From the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump, events of the past year have posed a sustained threat to the political centre. Can anyone stem the tide? Centrists have found hope in an unlikely source: Emmanuel Macron, a political novice who is mounting a serious challenge in the French presidential election to the far-right Front National (FN) leader, Marine Le Pen. Can the centre hold?
Both Macron and Le Pen reject the old left-right divide. Macron claims that he is open to ideas whether they are from the left or the right; Le Pen says she represents both. Her political symbol is a blue rose, which combines the French Parti Socialiste (PS) symbol of a red rose and the colour blue, historically associated with conservative movements. Since becoming the FN’s leader in 2011, Le Pen has rallied both the old far right and the working class to her cause, so her claim to be both left and right has some basis in reality.
Instead of left v right, both candidates present new political cleavages. For Macron, it is progressives v conservatives; for Le Pen, it is patriots v globalists. Previously, candidates mutually recognised each other as being of the left or the right. Yet here, in a complicated language game reminiscent of Nietzsche’s revaluation of “good and bad” as “good and evil”, each side refuses the pejorative connotations that the other attributes to its positions.
So if Macron refuses to be labelled as a member of the“ultra-liberal” rootless international elite, to echo Theresa May’s 2016 Conservative party conference speech, he nonetheless presents himself as the pro-European liberal candidate. And if Le Pen refuses the label of “reactionary” conservative, she still claims to be the only candidate who wants truly to “conserve” the French values of secularism and social welfare.
In all politics, there is a contest over meanings of words. What is novel here is that both candidates claim to be defending the middle ground against an extreme: Macron is focusing on the conventional European centre ground against the far-right nationalist extreme, while Le Pen is fighting for the French middle ground against the perceived extremes of the EU. Coming from their respective vantage points, both of these positions seem plausible. As Dominic Cummings, the director of the Vote Leave campaign during the EU referendum, pointed out in a blog post explaining how the Brexiteers won, outside the Westminster bubble, many policies that offer themselves as mainstream can be perceived as extremist. Free movement of labour even for criminals: extreme. The bailout of banks: extreme. Financial deregulation: extreme.
These are not Macron’s policies, and he finally took the step on 2 March of doing what everyone had been waiting for him to do: unveil his programme for government. True to form, he borrowed from the left and the right: some deregulation of business and reduction of the state (though nowhere near as much as in the “Thatcherite” proposals of his fellow presidential candidate François Fillon), allied with a strong defence of social security, which is a key left-wing pledge.
Can Macron win on this platform? With Fillon, the mainstream conservative candidate, still entangled in financial scandal – he has been summonsed to appear before a judge on 15 March – and still being deserted by large parts of his party, the Républicains, Macron has every possibility of reaching the second round of the election in May. There, he is expected to beat Marine Le Pen (the polls have him on roughly 60 per cent of the vote). She is now facing her own financial scandal, which involves fake EU parliamentary assistant jobs and misuse of state funds during French elections dating back to 2011: one of her former advisers has accused the FN of “widespread corruption”. It is unclear just how much of this will damage Le Pen. Her core electorate will support her regardless, but it might affect the turnout of newly converted voters.
Macron has made gaffes, too. On a visit to Algeria – designed to increase his international stature – he made the claim that colonisation was a “crime against humanity”. He also said that those who had participated in the anti-gay-marriage protests of 2013 had been “humiliated”. Cue reaction from right-wing and LGBT groups alike. He quickly made amends by saying that gay people could always count on him as their champion, and that what he was doing was denouncing the colonial “system”, not accusing individuals. But here he confronted the perils of a radical centrist approach. This attempt to play to the right and the left backfired spectacularly on both sides.
Macron has weathered the storm, however, and his campaign received a boost on 22 February when François Bayrou, the eternal centrist of French politics, rallied to his cause. For the first time, early March polls placed him at the top of voting intentions for the first round, on 27 per cent, above even Le Pen (26 per cent), with Fillon stuck on 19 per cent. And with the confirmation that, on the left, Benoît Hamon of the PS and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise won’t be forming a common ticket, his path to the second round seems clear.
If Macron wins, he will have to contend with legislative elections in June. With no party political backing beyond his En Marche! movement, how can he govern? In reality, the French presidential system allows for an incoming president to form a party-for-government, so as to achieve a parliamentary majority. Macron retains much sympathy among the Socialists and, with Hamon eliminated, he can rely on their institutional support. To these, he can add the centrists and liberal right-wing deputies abandoning Fillon’s sinking ship. Maintaining a left-right coalition will be the challenge of a centrist presidency. Who knows? Maybe this time, the centre can hold.
This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda