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Can Emmanuel Macron win? Why France is ripe for a liberal resurgence

In an era of far-right populism, an avowed centrist could see off France's political demons. 

The French Presidential Election has so far been the election of the third man. On Sunday 5 February, Benoît Hamon, a short-lived minister for education under François Hollande, became the official candidate of the Socialist party. Much like François Fillon in the opposing right-wing Republican primaries, he had entered the race as the distant third. Nevertheless, he beat the early frontrunner, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in the second round of the Socialist primaries, gaining almost 60 per cent of the vote. 

This was a triumph of the radical left over the establishment. Hamon had left Vall’s government to protest against what they took to be the government’s too pro-business line. When it came to the primaries, he advocated a universal basic income and fully integrating ecological concerns into his programme.

In this two-pronged strategy, too, he followed Fillon’s lead. The Republican candidate overtook the frontrunners former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and President Nicolas Sarkozy after campaigning on both a highly economically liberal and socially conservative Catholic programme.

Both these victories on the left and right prove an old saying about primaries - they are won at the extremes. But there is another old saying, that general elections are won at the centre.

Emmanuel Macron is the centrist candidate for the Presidential election. He also entered the race as the third man, behind frontrunners Marine Le Pen and Fillon. So can he win?

With an election marked by a high level of unpredictability, there are nevertheless a number of reasons to think so. First there is Macron himself. When he entered the race, many thought he would quickly run out of steam, as centrist candidates have in the past, but his "Forward" movement has been highly successful. The crowds it attracts, numbering thousands, are the envy of the other candidates.

Macron's decision to not participate in the French Socialist primaries was also very astute. It means he has dissociated himself from the toxic legacy of the Hollande Presidency, which has already lead to the downfall of his rival, Valls. Indeed, the fact that Hamon, on the left of the Socialists, won the primary is another boon for him. Centre-left voters who would have supported Valls are now likely to rally around him.

If the centre-left has opened for Macron, so has the centre-right. Conservative voters who supported the centrist Alain Juppé might be tempted to join him, particularly after the "Penelopegate" scandal that has engulfed Fillon (the Republican candidate is facing an investigation over claims he paid his wife nearly €1m for a job she did not do). Previously the favourite to win in the second round of elections in May, Fillon now trailsin the polls behind Macron in third place.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, is engulfed in her own "fake jobs" scandal concerning her European Parliament assistant, and she has been sanctioned by the European Parliament which is retaining part of her salary. But it is unlikely that such a scandal will dent her popularity, and she remains well ahead in the polls with 25 per cent of first-round voting intentions.

The difference between Le Pen and Fillon is that, as an anti-establishment and anti-European party, the Front National will not suffer from the misuse of public funds from an institution it rejects. Fillon, however, had made a big show of his strong moral principles in the primaries compared to the "affaires" that continue to plague Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Conservative voters put off by Fillon and unwilling to vote for the FN can rally round Macron’s economic liberalism instead. 

If Macron can make it to the second round of the French Presidential election in May, then he has every chance of becoming France’s next president. Current predictions have him wining over 60 per cent of the second-round vote. But we are not there yet. As a young, intelligent and outside candidate, he remains the receptacle of many people’s longing for a renewal of the political class. But he needs to transform his movement’s dynamic into hard votes - he lags well behind other candidates when it comes to firm intentions of voting. To do so he must give details of his political programme, which he so far failed to do, and which he is coming under increasing pressure to deliver.

The other threat he faces is the unification of the left with the far-left. If Hamon and the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon could come together to form a common ticket then they could muster up to 25 per cent of the vote, which would propel them to first place in the first round of voting. 

What Macron has made clear is that he is pro-European, which starkly marks him out from the other candidates. He is a social, economic and political liberal, and is willing to endorse ideas from across the political spectrum - one of his mottos is that he is neither left nor right. In an age when the political centre has come under intense pressure, maybe a radical centrist is precisely what France needs.

Dr Hugo Drochon is a historian of political thought and an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the book Nietzsche's Great Politics, published 2016. 

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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