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8 May 2017

Emmanuel Macron’s victory has kept the populist wolves at the door – for now

The centrist President's next challenger could come from the populist far left instead. 

By Hugo Drochon

Like in the first round of the French Presidential Election, Emmanuel Macron did better than expected. But nobody had predicted 66 per cent, with Marine Le Pen relegated to 34 per cent. He had been stable at around 60 per cent, even slipping down to 59 per cent earlier in the week, and the last polls had him on 63 per cent. The turning point was Wednesday night’s debate, where Macron, much as he had done with employees at the Whirlpool factory a few days before, courageously faced the sneering attacks of Le Pen. With her wild rants and obvious lack of understanding of the important dossiers of French politics, Le Pen managed to undo in a couple of hours all her efforts at “normalising’ the party” she had inherited from her father since 2002.

As the most pro-European of the candidates, this spells bad news for the Brexit negotiations. Although as a liberal Macron is sympathetic to the UK and London, Brexit wasn’t one of his main campaign themes, and as the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, tipped to be his EU adviser, warned, Macron will be “tough” on Brexit. He won’t seek to “punish” Britain, but as a committed European his goal will be to revive the Franco-German partnership. This will only reinforce the hard front Theresa May will face.

Ironically the candidate who talked most about Brexit was Le Pen, but she used it as a model to be emulated, not as a disaster to be avoided. Mimicking David Cameron, she wanted to renegotiate at the EU level and put the results to a referendum, hoping for a Frexit. If she had been elected the Brexit negotiations would undoubtedly have taken a very different form, but it might have come at the price of the European Union itself, something not even May would welcome.

So could Marine Le Pen be President in 2022? That is the question on everyone’s mind. While her 34 per cent was widely seen as a failure, nonetheless 11 million people voted for her, and she doubled the score her father have achieved when he had made it to the second round in 2002. So in another five years’ time will France have a Front National President?

This is how many on the left, in particular supporters of far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon – the only leading candidate who did not call to vote for Macron – saw it. Not long after the first round results were announced, a slogan started to make the rounds online: Macron 2016 = Le Pen 2022. The argument is that by continuing the neo-liberal policies of his predecessors, Macron is simply making a Le Pen presidency all the more inevitable. Only the type of left-wing populism that Mélenchon incarnates can stop Le Pen.

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This logic accounted for the rise in abstention – participation was down 3 per centage points to 75 per cent compared to the first round, one of the lowest of the V Republic – and the almost doubling of spoilt ballots. This wasn’t helped by the fact the vote took place on a long weekend, but the big debate of the second round was whether those who had voted for Mélenchon would turn out to vote.

In the end they did, just. More than half voted for Macron, but a quarter abstained, and under 10 per cent voted for Le Pen. For the latter, Albert Camus in his 1951 book The Rebel had a good term for them: they are “nihilist revolutionaries”, who look for any type of revolution and who, unable to obtain the best, prefer to have the worst.

But the logic is flawed on many levels. For one, who knows what will happen in 2022? Last year who would have predicted Brexit, Trump, or Leicester wining the Premier League? A few months ago who would have thought that a little-known former French Minister for the Economy would be the next President of France? One would have to have a very firm belief in the truth of one’s convictions to predict the future in this way.

Second, Macron is not a neo-liberal. In the context of French politics he is best described as a social liberal. Yes, he believes the market should be deregulated, but at the same time – to use one of his catchphrases – he also wants a strong safety net. If Benoît Hamon had Thomas Piketty as his economic éminence grise, for Macron it is Jean Pisani-Ferry, well known in France as a defender of “Nordic” social democracy. To achieve this “flexisecurity”, Macron wants to centralise social welfare – it is currently administered through social partners – so that everyone can have direct access to it, including the self-employed, and invest heavily in adult retraining, to combat unemployment.

Whilst it is industrial action at factory giants like Whirlpool that still capture the imagination, the reality is that big manufacturing firms such as these are a dwindling part of the French economy. Macron has often been derided as the “Uber” candidate – the French equivalent of the “gig” economy – but for young people living in the banlieues, where unemployment can be as high as 50 per cent, the choice is often between that or a life on benefits. The French labour market is notoriously rigid: if you’re in, it’s great and you have protection, but the price is that if you’re out, you’re out, and it’s very difficult to get in. France’s compromise for high work security has been high unemployment. But with the economy shifting away from a corporatist to a more individualistic basis, Macron’s desire to universalise social security is key. Combined with the type of universal basic income the Socialist candidate Hamon was advocating, this could form the basis for a new left-liberal politics for France.

Macron’s aim is to reduce French unemployment to 7 per cent, and in this he will be helped by the return of economic growth to Europe. Moreover, France has a significant output deficit, which if it could catch-up on would provide a significant boost to its economy. And he will find a sympathetic ear in Berlin, where his candidacy has found the support of social democrat Martin Schulz, amd centre-right politicians Wolfgang Schäuble and Angela Merkel. Whoever the next German Chancellor is, Macron is best placed to revive the Franco-German axis – the traditional motor of European integration – which had come under strain because of the mutual dislike between François Hollande and Merkel.

Germany is aware that its growing budget surplus and austerity measures are unpopular and unsustainable, and German leaders seem open to cut a deal with him. His own project for Europe is for there to be an EU Finance Minister, with a Eurozone Budget, who is responsible before an empowered European Parliament. If Macron can tackle unemployment and start democratising Europe, France in 2022 will look very different to France in 2017.

With tensions within her own camp between her openly gay adviser Florian Philippot and her conservative pro-life niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who have threatened either to move on or retire from politics, Marine Le Pen might not be in the same position either. The European Parliament is demanding €5m from the Front National over a “fake jobs” scandal, and she has been putting off a judicial summons.

After Donald Trump’s election last year, many on the left argued that only Bernie Sanders could have defeated him. Those hopes have been projected onto Mélenchon. But the two aren’t comparable. Seen from Europe, Sanders looks more like Hamon: a left-wing social democrat. Mélenchon is to the left of that, and internationally is opposed to Nato and complacent, at best, towards Russian President Vladimir Putin – whom he has refused to condemn over his support of the Assad regime in Syria – something Sanders never was.

Mélenchon’s ultimate aim is to take France out of the EU, which would be disastrous economically. Galloping inflation, a drastic reduction in the standard of living and mass unemployment: those are the surest way to bring a right-wing populist to power.

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