Appetite for change

Print edition : May 26, 2017

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron addresses voters at a meeting in Paris on May 1. He faces Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the final round of the presidential elections on May 7. Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Marine Le Pen with her supporters at an election rally on May 1, in Villepinte. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A traditional May Day march in Marseilles. Photo: JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERS

The upheaval at the French presidential election is likely to continue into the elections to the National Assembly, and this may present new opportunities for the Left.

On April 26, the French presidential contender Emmanuel Macron made a trip to a factory of the tumble dryer maker Whirlpool in Amiens in northern France to meet with union representatives to talk about plans to shift production to Poland with the loss of over 200 jobs in France. Amiens is Macron’s hometown, and the place he launched his En Marche! (Forward!) movement last year, one of the most dramatic political ascensions in recent French politics. Macron’s visit to the factory was partly an acknowledgement of his need to engage with a wider voter base: while lauded by many in the cities and the business community (he has insisted he is neither Left nor Right and has a range of policies from further reforms to the labour market to greater infrastructure investment), he had struggled to engage with people, particularly those left behind by the supposed economic recovery that has followed the 2010 economic crisis in the eurozone. This was reflected in the geographical breakdown of the vote: support for Macron was concentrated in urban, affluent regions, whereas areas such as north-eastern France, which had lost much of its industry and has high levels of unemployment and deprivation, voted in favour of Marine Le Pen.

Macron’s trip to Amiens swiftly took an unexpected turn as Marine Le Pen, who relinquished her leadership of the far-right Front National a day after making it through to the second round of the presidential election, turned up at the factory gates, lambasting Macron for talking to the bosses, while she joined the workers in the car park. Macron, who swiftly headed to the gates, was met with an angry heckling crowd, who surrounded him, chanting for Marine Le Pen, as he decried her strategy of division and her solutions to France’s problems; turning its back on globalisation was not France’s solution,he said, pointing to another factory down the road that relied on export markets.

Opinion is divided on who emerged the winner from the incident, but it nevertheless highlights the ways in which the two presidential candidates have attempted to broaden their appeal and why the defeat of Marine Le Pen—who has rigorously been trying to detoxify her image and that of her party (while still espousing her anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-Islam message)—cannot be taken for granted. Polls put Macron clearly ahead: the latest IPSOS puts Macron at 62 per cent and Marine Le Pen at 38 per cent, though the OpinionWay poll since then has seen his support base drop slightly.

Marine Le Pen has continued her campaign confidently, reiterating the points she has been making from the start, on issues that she sees Macron as particularly vulnerable. Portraying herself as the anti-establishment candidate she has continually referenced Macron’s past as a banker with Rothschild, not to mention the time he spent as Economy Minister within the administration of Francois Hollande, where he was involved with controversial labour market reforms. His decision to celebrate his passage to the second round of the presidential election at La Rotonde, a posh Paris restaurant, was cited by the Marine Le Pen campaign as yet another example of his privilege and distance from the people. She boarded a fishing boat during the week and visited the city of Nice, where 86 people died last year in a terrorist attack.

She has also sought to portray him as a person given to grand speeches rather than specific ideas (the phrase “bla-bla land” to jokingly describe Macron’s approach caught on in January, when the Hollywood film La La Land was released). “You can speak for seven minutes but I am not able to summarise your thoughts. You have said nothing,” she told Macron during a televised debate earlier this year. Her overall strategy has reaped dividends: she has won over two million more votes than her father (Jean Marie Le Pen, who was resoundingly defeated in the second round of the presidential election by Jacques Chirac back in 2002, and from whom she has also sought to distance herself).

Macron has meticulously come back at Marine Le Pen after each attack (in a tweet after her fishing trip he pointed to the damage that leaving the E.U. would do to the industry). Still, the wider political picture in France and Europe is very different from that of 2002, before the financial and economic crisis that gripped the continent and highlighted the flaws in its architecture. Not only has there been a surge in anti-immigrant populist movements right across the continent (which have also, disturbingly, begun to forge links with each other), but there has also been a much stronger anti-establishment movement, with palpable anger about the status quo. It is a story that has shaken up politics across the continent from Britain (with the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the Labour party) to Italy (the rise of the comedian and head of the Five Star Movement Bepe Grillo). With high unemployment among the young (unemployment among 18- to 25-year-olds is nearly at 25 per cent) and disenchantment with the previous Hollande administration that had promised great things following the end of Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure, France has been particularly ripe for such a movement, highlighted by the fact that for the first time since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958 neither of the mainstream, established socialist or right-of-centre parties made it to the second round. The socialists only made it to the fifth place, with just over 6 per cent of the vote. The appetite for change was also highlighted by the success of Jen-Luc Melenchon, the left-wing candidate who energised many on the Left, particularly the young, and performed far better than had been anticipated by many, with his criticism of a political system that he views as rotten to the core.

His answer was for a radical reform that involved an end to the fifth republic—the political system that has been in place in France since the days of Charles de Gaulle—and the establishment of a sixth republic that would end the centralised presidential system and bring in an energetic parliamentary democracy with power lying in the hands of local representatives, geared towards justice and fairness. He is also critical of the E.U., eager to renegotiate France’s relationship with it to gain more autonomy over policies (such as austerity) and will only consider leaving the Union as a last resort should no change be exacted (in contrast to Marine Le Pen, who is deeply eurosceptic and advocates a referendum on E.U. membership). Macron, by contrast, is among the most pro-European politicians in Europe, supporting further integration, including a eurozone-wide budget.

Melenchon, while urging supporters not to vote for Marine Le Pen, has steered clear of endorsing Macron, unlike the other major contenders who failed to make it to the second round. While some of Melenchon’s voters are thought likely to vote for Macron (40 per cent, according to one opinion poll), as much as 45 per cent could abstain from voting. There is a great debate under way among many on the Left about whether the factors that had created Marine Le Pen would only be exacerbated by the policies that Macron would advocate as President, with some on social media linking a Macron victory in 2017 to a Marine Le Pen victory in 2021 . “Neither Marine, nor Macron…their elections, our future”…chanted lycee (secondary school) students at protests that took place across France.

For others, the more interesting battle may lie beyond this: should Macron win (which despite Marine Le Pen’s gains seems the most likely outcome), his major challenge may lie in the National Assembly (lower house of Parliament) elections that are due to take place in June. Marine Le Pen’s party holds just two seats, whereas Macron’s movement has none. The Assembly is dominated by the Socialist group and its allies (which have 279 seats) and the Republicans (195), with Melenchon’s group, the democratic and republican Left, holding 15. The upheaval at the presidential election is likely to continue into the Assembly election. For the Left, and seasoned electoral politician Melenchon, this may present new opportunities.