10 February 2017

Can Macron trump Marine?


You have to hand it to Emmanuel Macron. He’s the only one running an Obama campaign in a Clinton/Bush/Nixon field of French presidential candidates.

He’s François Hollande’s former deputy Chief of Staff, Economy minister, top ENA graduate (think Oxbridge PPE, but more exclusive) and a former Rothschild’s investment banker. Even so, Macron, 39, is so far managing the feat of running as a fresh new face, even an outsider.

In Britain, he’s had fawning Economist cover stories, FT rolling coverage and those well-lit Newsnight interviews with Robert Peston. (In a sea of monolingual politicians, Macron’s English is fluent, without accent and colloquial.)

But over in France, Macron is relying on revivalist-style rallies in the provinces, a sparing approach to TV interviews, and Paris-Match cover pictures, always with his 63-year-old pensioner wife Brigitte – once his French Lit teacher, who has the looks of a far better-preserved Brigitte Bardot.

Match is a bit of a time-warp. Once a Life-style institution in the French post-war media landscape, it has survived by adopting a Hello! sensibility. It tends to concentrate on those celebrities whose demographic will never make the switch to the internet — Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, Sylvester Stallone.

Most serious presidential candidates will get a Match picture spread and gushing interview; but to have four in two years, as in the case of Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron, speaks of a deliberate strategy to reach those voters most alien to the metropolitan Macron: older, provincial, mostly conservative – natural Fillon or Le Pen voters.

Last week-end, Macron threw his largest rally yet, in which he claimed (falsely) there were as many people outside as were inside the 9,000-capacity Stade Gerland in Lyon. It was high on hype and low on anything looking even remotely like a platform.

His VIP front rows look increasingly like the Walking Dead: old Mitterrand-era acolytes, Yves Saint Laurent partner Pierre Bergé, novelist and diplomat Erik Orsenna, former EBRD chairman Jacques “marble offices” Attali. “Emmanuel is happy making up to older people,” a former classmate of his at ENA told me, “they love treating him as an adoptive son.”

He has been advocating a tax on property (nod to the Left) and raising defence expenditure to 2 per cent of the budget (nod to the Right). He is supported by most of François Hollande’s closest friends, including his first PM, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and the mother of his children, Ségolène Royal.

That Emmanuel Macron is currently the chief beneficiary of the François Fillon slo-mo meltdown is obvious in more ways than one: last Monday, the very evening of François Fillon’s press conference, Macron chose to publicly deny rumours that had been going the Paris rounds for years of his alleged homosexuality.

He turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of his supporters at the trendy Bobino Theatre on the Left Bank and showed the tired horses of French spin doctoring How Things Are Done.

He laughed off the rumours, wondered whether he had a hologram (a dig at post-Communist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s newest technique to speak in two cities at once), and quipped that his wife, Brigitte, wasn’t paid for this “or for anything else”, a not too subtle hint at Penelope Fillon. He was perfectly aware that the day’s other news would half drown this elegant performance.

Because elsewhere in Paris, two weeks too late, Fillon was giving the press conference he should have convened within hours of the Canard Enchaîné revelations about his employment techniques. Having spent the weekend strategising with his team while railroading the Republican party leaders into supporting him despite PenelopeGate, he finally said it.

Yes, he was sorry. Yes, he had employed his wife and children as parliamentary assistants, perfectly legally – but he now realised it was no longer acceptable in the eyes of the public.

Behind him, like a troop of schoolboys (and one lone girl) called into the headmaster’s office, were most of the Party’s luminaries. Some of them had been floated as possible Fillon replacements – before a quick bit of discreet polling showed they hadn’t a hope of reaching even his diminishing numbers, and wouldn’t make the second round.

The Right, in other words, had no Plan B. Seven weeks after making an enviable show of competence running a well-attended primary with uncontested results, they were back to has-been, terminally uncool, unelectable status.

Since Fillon, against early expectations, did not die cleanly in the early days of the scandal, he is battling on. He does still have a chance in a race that’s frankly impossible to handicap right now. But he is wounded.

Fillon’s core electorate is still supporting him, but from the new, honest, dedicated and unflashy candidate they thought they’d chosen, he has become their Hillary Clinton. The French have a deep mistrust for money (this comes from being simultaneous heirs to a Catholic and Marxist traditions). And the figures paid out to his wife, even over fifteen years, are larger than what many people earn in a lifetime.

Strangely, Penelope Fillon no longer figures as the villain in cartoons, columns, conversations: once a profiteer, she now is seen as a victim. Her tense jaw and deer-in-headlights gaze as she was trotted out at rallies last week, with her husband’s hand always firmly on her shoulder or her neck as he encouraged his supporters to applaud her, did not speak of a defiant mood.

A curious collection of biblical imagery has illustrated this campaign, Fillon may be “resurrected” but Penelope is “Agonistes”; Macron, meanwhile, an enthusiastic amateur thespian at school and university, has taken to haranguing adoring crowds as though he’d realised he could walk on water.

Over the past three days, polls have started showing Macron finishing ahead of Fillon in the first round. As of yesterday, in a Harris Interactive poll, Marine Le Pen came first, with 24 per cent of prospective votes; Macron had 21 per cent; Fillon had fallen to 19 per cent, and Benoît Hamon, the Socialist Primary winner, polled 14 per cent.

These numbers confirm earlier ones; but they are more reliable, because for the first time they used a sample of 6,000 people. (The margin of error exceeds a five point spread in any poll taken with the usual 1,000 interviewees sample.) However, there’s still two and a half months to go and, on present showing, anything could happen.

Which leaves us with the elephant in the room: Marine Le Pen, who, Trump-like, is almost certainly underestimated by pollsters. People don’t like admitting they vote for her; but an astonishing number of those who do, when asked whether they might change their minds between now and the first round, reply they won’t: 82 per cent are committed to their vote.

For all other candidates, that figure hovers at around 40 per cent. And Marine’s campaign thrust has barely started: with a Cheshire cat grin, she’s silently been watching the Socialists and now the Right make an unholy mess of things.

It’s true that Le Pen couldn’t very well reproach Fillon for his failings when the Front National is under injunction to repay some 300,000 euros to the European Parliament for employing parliamentary assistants who were in fact working out of Paris, not Brussels, for the Party, not the EP.

Marine’s instincts, which are very good, prompt her to go lightly over heavy ground; but even so, her voters see shoring up the party’s finances with Brussels money as a venial sin, if that. It’s profiting personally that’s a no-no in French political culture.

(Alain Juppé was actually condemned in court for using Paris City Hall employees as Gaullist party workers when he was Jacques Chirac’s Deputy Mayor in the Nineties. The party paid the fine; Juppé spent the two years when he was ineligible to stand for office teaching in Québec; it was never mentioned again.)

Le Pen is barely getting in to her stride. Her voters, who time and again have been dismissed as Neanderthals for daring to like her, have been energised by Trump’s victory. They come from the disenfranchised Left as much as from the Right; they include many civil servants — formerly staunch Socialists — farmers, workers, the unemployed, and a growing number of would-be “Frexiteers”.

Marine is almost certain to come first on April 23. And polls showing Emmanuel Macron trouncing her with 70 per cent – to her 30 per cent – on May 7 are highly unrealistic. (Against Fillon its 60-40.) So can she win? She’s definitely the Trump character to Macron’s Obama in the second round – but who knows what the French will want come springtime. Given the unpredictability of the race so far, it’s still anyone’s guess who makes it to the Elysee.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political commentator based in Paris