22 February 2017

Will the French see through Monsieur Plexiglas?


Classmates of Emmanuel Macron at ENA, the elite government school that mints most of France’s power brokers — whether in politics, business, or the civil service — have become a bit cagey when it comes to discussing him.

He was the archetypal young man in a hurry: Rothschild’s banker at 30 (full partner at 32), Élysée Deputy Chief of Staff at 34 and Economy Minister by 36. Now he’s in with a good chance of becoming the youngest ever president of the French Republic at the age of 39. No wonder none of his former fellow students feel chatty – they don’t want to spoil their chances of a plum government job.

When you do manage to get anything out of them, their overriding sentiment seems to be grudging admiration, tinted as much with envy as astonishment. “Give it to him, he had the guts to go all out for it,” one said.

Énarques tend to plot their career as though it were a complex equation, balancing political sensitivities, mentors, networks, opportunities. When they watch Macron’s performances in campaign rallies, delivered in Bible-thumping style, mixing literary quotes, grand promises and almost mystical flights of rhetoric — an adjective he uses unironically in interviews — they see precisely the kind of risk-taking they’ve been expensively groomed to avoid.

Macron’s speeches build into a stream-of-consciousness scream; he finishes, raucous and sweating, and basks in the crowds’ adulation like a scenery-chewing theatrical knight. He’s high on adrenaline even as he remains low on specific commitments. (Embarrassing videos of schoolboy Macron, an enthusiastic amateur actor, similarly carried away on stage, have surfaced on YouTube.)

Indeed, Macron’s wife Brigitte, once his French Lit and Drama teacher, his elder by 24 years, whose commitment to his campaign is unflagging, had been heard by friends to quip “It can be hard to live with Joan of Arc 24/7”.

The Brits had their first taste of Macron yesterday, at a rally attended by almost 3,000 people. But this wasn’t his first visit to the UK; ever since his ministerial job put him in the limelight, three years ago, he’s been the darling of the FT-Economist crowd.

He’s the new fiscally-reasonable face from Paris: socially progressive, pro-European, full of ideas to kick-start entrepreneurship, his English fluent, his charm overpowering – this is the Second Coming of Tony Blair, minus Iraq.

Among the Hollande Cabinet’s tax-loving ugly ducklings, he was the deregulation-championing swan. Here was the Frenchman who might woo back to the motherland at least some those expatriates who’d fled Socialist France’s 75 per cent income tax band, its 35-hour workweek, its 3,809-page-long Employment Code and its 68 per cent payroll levies.

He duly obliged, landed a meeting with Theresa May in the afternoon at the last minute; then telling the assembled press outside No 10 both that he intended to support French and European interests in the Brexit negotiations, and that he wanted a “special relationship” between Britain and France, favouring “strategic partnerships between the UK and the EU”. Oh, and he hopes to lure “talented British expatriates” to come work in France.

Marine Le Pen has famously dubbed Macron “the Plexiglas candidate” because she can see right through him: he’s simply telling you what you want to hear. So far, it’s worked. Over a few previous visits, and the sort of lunches you can set up when you’ve got the contacts book to go with a fast-track career, Macron has already raised some £10 million from expat French donors in London. This is more of an achievement than it initially seems since campaign donations are limited by law to €7,000 for individuals.

Yesterday, though, was different. He was bringing his show to the West End – or, rather Central Hall Westminster. This is exactly the kind of Edwardian mock-Baroque venue loved by the French bourgeoisie living three stops down the line in Frog Valley in South Kensington.

In normal times, these are natural Fillon voters. But Macron wanted to reassure them that he was a viable alternative to their now limping champion. It was a good sell, made all the stronger by the now real danger of a Marine Le Pen victory. Be they affluent and conservative or young and liberal, French expats shudder at Le Pen’s platform of lavish spending reserved to “native French”, border controls and possible Frexit.

The one stumbling-block, when it comes to Macron, is the ISF, the Mitterrand-era wealth tax, which, he refuses to get rid of (unlike Fillon). The emblematic measure is loathed by the Right and defended by the Left with equal ferocity.

Except for the very rich, who know, anyway, how to minimise the ISF’s impact, and for some much-publicised special cases, such as cash-poor farmers in certain places whose small lettuce patches are now valued at ridiculous prices, it is not punitive. It brings almost no real revenue to the French Treasury once the cost of collecting it has been deducted.

What makes the ISF such a real political marker is that it obliges those worth more than 1.3 million euros to make a full disclosure of their wealth to the State. This is less than it sounds when you include the value of your primary residence in a city like Paris, yet it enables any citizen to unleash their inner little Robespierre by naming and shaming ISF taxpayers.

And here we come to Macron’s fundamental problem. He is, officially, no party’s candidate, even though he was a minister in a Socialist Cabinet. (He is not a card-carrying Socialist and you don’t need to be an MP to become a minister.)

He is loathed by part of the Socialist base — now reduced in numbers but more radical and unelectable — for his Macron Bill, which allowed for mild deregulation of labour and company taxes.

Right-wing voters, for their part, see a man supported by a full third of Hollande’s government, and a lot of Mitterrand-era luminaries, who will not commit to firm policies, and cannot be trusted to hack with a firm enough hand into a bureaucracy that entirely shaped him.

Another of their gripes was that Macron was irresponsibly soft on Islamic fundamentalism, favouring looking for the “root causes” of home-grown terrorists’ radicalisation. This, however, changed in last night’s 90-minute speech, which for the first time included the line “My first priority in foreign affairs is to vanquish the Islamic State”.

He is firmer on Europe. He’s the Remainers’ and Angela Merkel’s candidate. He has said, on both sides of the Channel, that Europe would suffer from a botched Brexit. Thanks to his mandarin and banker pasts, he actually understands the finer points of the negotiations.

More specifically, Macron is well versed in the arcane details of granting “passporting rights” to UK financial institutions, enabling them to operate in the EU. And  he has always refrained from the kind of scorched-earth statements of other French officials who remain adamant that Brit firms should not get them until they acquiesce to the “four freedoms”.

But Macron’s great European theory is “back to basics”, an intellectual’s vision of the golden years of the early EEC, in which Britain was absent or on the sidelines. The whole caboodle was in effect co-ruled by the French and the Germans, à la De Gaulle – Adenauer or Mitterrand – Kohl. Some rebalancing of this is certainly urgent, since a deep distrust now exists between Merkel and François Hollande.

One of Macron’s first foreign trips was to Berlin, where he is considered to be a safe pair of Euro-hands. His election would come at just the right time: there is annoyance Left and Right in Germany at France’s constant promises, never delivered on, to lower its budget deficit to the 3 per cent of GDP the Stability & Growth Pact (SGP, aka “Maastricht” criteria) require.

In short, a French-German Axis no longer makes the same sense as it did in the 1960s, when a faster-growing France provided Germany with a moral entry into the new united Europe built on the ruins its bombs had created. Nowadays Germans feel France is not paying its way.

It will take an unusual mix of coddling and economic improvement to reconcile them to the idea that the old Axis can work to both nations’ equal advantage, and that’s exactly what someone like Macron, a known coddler of older statesmen, could provide.

Conspiracy theorists among the Fillon crowd, meanwhile, are certain that Macron, or at least his supports, are behind the Penelopegate revelations. They are furious that their candidate has been “stolen” from them for doing things that one fifth of MPs have been doing as well. But they bring no proof, beyond the fact that Macron could have accessed to the relevant tax declarations at the Economy Ministry, and that he gains from Fillon’s meltdown.

The chief beneficiary, though, may still be Marine Le Pen, whose runoff polls against Macron are steadily rising, from an optimistic 70 per cent (to Macron) / 30 per cent (to MLP) three weeks ago, to the current 58 per cent (EM) / 42 per cent  (MLP).

More worrisome to Macron is that Marine’s voters are reluctant to tell pollsters they support her. The commitment of those who do is unwavering: 81 per cent of them say their vote will not change between now and polling day. By contrast, Macron’s voters are the least committed: only 38 per cent avow their vote cannot change. The rest of the candidates similarly hover around 40 per cent firm commitment only.

Can Macron stumble? Only last week, on a visit to Algiers, he unwisely accused colonial France of “crimes against humanity”. The feeling was that he was pandering to the locals satraps as well as unprettily fishing for the Muslim vote in the French banlieues.

This probably hasn’t finished him, but his poll numbers did fall below Fillon’s this week, for the first time since the beginning of Penelopegate three weeks ago. He was at 18.5 per cent to Fillon’s 21 per cent. Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen rose further, at 28 per cent of the vote in the first round. Whether his trip to London helps Macron claw back into second place remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, Fillon’s image is stained. Political wisdom in Paris would have you believe his decline can only benefit Macron. But this is not as clear cut as you might think.

Should François Fillon fail to maintain his new fragile momentum, and throw in the towel before the end of the campaign, a sizeable minority of his core voters could very well find themselves so enraged that they might brave the shibboleths and do the unthinkable — and vote Le Pen, feeling that their candidate was unfairly done in by dirty tricks.

The best scenario has Fillon limping to the 23 April first round, and coming third. In that case, the likelihood, at state of play right now, it that Macron will defeat Marine Le Pen. Likelihood but not certainty: if too many voters think they see through his endless attempts to be all things to all men, then she may be able to break though that Plexiglas ceiling after all.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a political commentator based in Paris