Bold, haughty, hyper: will Macron throw everything away as France fights for its future? | Simon tisdall
gthe “rotating” election of Germany? Yawn. For a truly stimulating competition, Europe must look to France, where pre-election noise levels are rising rapidly. The political debate ranges from repulsive to bizarre. The issues that matter most to EU and UK citizens – nationality, migration, climate, cost of living, place in the world – come under brutal scrutiny. For floating voters angry at the English Fish Wars, there is even, potentially, a President Poisson.
In an era of predictable, managed and blatantly rigged elections, France’s impending democratic end is refreshing and iconic. While the April presidential contest is the center of attention, the question of identity dominates. What does it mean to be French these days? Who owns – and who does not? Is France a world power or just a cultural theme park for Chinese tourists?
It is an enigma deeply familiar to the British. While France, unlike the UK, faces no immediate secessionist threats, it suffers from similar internal social, economic, racial and geographic divisions – as well as an imperial hangover. The far-right, xenophobic, nationalist-populist tendency common to both countries finds there a more powerful public expression. At one time, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front and his daughter Marine held a monopoly on sectarianism. Now it’s ugly for all.
The new hate champion is Eric Zemmour, a TV chat celebrity compared to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. It demands the “re-francization“from France.” French people of immigrant origin must be told to choose who they are, “he said last month. The French” feel colonized … and have an existential fear of disappearing. “Zemmour wants to ban non-French names, Islamic scarves and much more.
Although he has yet to announce his candidacy, Zemmour’s headlines are undermining Marine Le Pen, who launched her third presidential challenge last month under the supposedly fumigated banner of the National Rally. Struggling to regain the initiative, she promises a national referendum to “drastically” curb immigration, in part by abandoning the EU’s freedom of movement and denying asylum.
Le Pen remains the favorite, at this stage, to win a place in the second round against incumbent centrist president Emmanuel Macron in a repeat of the 2017 election. Macron then easily won with 66% of the vote and should. do it again. But if disillusionment, coupled with defections in Zemmour, divides the far-right vote, a more attractive center-right candidate could take the place in the second round. Such a scenario poses a real threat to Macron.
The problem is that the center-right, represented by the conservative Les Républicains party, has yet to find a candidate. Xavier Bertrand, former minister of Nicolas Sarkozy, leads the peloton, closely followed by Valérie Pécresse, president of the council of Île-de-France. Then there is Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator for Brexit who is probably better known in Great Britain than in deep France. But nothing is decided.
All the same, if the center-right ends up rallying to a candidate, if this candidate is backed by a party vote in December, and if a campaign collapse similar to the one that upset François Fillon in 2017 is avoided, there is good reason to believe that Macron could face a second-round opponent who, unlike Le Pen, has a realistic chance to beat him. That’s a lot of ifs. But a lot could change.
Whatever happens to the right, it seems Macron doesn’t have to fear the left. The airy discourse of a social democratic renewal across Europe after the SPD’s slim victory in Germany ignores French political realities. Divided as always into factions, the choice on the left goes from Anne Hidalgo, mayor of the Socialist Party of Paris, to the Communists, the Trotskyists and the left-wing maverick Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise.
If the French left, at large, and the Greens unite behind a presidential candidate, they could in theory win enough votes to secure a run-off and beat Macron. But that just won’t happen. Macron’s main concern in this regard is that many center-left people will more readily support a center-right candidate in the second round, rather than him, if Le Pen has already been eliminated.
Le Figaro latest polls daily poll predicts 25% support in the first round for Macron, followed by 19% for Le Pen, 15% for Bertrand, 13% for Pécresse and 10% for Mélenchon. A poll last week put Zemmour on 13%. Unfortunately, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, another right-wing hope, is floundering. So despite everything, the election remains for Macron to lose. Will he blow it?
In recent weeks, Macron has been hit by an egg and slapped in the face on ‘meet the people’ tours. He was confronted with the misery of the excluded and the unquenched visceral anger that permeated the yellow vests (yellow vests). He struggles to reconcile his desire to defend secular values and eradicate Islamic “separatism” with a vision of a country at peace with its different racial, religious and cultural aspects. The pandemic could produce more traps.
Macron also speaks of a great unguarded game over France in the world. For him, the question of identity is also linked to the nation’s status as a leader of Europe and a respected power in Africa and the Indo-Pacific. Thus, last month’s US-UK plot to torpedo a sale of a prestigious submarine to Australia ended in personal humiliation. It made him look silly, France looked weak – and, worse yet, irrelevant.
Like the submarine debacle, many other issues at home and abroad could still explode in his face before next April. They point to the fragility at the heart of the Macron presidency. Its particular brand of bold and haughty hyperpolitics, which brought unexpected glory in 2017, is also a vulnerability. Political enemies may not dethrone him. But ultimately, it may not matter. Mercurial Macron has seven months to defeat himself before the guillotine falls. Hang on to your hat.