25 April 2017

Macron is on the move – can he take France with him?

By Nabila Ramdani

For most alpha males, a car number plate or signet ring are considered perfectly adequate places to show off their initials. French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron went a stage further, creating the name of his own electoral movement around the letters EM.

En Marche! – best translated as “On The Move!” and usually abbreviated by the Macronists to EM! – is heading in one direction, and that is towards the Elysée Palace. In a campaign of breathtaking confidence, the luckiest politician in France is now on the cusp of power. His result on Sunday night marks the first time that an independent has won the first round of presidential elections in France. Before the weekend, Macron had never put himself up for any kind of vote, and yet took on 10 other candidates and beat them all. To understand why, look at the way Macron has skillfully exploited the political crisis at the very heart of his country’s democracy.

While the young and telegenic Macron is undoubtedly highly intelligent and full of ideas, there would have been no possibility of him getting to where he is without coming up against the weakest election field in recent French history. Words like crook and fascist are not ones that are usually banded about in democratic contests, but they have been used constantly and without fear of defamation during the latest campaign.

Arguably the most flawed contender is the one who has joined him in winning through to the second round of voting: Marine Le Pen. She is a far-Right demagogue funded by a convicted racist, xenophobe and anti-Semite, who just happens to be her father. Jean-Marie Le Pen is also the founder and current honorary president of her Front National (FN) party. Despite facing criminal trial and imprisonment herself over a fake jobs scandal, Ms Le Pen – who denies any wrongdoing – has managed to convince millions of voters that she can become France’s first female leader.

On Sunday she voted in Hénin-Beaumont, the northern town that has consistently rejected her as its potential member of Parliament. When placing her envelope in the ballot box, Le Pen was flanked by FN crony Steeve Briois, who by chance had just been summoned to court in Paris for inciting racial hatred. Add colleagues and friends of Ms Le Pen whose Neo-Nazi links have been highlighted by investigative journalists over the past few months, and you get a very clear idea of why Macron is expected to win by a landslide in the May 7th head-to-head.

As for the more moderate Right, the demise of the deeply cynical Republicans candidate François Fillon is nothing short of an absolute disaster for French conservatism. He was the runaway favourite to win until January 24, when excruciating details about fictional employment emerged. There is overwhelming evidence that Fillon’s British-born wife Penelope Fillon had been paid more than €1million for doing next to nothing, but he continued to campaign.

Even when both Fillons were charged with a range of very serious crimes including embezzlement, they blustered on towards shame, humiliation and defeat. Rather than moving into the Elysée Palace as President and First Lady, they will instead await court hearings and the strong possibility of prison sentences. Both say they did nothing illegal.

This leaves the disintegrating Left – the other main reason for Macron’s success. Its vote was hampered by five years of extremely mediocre Socialist rule but also a three-way split between the party’s official candidate Benoît Hamon, the near-Trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Macron himself. The former Rothschild banker made his name as a non-ideological economic adviser to President François Hollande, and then finance minister, and many Socialist Party members, including senior figures, have opted to join En Marche!

With hindsight, Macron’s most inspired move was to resign from Hollande’s government less than a year ago so as to stand as an independent. This distanced him not only from the Socialists, but also from the entire Paris political establishment at a time when it is immersed in constant allegations of sleaze and incompetence.

In contrast to the discredited, self-serving dinosaurs surrounding him, 39-year-old Macron comes across as a slick election property – a dynamic, media friendly winner in the style of a 1997 Tony Blair, a Justin Trudeau, or even a John F. Kennedy. That combination of statesmanlike seriousness with a sprinkling of showbiz sparkle makes him a fresh face who is irresistible to all kinds of voters.

Marine Le Pen first stood for parliament in 1993, and has been hacking away in public life ever since, usually unsuccessfully. Beyond all her knockbacks while trying to enter the National Assembly, she was a failed candidate at the 2012 presidential elections. Instead, she is an MEP in a parliament she despises, and a regional councillor. Just like her father before her, Le Pen normally benefits from first round protest votes, but then the so-called Republican Pact – people of all political persuasions coming together to keep out an FN perceived as fascist – destroys any chance of a top job.

This time around Le Pen has almost certainly exhausted her core support going into the second round. Hardline nationalists who were furious at the demise of the French Empire and particularly the loss of Algeria built the FN. Plenty mythologised the collaborationist World War II Vichy regime too.

Historic racism and anti-Semitism resonate with those who oppose ethnically and religiously diverse communities, and who want to blame foreigners for all society’s ills. Throw in those who live in economically devastated towns and villages in northern France, and those prepared to overlook bigotry and hate in order to challenge the EU, and there you have the FN’s traditional vote. It can rise to anything up to around 30 per cent, but it never gets much higher.

Thus, in an astute attempt to broaden her constituency ahead of the final round, Marine Le Pen on Monday resigned from the leadership of her party. The idea is to artificially break away from a toxic brand. That is precisely why she uses her first name Marine on campaign posters, along with a blue rose symbol, rather than referring to the FN.

Le Pen also hopes to emulate France’s most famous ever president, General Charles de Gaulle, and portray herself as a universal leader of France, and not solely a parochial party chief. Just as the unlikely schism with her father appeared orchestrated for the most cynical of reasons, so this strategy won’t hide what the FN is really all about.

All of this means it is a near certainty that Macron will win the second round handsomely, and become the youngest elected French head of state ever (even the youthful Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had turned 40 before he became France’s first elected president in 1848).

There will, of course, be plenty of trouble ahead. En Marche! has even fewer MPs than the FN’s paltry total of two, and Macron will need to start forming alliances before and after parliamentary elections in June. But at the very least, this guarantees that the letters EM will become inextricably associated with a period of consensus government – one far removed from the adversarial system that has been failing France for so long.

Nabila Ramdani is a Paris-based French-Algerian journalist.