbourhoods like Henriville, where Macron grew up, with solid neoclassical townhouses; drive a little past the city centre, by the Whirlpool factory which in 2018 will be closed and its operations shifted to Poland and there are districts like Faubourg de Hem, with brick terraces decked out with satellite dishes. In the city centre, most passers-by are white, but with fair numbers of ethnic minority locals and people from all over the world too. The National Front are strong in the villages around Amiens and towards the mouth of the Somme, in the same departement, is a traditional Left heartland.
Nicolas has warned me that there isn’t an overt feeling of local loyalty to Macron – that Emmanuel left Amiens when he was young and “we don’t put up flags” to campaign – and so it proves. Outside Jean Trogneux, the landmark patisserie owned by Macron’s in-laws, I fail to find a single passer-by set on voting for Macron because they are truly enthusiastic about him, rather than as a compromise option. He’s never done anything around here, says a Mélenchon-supporting secondary school maths teacher, who would vote Macron to stop Le Pen. A couple of people tell me that they like the struggling Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, or prefer his policy programme. Philippe, an architect in his 50s, thinks Macron is too young and inexperienced and will vote Fillon, "because the Republicans remain Republicans". In the event of a Macron-Le Pen showdown, "I might vote Macron, but one section of the Republicans will vote Le Pen and another won't vote". "We're not worried by Marine Le Pen. They can’t do anything – it’s French, in a way!” says a Hamon-favouring young Muslim queuing for an ice cream – before revealing quite proudly that he and his two friends won’t vote.
"I'll vote for the best programme, not the best person, but the programme doesn't arrive".In the car park of Macron's former lycée La Providence, a group of venture scouts in their late teens are getting ready to go off on an expedition. Surely they are keen on the man who would become France's youngest-ever President? No, the three I speak to are voting for François Fillon - "he's better for enterprise and investment", says Antoine. Young people aren't fired up over Macron, he tells me; he might represent a break from the two-party system, but he needs to get enough untested En Marche! representatives into the Assembly in June if he wants to change anything. "Macron left town, he was never elected" says the father of one of the scouts, who has lived in Amiens for 40 years. "What does he stand for? Nobody knows". He says he is undecided - "we voted for Hollande, and nobody likes Hollande. I'll vote for the best programme, not the best person, but the programme doesn't arrive".
What about the workers?
Then there are Amiens’ industrial workers, for whom the Whirlpool announcement is the latest in a series of factory closures. Macron was lambasted first as a “phantom” for not speaking out against the move, then for the non-interventionist position he took in a debate with local journalist and Left Party parliamentary candidate François Ruffin: “I’m not going to go on a truck and say it is not going to close”.
Christophe Saguez of the Somme region CGT union explains why Macron’s expressed desire to save jobs by trying to secure a buyer for the site does not wash with workers: “There is a sense of impunity. Groups can accumulate profits, closing industrial sites without being accountable. Most candidates for the highest office do not question this logic. They are compassionate, sometimes criticize the leadership of the multinational but without going to challenge the power of finance. Macron the son of Amiens who was a minister in the current government, is of this same way of thinking, which explains why there is no support from industrial workers for his project which has nothing new about it”.
“Macron brought in labour force liberalisation - workers know exactly the side he has taken.”“Macron brought in labour force liberalisation - workers know exactly the side he has taken” says Loic Terlon of the Somme Left Party. He also describes the strength of anti-EU feeling in France, enough to take France out if there was a referendum on whether to remain in the EU as currently constituted - the diametric opposite of Macron’s vision of closer European co-operation. Éric Richermoz, a 24 yr.old National Front councillor in the region takes a strikingly similar tone. Most French people are Eurosceptic, he argues, while Macron, blind to the miseries of the “French rust belt”, is content with the power given to the European Commission, presenting himself as a man of a new era but in fact backed by a gallery of political has-beens: “he's a kind of Margaret Thatcher”.
The local campaigners I speak to are far from complacent, or even confident about Macron’s ultimate victory. Nicolas describes the effectiveness of the National Front’s split strategy, focused on workers’ grievances without racist undertones in the North and playing off fears of Islam and terrorism in the South, the cleverness of their branding and ubiquity of their social media presence. “Everyone was laughing at Donald Trump in Paris. No-one thought he could win. [Le Pen] has never been so close to power, never. And she can win, of course she can win”. Laure jokes, in reference to Brexit and Trump, that “my generation think polls are for people who like sports”. They have strategies for reaching out to undecided voters – students who say they’re not interested in politics and might be susceptible to Le Pen; ways of talking to people by asking first if they know who they are going to vote for, then what candidates they are considering, and letting them go into their whole political outlook.
"Le Pen has never been so close to power. And she can win, of course she can win".Demographics and historical experience suggest Macron will win if he reaches the second round, and that he can do it without the working-class vote, as Nicolas Sarkozy did in 2007, so high are abstention levels. But there are two ways of looking at this election – that France is, all in all, a moderate country which likes clean-cut politicians, as Nabila Ramdani argued in a recent radio debate. Or that, while not in truth experiencing an upsurge in racism and immigrants shutting themselves off from society, the nation’s inescapable tone is one of dissonance: "its many tensions, its sour mood, its sense of political unravelling, its anti-élite sentiment and its many social ills", as Natalie Nougayrede describes in a recent piece.
Agnès Verdier Molinié of IFRAP thinks the stereotypes about French work culture are unfair, that entrepreneurs and blue-collar employees often work together and more French people want economic reform than oppose it. A cacophony of voices, and the popularity of Mélenchon and Le Pen would suggest the opposite. “If Macron wins, it will change things, it has to”, Nicolas says, foreseeing that extremism and France’s stick-in-mud tendencies can be defeated so long as he proves the new broom he has promised. That’s easier said than done, even for a secular saint; and he has to get there first.
Thanks go to Michael Willoughby, photographer, for these portraits of Amiens (all rights reserved).