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The new French revolution: how En Marche! disrupted politics

The rise of Emmanuel Macron's party has shattered the accepted wisdom.

Alexandre Holroyd bears many similarities to his new boss, Emmanuel Macron. Like the French president, a former banker, Holroyd started his career in the private sector, at the management consultancy firm FTI. At 39, Macron is the youngest ever French president; Holroyd is nine years younger. Both are strongly pro-European and confident in their common mission.

“The Assemblée Nationale is going to profoundly change,” Holroyd told me, sipping fizzy water in a café near St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 16 June. Two days later, in the second round of the French legislative election, he was elected France’s MP for northern Europe – one of the 11 constituencies for French expats around the world – representing Macron’s party, En Marche! (“Forward!”), which swept to a resounding victory.

“People said, ‘These newbies from En Marche! won’t know what to do,’” he told me. “But they will reflect French society: diverse, equal, with multidisciplinary experiences.”

Macron’s election in May capped a remarkable 12 months for the former economy minister, who left the Parti Socialiste (PS) government to run as an independent candidate. But the real power – of the kind that will allow him to implement the liberal reforms he has promised France – arrived only with the legislative election victory.

En Marche! won 350 of the 577 parliamentary seats, a majority that should enable the president to pass laws in the house easily. And the party did so by selecting younger, more socially diverse candidates than is usual in French politics. As with Holroyd, most of the candidates for En Marche! were running for office for the first time. When the National Assembly reopens, three-quarters of the faces will be new.

The renewal of the political class was one of Macron’s main campaign pledges. “There was this will to stop the two main parties’ [the PS’s and the Républicains’] sectarian obstructionism,” Holroyd said. “The French people are fed up with it.”

Much like a Silicon Valley start-up disrupting a sector of the economy – Uber with taxis, for instance – En Marche! sought to disrupt French politics. Macron launched it in April 2016 as a “political club” while still serving in François Hollande’s government. Three months later, more than 3,000 people attended its first event in Paris. The movement welcomed people of all political parties, allowing them to sign up for free online.

Today En Marche! has more than 240,000 supporters. The party’s main source of funding was individual donations and during the presidential campaign, it raised €6.5m. (Macron also took out an €8m personal loan.)

The rise of Macron and En Marche! has shattered the accepted wisdom of French politics: 39 is too young for a president; one cannot be “neither left nor right”; a career in the private sector does not lead to politics; no one can run for the presidency without the support of a pre-existing party.

Yann L’Hénoret, the director of the documentary Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise (available on Netflix), described En Marche! as a “very young” team in which “everyone could give their own view” before Macron had the final say. “Young people are said not to be politically engaged. I saw the inverse, every day, all the time,” L’Hénoret told me.

En Marche! members set up more than 4,000 local committees across France and beyond. Anyone interested in Macron’s project could create one and invite family members, friends and neighbours to take part. “Engage in a march, a conversation, a dinner,” the movement’s website suggested.

The groups then started “the Great March”, a canvassing initiative. “It was like an audit of the society,” said Holroyd. A dual citizen of France and Britain who grew up in west London, he became one of the early marcheurs in July 2016, when he quit his consulting job to set up the London committee. He had never been a member of any party before but Brexit acted as a trigger. “I saw my father’s country tearing itself off from Europe and realised I would regret it if I didn’t contribute to Macron’s project, whose European values I profoundly share.”

A graduate of London’s Lycée Français and Kings College, Holroyd could easily engage with his French expat peers – something that helped him win 70 per cent of the vote in the second round. “The only other party to go and talk to the people was the Front National,” Holroyd said. “The particularity of En Marche! is that many members came from the private sector. It’s exceptional in politics that people in the party have professional experiences. It spoke to many people.”

As En Marche! crowdsourced its candidates, it also ensured that its policies resonated with their locals. During the London “march”, 95 per cent of the participants told the committee that they were expats in the UK because of the economic opportunities here. Macron wants France to be able to entice professionals, too. Financially and socially, his goal can be summed up as: “Make France attractive again.”

Achieving a parliamentary majority has boosted Macron’s hopes of implementing major changes. Reforms may start as soon as this summer, with a liberal reorganisation of France’s rigid labour laws, which currently offer strong protection for workers. “France must invest in the industries of the future,” Holroyd said, quoting his president by the word. “Renewable energy, denuclearisation, ecological transition . . . We must become champions in these fields.”

Despite the scale of the victory, Macron’s team will have noted that the turnout was at a historic low on 18 June – at 42 per cent – suggesting widespread voter apathy. And despite its much-praised social diversity, En Marche! has only one working-class MP for every five middle-class ones. “We are conscious that we’ll be in a difficult situation if, by the end of the mandate, things have not changed for the people who have been left behind for years,” Holroyd said. “Those in outer suburbs, in post-industrial and rural lands.”

If they are to succeed, Macron and his MPs will have to find a way to win them over.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”