Can Europe Make It?

Not “one of us”: the French presidential elections

So, this new situation which looked simple with a choice between two different types of societies, has to face once again a bitter resistance from entrenched political interests from all sides.

Patrice de Beer
25 April 2017
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Emmanuel Macron and the En Marche! movement in Nantes, western France, on April 19, 2017.Vincent Feuray/Press Association. All rights reserved.The day after the stunning results of France’s presidential election first round last Sunday April 23 which saw maverick candidate Emmanuel Macron first past the post, overtaking in the last days of the campaign arch-favourite extreme right Marine Le Pen, things for a time seemed to be going back to the bad old days of French politics.

Or are they? After only a few hours, the traditional parties who have been ousted from the second round for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic – the ruling Socialists and right wing Republicans (LR) – were back to their traditional petty party politics.

Yes, the PS, stunned by the humiliation of its candidate, leftist Benoît Hamon who came out fifth with 6 % of the votes, has immediately cast its support behind Macron. Yes this was expected but, for their divided leaders, the time has not yet come to analyse the reasons for this disaster. They intend to muddle through till next June’s legislative elections, hoping for an awakening of their traditional voters, who left in droves to vote Macron or for populist leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon (4th with 19%).

The world has changed but they don’t seem to realise it and seem instead to hope that, next June, they will be strong enough to impose their leadership on the new Macron « progressive » left, right and centre En Marche ! coalition.

On the Republican side, the spontaneous support for Macron just after the – predicted but, for them, unbelievable – defeat of their tarnished candidate, former Prime Minister François Fillon, was a welcome reminder of what the French have for decades called the « Republican » spirit, i.e. all together against the National Front (FN). A tradition which had brought them all together behind President Jacques Chirac when, in 2002, Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, unexpectedly arrived second, defeating outgoing Socialist premier, Lionel Jospin. Millions took to the streets to support Chirac against « fascism », giving him a majority of 80 % of the votes. This spirit was repeated on Sunday night when Fillon, like many LR leaders, moderates but not only, of the younger generation of leaders but not only, said they would vote Macron and asked their supporters to do so.

Yet, during a leadership meeting on Monday afternoon, the mood changed as party stalwarts – starting with former President Nicolas Sarkozy who still wants to pull the strings despite his humiliating defeat at the last conservative primaries – fought for a lame compromise which would protect the interests of all those who are craving to replace Fillon at the head of the party.

One former minister even jumped ship to support Ms Le Pen. Some wanted an open support, others – like Sarkozy – advocated a vote against the FN without mentioning Macron, or simply abstaining. Hoping like the PS that things would go back to « normal », ie that they would win the legislative elections and lead a shaky « cohabitation » with the new President. A face-saving device to hide the divisions which have been destabilising France’s two – till last week – traditional ruling parties.

Then we have Mélenchon, the maverick of all mavericks, who led a brilliant campaign to arrive just 1/2 point behind Fillon but failed in his hopes to reach the second round. His popular, and populist criticism of traditional politics attracted a lot of disgruntled voters, including probably some who would otherwise have voted FN, the other populist party.

But, if he fell short it was mostly because of his threat to leave the EU and the euro, a position which frightened off many potential voters. Just like his close ties with Putin’s Russia and his old friendship with Venezuela’s President Chavez, together with his idea to leave NATO and replace it with a wobbly alliance with « non aligned » Russia, Iran or the Latin America « Bolivarian alliance ».

So, the man who, in 2002, had supported rightist Chirac against « fascism » and wanted to implement compulsory voting has so far refused to take sides between what he brands « ultra liberal » Macron and extremist Le Pen, the plague and cholera, as the French saying goes.

So, this new situation which looked simple with a choice between two different types of societies, has to face once again a bitter resistance from entrenched political interests from all sides, led by politicians who – from the Le Pen dynasty to the far left – have been in politics for two, three or four decades and intend to remain around for as long as possible, and to benefit from the perks which go along with it.

Many, though not all, cannot understand or accept that someone could simply have the audacity to rock the boat, especially a 39-year old youngster who has never been elected and thus is not « one of us ».

The bubble

A democratic candidate standing alone against the far right, a European candidate against a majority of anti-Europeans or Eurosceptic other candidates, a man who wants to do away with old style politics and the traditional war to the finish between two rival parties which has, for decades, led the one to cancel out most of the initiatives from its predecessor, only to have its successor do the same.

A man who wants to promote reconciliatory politics by joining together men and women from all sides of the democratic spectrum on a common platform to try to cope with the evils of French society: low growth, the high rate of unemployment (up to 25 % of French youth), high taxes on business which are hampering investments and promoting outsourcing and de-industrialisation, thus promoting the anger and frustrations of so many voters now attracted by the extremes, who now represent just under half of French voters.

Enough voters have voted Macron to give him a chance to implement his platform. A type of unifying, cooperative and non-divisive platform the French are unused to. Several reasons lie behind this amazing shock to the system in this very socially and politically divided French society, too long polarised between left and right. Macron’s strategic « genius » has been to understand this, to play with his rivals’ weaknesses – like Fillon’s attraction to money which has left him indicted and which certainly contributed to his downfall – and to give disorientated voters enough hope or optimism contrasting with ambient pessimism about France’s « decline » to convince them that perhaps, things might become better and that the old solutions promoted by old men – and few women – have had their day.

Macron has also been helped by an amazingly efficient organisation team, not unlike the one Barack Obama created during his first election in 2008. Unknown as a politician only one year ago, alone among the big names of politics, lambasted by his rivals and the media as a mere ephemeral « bubble », he has managed – to the surprise of many – to build from scratch his En Marche! mouvement to more than 200,000 members – more than any French party today – and tens of thousands of enthusiastic activists, from start-uppers to pensioners, who have run an incredibly professional and efficient campaign, gathering more volunteers than any of his rivals.

Yet the hard realities of French politics and society, the difficult situation France is facing, within its borders as well as in Europe remain. He has less than two weeks to convince millions of new voters to give him an ample majority on May 8, to go from 24 % of the votes to more than 50 % and, hopefully, more than 60 %. Then he will have to have as many MPs voted in as possible in the June parliamentary elections to run a new government with, he says, half of its representatives new figures plus gender parity; or, at least, to have enough MPs to control the new majority he wants to build and not to become hostage to the PS or the LR.

And only then will the hard part begin, which is convincing conservative French society that his untested new politics might do better where the old ones have failed. An uphill task indeed. But, at least, Macron has a chance to show that, even in France, change is not necessarily for the worse, like it was with the UK Brexit, and the election of Donald Trump.

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