Can Europe Make It?

The spectre of President Le Pen haunts France

When he won in 2017 Macron was hailed as the new European leader who would stop the rise of the populist right. To win in 2022 he is adopting populist rightist nativist themes.

Denis MacShane
27 November 2019, 3.33pm
Emmanuel Macron addresses 600 mayors relaying the concerns of Normandy town and village residents in the January launch of the "great national debate", 2019.
Tesson/PA. All rights reserved.

Half-way through President Macron’s 5-year term as president of France alarm bells are ringing that his modernising centre-right project for power is turning him into a second Valéry Giscard d’Estaing – a young, economically ultra-liberal, reforming president in the 1970s who only lasted one term before losing to the socialist François Mitterrand in 1981.

Macron has only ever been elected once to anything in his life – the French presidency. He has been doing political work experience since May 2017, but France is not warming to its cerebral president.

His first big national electoral test is next March when 35,000 communes from cities like Paris, Lille and Marseilles to lowly towns elect their mayors and local councillors. This is the equivalent of US mid-term elections or regional parliament elections in Germany.

He also faces major national strikes and protests by health care workers, railway workers, small farmers and other strikes organised with the official backing of major French trade unions early in December as France wakes up to the fact that whatever their president has done to increase liberté for French capitalism, a focus on égalité and fraternité, or in its modern iteration, solidarité is not his priority.

A warning

All recent polls show Marine Le Pen’s National Rally – her new name for her father Jean Marie Le Pen’s racist, anti-EU, National Front party – narrowly leading Macron as the most popular politician in France. She came first in the May European Parliament elections, and has been increasing her store of local councils and even small cities like Beziers which her party controls.

Other parties have been crushed under the Macron 2017 steam-roller. The once mighty socialists of François Mitterrand, Jacques Delors and François Hollande get about 3 per cent in polls. The centre-right Les Republicains – the heirs of Gaullism and two twenty-first century presidents, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, hover around 11 per cent, the same as the anti-EU hard left grouped around Jean-Luc Mélenchon, sometimes erroneously described as Jeremy Corbyn’s French equivalent. The Greens are on 8 per cent.

The only players in French politics are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Now the fear is that Mme Le Pen might be poised for a serious bid for power. Jean-Christophe Cambadélis was the last general secretary of the Socialist Party under François Hollande. He has called every recent election in France correctly and has issued a dramatic warning that Marine Le Pen can win in 2022.

The left behind

Like many socialist deputies, ministers or party officials Cambadélis’s early political training was as a Trotkskyist. So he sees French politics through a Gramscian prism measuring out the social categories that have been alienated in Macron’s two and half years in power. There are too many losers in Macron’s France. CEOs of France’s top 40 firms – the world Macron lived in as a banker before being brought into government as economics minister by François Hollande in 2012 – have seen their pay increase by 12 per cent to €5.8 million a year in the last twelve months. But too many other social categories – pensioners, unskilled workers, artisans in small towns have seen their income being cut.

Shopkeepers or café owners who help keep alive town centres far from France’s cities have had to close down as low-cost supermarkets which now include restaurants, and sell newspapers, books, and medicines proliferate. The slow burning Gilets jaunes protest has been less dramatic than great French demonstrations that previously shook governments to the core. Instead it has been a year-long sequence of protests from what political scientists called ‘peripheral France’ that like the Brexit voting communities of forgotten England feels ignored and dismissed by big money and big politics in Paris.

French political geographers showed how votes for Macron in 2017 depended on proximity to a railway station.

France is more than double the size of the UK with about the same population. Rural isolation is very real. French political geographers showed how votes for Macron in 2017 depended on proximity to a railway station. Those in cities or close to a railway station voted for Macron. But those who lived 20km, 30km or further from a railway station made their protest about being isolated by voting Le Pen. A car ride of 20 km or more may be needed to see a doctor or dentist or go to low-pay work in a supermarket or care home. In the name of reform and combatting climate change Macron raised fuel duty on cars and reduced the speed limit on national roads outside the autoroute network. The Gilets jaunes protests against the fuel price rise took off as roundabouts into main towns were blockaded and demonstrations in major cities and Paris made headlines. Macron reversed his measures and promised more money for isolated France but he has lost their votes and the GJ revolt rumbles on as a permanent rejection of Macronism.

After the Gilets jaunes, les vestes blancs – white coats – as doctors and nurses protest against working conditions and threaten to link up with railway workers opposed to Macron’s pension reforms in a wave of pre-Christmas strikes. These are not Le Pen voters but they are lost to Macron.

Marine Le Pen becomes ordinary

For Cambadélis, Marine Le Pen has succeeded in shedding the ugly image of her father’s politics. Jean Marie Le Pen has stepped down to allow his daughter a free run to rebrand herself as a national conservative highlighting the four “i’s” of immigration, insecurity and identity and the most important “i” of all – Islam and the so-called “great replacemement” theory that Islam and Muslims are gradually replacing Christian, white France. Marine Le Pen has succeeded in her de-diabolisation (literally “de-devilment”) project of losing the old image of extreme right-wing 1930s style nationalism reeking of Dreyfus generation anti-semitism.

Marine Le Pen’s new project for the municipal elections in 2020 and then the presidential and national assembly elections in 2022 could be called the banalisation of the National Rally so that it becomes just an ordinary right of centre party that it is legitimate to vote for. She hailed the Brexit result and put the UK union flag on her Facebook page but as Brexit turned sour, she dropped calls for a Frexit referendum on leaving the Euro, let alone the EU. Her first test will be the municipal elections in March. If she succeeds in winning control of major towns and cities her profile as heading a party of governance increases.

She is helped by the publicity for her niece, Marion Maréchal Le Pen who has now dropped the Le Pen part of her name. Once the youngest National Front deputy she has now opened a school in Lyon to train young activists in hard right identity politics. She invites Islamaphobe intellectuals to promote their replacement theory and her partner is an Italian close to Matteo Salvini, the immigrant-hating Italian rightwing populist who always speaks with a rosary in his hands. By contrast to Marion, Marine appears almost moderate and conventional.

Shrinking margins

Polls still show Macron beating Le Pen in the second round of a French presidential election in 2022 but by a much smaller margin than in 2017. Unlike 2017 when Macron was the brilliant new boy on the block who easily knocked down Le Pen in TV debates, by 2022 he will have to defend a record that is less than glorious while she can offer herself as the protest vote vehicle for everyone fed up and no longer convinced by Macron. And even if she does not make it to the Elysée she may end up leading the biggest number of deputies in the National Assembly election which always follow the presidential contest, and thus lay claim to being prime minister.

In Spain, Ciudadanos, Macron’s sister party in his pan-European federation, “Renew Europe” crashed to near extinction in elections to the Cortes. Only 2 years ago, Ciuadadanos was being hailed as the new liberal centrist Macronist party for tomorrow’s Spain. But they couldn’t do adult politics and make compromises with the bigger parties and so voters got bored and turned to the hard-right VOX party which plays Le Pen tunes.

Both the former socialist president François Hollande and the top Frenchman in Brussels, Michel Barnier, first elected aged 28 for the centre-right, have also warned that Marine Le Pen could win the 2022 presidency. Macron’s response seems to be to double down on the right. When he launched his bid for the presidency in 2017 he contemptuously refused the offer of a group of modernising, reformist socialist deputies who saw him as the man to bring about an economic modernisation of France with investment in social progress to reduce the wealth and income gaps which by some measures make France more unequal than Britain. Macron wanted nothing to do with centre-left politicians and instead created a new class of deputies and ministers with very little political experience.

This was what came unstuck in the European Parliament elections when he handed the campaign to a French diplomat and technocrat who had never run for election and who led the Macron MEP candidates to their defeat at the hands of Le Pen. In Paris, the jewel in the crown of political power outside national government, there are two Macronista candidates splitting the vote which will allow the long-serving socialist mayor of Paris Anne Hildalgo to keep the job.

Actual values

Now Macron is trying to jump over his deputies and councillor candidates to re-profile himself as a French national conservative. He gave a twelve page interview to Valeurs Actuels, a political weekly far to the right of the Spectator and home to every expression of nationalist identity, xenophobic, racist and anti-EU theory and denunciation.

Macron is making speeches and announcing policy to stop immigration which is little different from Viktor Orban or Matteo Salvini. He has caused consternation in Greece and the West Balkans by saying that North Macedonia – where the social democratic government agreed against huge nationalist pressure to change the nation’s name as a precondition for starting EU accession talks – cannot be allowed to join the EU. Neighbouring Albania, headed by the French educated socialist Edi Rama, has also been told to give up any hopes of getting close to Europe.

The reason is that Albania is a European Muslim nation and about 25-30 per cent of North Macedonia’s citizens are Muslim, though in both Albania and North Macedonia, the Muslims are as European as are Catholics in Poland, Ireland or Spain.

Macron does not want Marine Le Pen to claim he is opening the door to more Muslims entering Europe.

But Macron does not want Marine Le Pen to claim he is opening the door to more Muslims entering Europe – even if shutting the door to the EU completing its task of bringing all European nations into the union after the disaster of the Milosevic wars of the 1990s will only encourage illegal immigration and people smuggling.

Similarly Macron is playing to France’s Russophile political and business community by cosying up to Putin. The Kremlin strong-man has helped finance Marine Le Pen, so Macron needs to show he can be just as good a friend of Russia as anyone in France.

Macron described Nato as “brain dead” in a recent interview with the Economist. This is Kremlin speak but appeals to a France that has never been happy with Nicolas Sarkozy’s reintegration of France into the Nato military command structure. Donald Trump is as derided and disliked in France as much as anywhere in Europe so Macron’s appeal to drop Nato and forge a French-led European defence and security policy plays well to French Gaullist traditionalists. His attack on NATO has provoked fury in Berlin and other EU capitals with German politicians going on the record to question the use of the 60-year old Franco-German axis of European politics if Macron is freelancing on European security and foreign policy. But beating up on NATO and les Anglo-Saxons is popular, as is his finger-wagging at Britain over the need to hurry up and do Brexit, even if France will be the biggest victim of any crash out from the European single market whose goods arrive in Britain via French Channel ports.

Neglecting egalité

None of this matters as long as Macron is making headlines that caress France’s national identity and lessens Marine Le Pen’s appeal as the vector of white, French, non-English speaking, gallic identity. The road to the 2022 presidential election now runs through la France profonde not Davos or Silicon Valley. Macron has little choice as the French progressives – socialists of different hues, greens and liberals – are rudderless and lost.

When he won in 2017 Macron was hailed as the new European leader who would stop the rise of the populist right. To win in 2022 he is adopting populist rightist nativist themes. With Germany, Italy, Spain or the Netherlands offering no European leadership and Britain locked in its isolationist Brexit fantasy, Macron has little alternative. He came in as the representative of the reformist Davos elite: but France wants social justice as much as it wants billionaire bosses. Macron’s indifference to the egalité bit of France’s national tryptich motto is costing him dear. The second half of his presidential term will not be happy.

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