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What I learned from the French presidential campaign

A last-minute attack, as many feared, can change everything.

A familiar feeling of tedium was settling in on Thursday night, as my friends and I watched the last TV event before the first round of the French election, held this Sunday. Instead of a never-ending debate with the 11 candidates, this time each candidate had ten minutes to defend their policies. All the same, the event was expected to run to four hours and 32 minutes. After the hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon showed the alarm clock he had brought (because it is “time to wake up”), we were, quite ironically, falling asleep.

But around 9pm, something woke us up. Scanning through tweets, I spotted a news alert: “Shooting on the Champs-Elysées.” A policeman had died. My French friend and I looked at each other. It had started again – the dread, the speculation on social media, the comments from politicians, the inevitable recovery from yet another (possibly terrorist) attack. That feeling, too, is now a familiar one.

Last night’s events have shaken what was left of a hectic, infuriating campaign marked by scandals, extraordinary uncertainty and growing resentment towards the French political system. The Champs-Élysées shooting happened on the eve of the last day of campaigning. The conservative François Fillon and the hard-right Marine Le Pen both decided to cancel their events on Friday to hold press briefings instead. However, this meant they were effectively using the events on the Champs-Élysées as a last means of getting their message across. We need more security – vote for me.

By contrast, when news about the shooting filtered into the live TV debate, the centrist Emmanual Macron seemed to try too hard to look presidential, especially compared to Fillon, who channelled his real-life prime ministerial experience.

As my colleague Stephen made clear this morning, it’s Marine Le Pen who benefits from such security scares. But the changed mood could mean it's Fillon, rather than the great liberal hope Macron, who will face her in the run-off. It would be only logical to see the big crowds of undecided voters warm to an experienced conservative with a strong stance on security.

If it’s Fillon-Le Pen indeed, then my first lesson learned on the campaign trail in 2017 will be to never underestimate the voters’ fear – and the candidates’ capacity to play with it. As for lesson number two?

Accusations of rampant corruption will not bury a candidate. Apparently.

Only in March, I was charting Fillon's descent into scandal over multiple accusations of fraud and misuse of public money. It looked like his decision to cling on to his hopes of the presidency was an ego trip that could ruin his centre-right party. He is polling at 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 and Macron on 23, all within the 2-3 point margin of error acknowledged by pollsters.

Fillon is is now on 21 per cent, with Mélenchon on 18 per cent and Macron on 23 per cent, again all within the 2-3 point margin of error used by most pollsters. Against Le Pen, all polls suggest Fillon would be victorious – a scenario now ridiculously plausible.

“So it’ll be Fillon-Le Pen, and Fillon will win,” was our conclusion last night. What a humiliation if France elects the candidate being investigated over allegations of misusing half a million euros of public money. He is even said to be ready to “pay the money back” if elected – an offer that sounds uncannily like a confession. (“Rends l’argent”, meaning “Pay the money back”, has become a meme used against Fillon on social media and on his campaign trail.)

Old French political parties are dying and must come to terms with rapidly changing times.

Fillon may win, but his party, and the centre-left party of the Socialist Benoît Hamon, have lost. The campaign has been fought by independents, from the loud “anti-elite” Le Pen and Macron’s personality-cult movement En Marche! to Mélenchon’s late but powerful Corbyn-like grass-roots movement. Big historical divides of left and right have been rejected by Macron and Le Pen, who both claim to be “neither left nor right”. Even if Fillon, the embodiment of the old politics, wins, he’ll be the last one from the country’s main parties.

Marine will rule France. In the meantime, her agenda will rule everything else.

Le Pen is not playing a short-term game. When her father reached the second round in 2002, I was eight years old. I remember an Italian friend at school saying goodbye to everyone – her parents had planned to move if he won. I grew up seeing his jackass party turning into her nationalist machine. It is hard to see an end to her rule, if only on the ideological front. Le Pen cannot really lose: each campaign she fights is a step closer to the goal and I am now certain nothing can stop her but herself. It will take a Front National presidency to defeat the Front National, for it to go full circle and replace the elite political entities it is now denouncing as out of tune.

There's one last feeling I know I'll come to regard as very familiar – and that's the feeling of grief I'll get seeing Marine Le Pen reach the second round.

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”