France International

Macron: Firebrand or Farce?

What's the deal with the centrist candidate in the upcoming French presidential elections?

Connor McKenzie

Naked Politics Blogger 

“Farce”

/fa:s/

Noun

1.  a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skilfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character

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Three years ago very few people in France, let alone the UK, knew who Emmanuel Macron was. A poll published last Tuesday set Macron as favourite in the French presidential race, predicting that he will go on to beat the Front National comfortably in the second round of voting. This meteoric rise has taken France by surprise. But how did the 38 year old arrive in this position? And what would his potential leadership mean for France and the rest of Europe?

Macron took what is a rather conventional route into the upper echelons of French society, studying at Sciences Po and then the Ecole Normale Superieure. Both of these institutions are regarded as stepping-stones to top posts in the state or political spheres, furnaces in which the future elites of French society are shaped and formed. After his studies, Macron worked as a banker for Rothschild and then as a political advisor, before landing the role of minster of the Economy under Francois Hollande. Last year he quit this role to set up his own political movement-come-party En Marche.

So far in the campaign he has successfully framed himself as the outsider, despite the fact he is clearly a representative of the establishment. In his opening statement during the first live presidential debate, he openly talked of his work as a banker. You might think this audacious in an era rife with anti-elite sentiment, but Macron is no fool. He knows that the anti-establishment voters are by and large taken: on the left by Jean-Luc Melenchon; on the right by Marine Le Pen. He has other concerns. Macron’s whole approach is based on a desire to move past the age-old cleavages of left and right. In reality, this is a tactical move that broadens his appeal and makes him accessible to anyone who doesn’t want the Front National in power.

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Some see Macron as a renaissance of the idea of a “troisième voie” or “third way”, an idea that had seemed largely consigned to history due to recent political developments. More recently, political commentators seem to be defining his political objective as a populism of the centre. In this regard, a Macron presidency would be hugely significant not only in France, but across Europe. This is because it would set a precedent of how to re-conquer the centre-ground in a period defined by a growing polarisation of politics.

It was clear from the televised debate that Macron is a slick and confident performer. During his school years he developed a love of theatre and became involved in amateur dramatics. He is now married to his former Drama teacher, 20 years his senior, who also holds a prominent position in his party En Marche. It is a relationship that has caught the attention of the French media, to such an extent that he has been dubbed by some commentators as the “coqueluche” (darling) of the press. Furthermore, this unconventional romance also seems to have caught the imagination of a certain section of the French population.

But would all this hype fizzle out once elected? A friend once said to me that the French electorate is always going round in circles. They love to get excited about a candidate during the election. Then once elected, they take pleasure in hating what they have voted for. This friend is Belgian, and so it is his national duty to bemoan the French. Nevertheless, on the evidence of the last decade, he does seem to have a point. Would this maxim ring true then, even for the young and vivacious Macron?

Francois Hollande was elected on an anti-liberal ticket that sought to fight inequality in France by taxing the rich and boosting the economy. Key to his failure was the fact he abandoned all this and reverted to liberal reforms in the latter half of his tenure. In contrast, Macron will have made no such promises.

In many respects, he is the candidate that is proposing the least radical reform in this presidential race: of the other four candidates two want to create new constitution, one wants to ignite a Thatcherite “Big Bang”, and the other wants to leave the euro and end immigration.

Nevertheless, we can be sure that under his leadership, there would be reform. As president, he is likely to build on the reforms he tried to implement as Economy minster, where he attacked the sacred 35 hour working week and sought to open up elements of the French economy.

Macron is an opportunist, who will seek to exploit both Trump and Brexit if elected. A few weeks ago, Macron posted a video of himself calling all American climate change scientists to come to France now they have they have a president who sees no fit purpose for them. He has also been clear that he would be tough on Brexit as president.

There is little doubt that Macron has the momentum and personal flair to go on and win this contest. However, it is only after being elected that the real test begins. His unique ability to influence opinion can only get him so far. Ultimately, a Macron presidency would be judged on results, namely growth and employment. This will be no mean feet in country with a relatively stagnant economy where youth unemployment is at 23%.

I believe that Macron will bring change to France. But this will not be enough to turn the tide of the French economy, which will only mean a renewal of dissatisfaction amongst French voters. It seems that history might be repeating itself, first as the tragedy of Hollande, then as the farce of Macron.

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