France: Triumph of the New Politics

By J Brooks Spector 24 April 2017

After a weekend in which two French politicians – Marine le Pen and Emmanuel Macron – sent the old right and left parties to the graveyard and now face each other in the final run-off in two weeks, J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the electoral landscape across Europe. What does it all mean? Is it time for one of those Gallic shrugs or that old saw, “hopeless but not serious”?

On Sunday, 23 April, French voters thoroughly upset some decades-long certitudes of their nation’s political landscape. In this mid-point of their presidential election, they have now set up a final round in the presidential race between the two top vote-getting candidates – out of 11 original contestants – but one in which neither of the two finalists comes from either of the established centre-left socialist or centre-right Gaullist parties that have been fixtures in French politics for more than half a century.

Until this stunning result, the selection of the president has oscillated between these two poles ever since Charles de Gaulle willed the establishment of the Fifth Republic’s constitution.

Of course, the French are not entirely strangers to political upheavals. They have, after all, been experimenting with some widely varying forms of a national government for over 200 years. There was an increasingly incompetent absolute monarchy until the Revolution, then it was on to radical cabals (at least twice, if you count the Commune of 1870). There have been empires (also twice) and four earlier – rather less stable – versions of republican government. And there was even a reversion to the monarchy in a more limited, bourgeois style in the 1830s, after a kind of semi-revolution. This seemingly stable Fifth Republic has been in operation for decades, but now the two political parties it has leaned on for all those years have virtually vanished into thin political air.

By the time only 3% of the vote was still left to count, Emmanuel Macron and his new party, En Marche, had achieved 23.9% of the vote. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen and her National Front had achieved 21.5%, while the centre-rightist François Fillon had reached around 20% and the far-left, Trotskyite-style candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had come in with 19.6 %. This total came despite a gimmicky but international attention-getting device of using hologram projections of the candidate to up to seven different campaign rallies around the nation simultaneously. (Fillon, meanwhile, had blotted his copybook severely with the scandal that he had arranged no-work jobs for several family members. His voter support as heir to the Gaullists may have declined as a result of this impropriety, but perhaps he just didn’t cut it as a candidate anyway, in the minds of voters eager for a change from the norm.)

Seven others, including the champion of the standard issue socialists, Benoit Hamon (who, in the end, garnered less than 7%), split the remaining 15% of the ballots among themselves. Current President François Hollande, a socialist, had earlier decided he would not run for another term and Hamon won the toss among rival party claimants – something that was probably wise for Hollande, given that his unpopularity has been heading straight to subterranean depths for months.

Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old wunderkind who had never run for political office before and who created an entirely new political party – En Marche – to fight this election, will now face off against Marine Le Pen. Macron had been appointed as deputy secretary-general in President Hollande’s first government and then Minister of Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs in 2014 where he supported a range of business-friendly reforms.

However, Macron is hardly a standard-issue socialist. His parents were both doctors and he is a multimillionaire with a fortune made from banking and some very clever investments. Macron attended two elite universities for graduate studies – Sciences Po and the National Higher Administration School – before joining the Rothschild’s investment-banking house, prior to his short government career. The candidate was only in Hollande’s cabinet for that brief period before deciding that old-style, established politics was not in his future.

Incidentally, Macron also married his high school drama teacher. She is 24 years older than he is and her family owns a prosperous chocolate-making firm in the city where they both come from.

To describe Macron’s political sensibility, it might make the most sense to call him a new voice from the so-called “radical centre”. Macron has been plucking his ideas and initiatives from across a wide swathe of the political landscape as part of a campaign platform designed to fuel a drive to get his nation moving again. (Now, given such clarion calls and the candidate’s own youth and energy, for some that might sound rather eerily familiar to Americans who can think of a certain presidential candidate back in 1960.)

Key points of the Macron agenda include plans to make labour mobility more effective, to goose up economic growth by substantial tax cuts, and strenuous efforts to reduce unemployment (stuck stubbornly in France at around 10%), to reduce the size of government and government regulations, and to offer initiatives to make private investment easier to accomplish. Macron also wants to lower the share of the economy that is in the hands of the government, versus that in private enterprise – now sitting at around 57% – a level significantly higher than that of the other major EU economies.

His critics have charged that Macron’s political ideas have an indistinct, gauzy, muzzy feel to them, and that they lack and rigour or ideological coherence. Nevertheless, his youth and energy seem to have captivated a significant chunk of younger French voters into supporting a candidate like him and his supporters seem increasingly eager to shuck off the old, stale political universe that has divided their nation for over two generations.

Le Pen, of course, has been in this electoral campaign business for some years, including watching her father’s efforts to capture the Élysée Palace under the same National Front flag. (Jean-Marie Le Pen had come through to the second stage of presidential voting in 2002, but was shellacked four-to-one by his final opponent, Jacques Chirac.) Regardless, she also comes from a political tradition not part of the standard French political landscape. Her National Front represents extreme nationalist-populist positions including clear elements of anti-immigrant, tough on terror, anti-EU, anti-globalisation, and anti-Nato stances that are the basis for her candidacy. If she were to become victorious, she has promised a return to a new national currency and a “Frexit” from the EU – efforts that would most likely destroy both the common currency and the European economic union.

Like other similar political movements in the West, Le Pen’s candidacy has found significant resonances with older people fearful of losing (or who have already lost) their jobs in ways that can be blamed on the crisis of globalisation. And her supporters are also people who have growing, deep-seated concerns over some deep changes in their society that stem from the growing number of – mostly Muslim – immigrants in their nation who have been unwilling to absorb “French values”, in addition to that pan-European, supranational globalisation tsunami. Other elements in her success have been the feelings of those who have had a long-held distrust of banks and other impersonal economic institutions – often tinged with some not particularly well-concealed anti-Semitic overtones.

In this sense, Le Pen’s core constituency is not too dissimilar from the one ridden to power by Donald Trump in the US last year. And, of course, it also has similarities to the feelings and concerns drawn upon by the UKIP and other anti-EU campaigners within the UK’s major parties who had achieved that unexpected Brexit win in the referendum on continued membership in that 28-nation (soon to be 27, of course) grouping.

The final stage of the French presidential voting is now coming in two weeks’ time, and pollsters and pundits are saying Macron will soundly trounce Le Pen, especially since the other candidates (and President Hollande) have been urging their supporters to back Macron – save for Jean-Luc Mélenchon who, so far at least, has held his opinion on the matter to himself. If he chooses to sit on his hands rather than endorse Macron, say, it is possible many of his more ardent supporters will do the same, making the final vote that much more problematic.

A special feature of the French electoral system is that the membership of the National Assembly is elected separately from presidential elections. This year the two-step process begins on 11 June (a few days after the final presidential vote) and concludes on 18 June. Winning candidates must achieve 50%-plus in their respective single member constituencies. In the current breakdown, Le Pen’s National Front only has two deputies out of 577 and Macron’s En Marche, of course, has none at all. Regardless of who wins the presidential election, it seems most likely that a functioning government and a new president would then need to generate the kind of multiparty coalition that has been virtually unknown to Fifth Republic presidents.

In Macron’s case, especially, since his is a brand-new political party, he does not yet have the deep bench of experienced officials who can step up to run for the National Assembly. As a result, his party operatives have been frantically recruiting potential candidates for the National Assembly seats from across the nation, including searching out and winning over experienced politicians from other parties who are in sympathy with his positions and governing philosophy and who are prepared to run under Macron’s banner. But, just as in the more unlikely victory by Le Pen, Macron too will probably still need to find supporters from among other parties’ representatives in order to build a solid governing platform.

Nevertheless, the calming prospect that an EU-supporting, business-friendly globaliser of a candidate will win the French presidency has already helped buoy global stock markets and such currencies as the euro against the dollar. Accordingly, it will be important to watch how both voters and markets respond – especially once Le Pen begins to paint Macron as a feckless tool of foreign capitalists and alien, foreign banks poised against the little man, as a man soft on immigrants, and – especially – weak-willed in the face of the realities of urban terror.

Going forward, will he respond with the kind of campaigning that shows him (or fails to show him) to be very much his own man, compassionate towards the less well off, energetic in building up the country’s economy, the bearer of concrete plans and innovative ideas – and tough-minded in the face of threats to the nation? That latter may be critical, given the most recent terror attack in downtown Paris, as well as earlier attacks in that city and in Nice. “Soft on terror” could be an especially potent charge, especially used against a man who has had little or no experience or opportunity to demonstrate resolve in that area.

But the European electoral season has scarcely begun this year, what with the recent Dutch parliamentary election and now the French elections. The other day, Britain’s newest Tory prime minister, Theresa May, suddenly reversed course from earlier pledges and called a snap election for 8 June. She is in the awkward position of being a prime minister who must negotiate that hard exit from the EU she did not especially support but with just a small parliamentary majority to back her on this position. This is especially awkward since many within her own party were in favour of remaining in the EU.

However, given a widespread belief (at least among the Tories and most analysts) that Labour, under the near-gormless leadership of a lackadasical Jeremy Corbyn, is in a state of virtual paralysis – even in England, let alone in Scotland – Prime Minister May clearly hopes a quick election will produce a substantial parliamentary majority for her. This would then give her negotiating position some cushioning in what is sure to be the messy business of sorting out the divorce from the EU. Of course, there is always the option of yet more referenda to be called for in the UK – yet another vote on Scottish independence, say, or perhaps even a new Brexit referendum, depending on how this snap election plays out.

But there is still more fun to come, with the German federal election on 24 September to elect the members of the Bundestag. Given that Germany is a parliamentary democracy, this vote will determine who becomes the next chancellor as well.

Until recently, Angela Merkel has been accorded a near-automatic win by most German pundits who say she will be returned again with her Christian Democratic Party-Christian Social Union alliance, in (or even, possibly, without) a coalition with the Social Democratic Party. However, the new leader of the SDP, Martin Schulz (formerly president of the European Parliament), has energised his party into dreaming that those old glory days of Willy Brandt’s time as chancellor may be due for a return.

Weighing his strategic possibilities for the September election, The Economist wrote this past week of Schulz in their portrait of his sudden rise in his party, that his unwillingness to rule out a coalition with the Greens and the socialist Die Linke (a descendant of the old East German Communist Party), has energised more left-leaning voters, even though it has generated renewed support for the CDP and Merkel in the Saar and Rhineland, as well as other prosperous regions in the western part of the country.

Still, for Germany, at least, so far, no mainstream politician is speaking about a “Gerxit” or departure from Nato, or about harsh measures against immigrants or refugees. There is that small German anti-immigrant party, yes, but so far, their support has been slipping.

Taken as a whole, these elections should reinforce support for the Nato alliance and, save for the UK’s circumstances, for the EU as well. These electoral developments should help reinforce those within the US government who lean towards rational international behaviour and against the kinds of ad hoc, off-the-cuff, snap decision-making that has become characteristic of the Trumpian style. Similarly, these anticipated results should also lend some needed support for the increasingly beleaguered idea of an open, globalised international economic system and freer trade.

Of course, if Marine Le Pen is France’s next president; if the British Labour Party returns from the dead and gives the Tories a thorough thrashing, forcing an unstable, multiparty coalition in the UK; or if the Germans really can’t agree Merkel should have yet another term as chancellor and the Greens and Die Link get the whip hand in a tie-up with the SDP, then watch out for a whole raft of European political uncertainty. And, remember, we haven’t even spoken about places like Italy that may yet get another bite at the parliamentary election apple later this year. The European political universe may yet come unstuck. DM

Photo: French presidential election candidate for the ‘En Marche!’ (Onwards!) political movement, Emmanuel Macron celebrates after the first round of the French presidential elections in Paris, France, 23 April 2017. Media reports that polling agencies projections place Marine Le Pen and centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in the lead positions for the vote. France will hold the second round of the presidential elections on 07 May 2017. EPA/YOAN VALAT