Old country, young president

By Patrice de Beer, June 3, 2017

President Macron of France

President Macron of France

The French have used their democracy to give this young man in an old country a chance to experiment with a new type of politics. But have we tried everything?

The election of a 39-year old president represents no less than a sea change in a country as traditional as France. The country of the French Revolution, the Motherland of Human Rights, as the French love to call their nation, remains unwilling and uneasy confronted by inexorable change. Blocked by her own contradictions between lofty but too often unrealistic ideals and the hard realities – whether economic and social – of an unavoidable globalisation, France has too often chosen to close her eyes, to delude herself, preferring day dreamers or populists promising better futures or revolution, whether of left or right, but far too often at the extremes.

Here in France, the power of the word remains mightier than the sword. Hence the popular success of three of the four major contenders to the recent French presidential election, extreme left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, extreme right Marine Le Pen and progressive centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron who was elected on Sunday May 7. Against all odds for a man hardly known one year ago, and without the backing of a traditional party in a country where his main rivals have been in politics for 30 years or more, if not for two generations, Macron has benefited from his rivals’ mistakes, starting with the leader of the Republican right, François Fillon, taken for granted as the next president until the moment when it was revealed that he was compulsively addicted to money.

Macron’s victory was the second most impressive in the history of the Fifth Republic (66.06%), but with the second highest abstention rate (25.38%) and the highest percentage of blank and spoilt voting papers (11.49%). An outstanding victory which bestows on him a legitimate mandate to rule. But also with a worrying dissatisfaction rate among voters which gives him the hard task of reunifying a society torn apart by unemployment, poverty and immigration.

This situation seem logical in a country where, as in Austria last year, the two traditional ruling parties – the Socialist Party (PS) in place since 2012 and the conservative Les Républicains (LR) – have, for the first time in almost 60 years, been excluded from the second round, forcing voters to change their usual voting patterns.

Logical also that in the same country, polarised by a decades-long economic, social and, thus, moral crisis, neither left nor right, quite unable to tackle the problems on their own, had nevertheless remained stubbornly unwilling to band together to look for a consensual solution. Till now, whatever experiment was attempted by one camp was quickly disowned by the next, both refusing pointblank to support projects they agreed with, for the simple reason that they had been tabled by the other side.

Even worse, PS and LR were, and still are, bitterly divided by personal and ideological rivalries and are moving towards next month’s legislative elections with the same team and almost the identical platform, as if nothing has changed.

In particular the Socialists, whose left wing minority fought bitterly during five years against outgoing President François Hollande’s economic and social policies, although supported by a large majority of his MPs’. This led Hollande not to stand for re-election and to primaries won by left-winger Benoît Hamon. A pyrrhic victory, as he was eliminated from the first round with 6%, the PS’s worst ever score.

UFO Macron
The stage was set for political UFO Macron to sneak in, offering a new face in a political world dominated by the same old faces for ever, people who had hardly ever had a job in real life. Since 1976 in the case of Mélenchon, while Fillon was first elected MP in 1981, having worked for his predecessor while Macron still was at school. Since 1991 for Hamon, and 1986 for Marine Le Pen, who joined forces with and then succeeded her father, Jean-Marie, himself first elected MP in 1956.

Macron’s vision seized the chance to offer new solutions, and a more consensual political model which could stop dissatisfied voters from joining extremist movements in droves, in favour of a moderate, centrist, progressive platform. The way he managed to play his cards and benefit from the mistakes from his better known and more powerful rivals is well documented. The strength and efficiency of the movement he created from scratch a year ago – En Marche! (Move Forward!?) – and the support he managed to build thereby, maybe less. 280,000 members in a year, a start-up like structure, fast, responsive by the minute, a perfect clockwork organisation, targeted, dedicated Obama-style, with supporters driven through an efficient Internet network.

Supporters, young and old, from left, right and centre, from many walks of life, proved willing to give time, energy and in some cases even take unpaid leave – to work for weeks or months, first on public meetings and much more during the election campaign that followed. In short a forward-looking strategy built on extremely efficient tactics.

And it worked. To the surprise of rivals, political pundits and the media, French or foreign, so accustomed were they to the traditional French way of doing politics that they did not realise until too late – have they all caught up now? – that the world had moved on and they had not seen it moving.

Or that this unchartered young man, despised as uninitiated, too young, just a lousy “banker” soon to return to the stock market whence he came, a bubble ready to burst, they said, had a real chance and would grab it. He has managed to rally around his project not only many citizens, but also politicians from all sides, some already in, many others ready to join or waiting on the sidelines, from an ex-chief of the Communist Party to the Socialists’ elected representatives, Centrist leader François Bayrou plus economists, business people, diplomats, generals or former intelligence heads, on what he calls a “progressive”, inclusive platform, pledged to fight with optimism for a better world in one of the most pessimistic, fatalistic, conservative countries in the world, a country no one sensible would ever have thought might elect their youngest leader since… Napoleon.

He has even got international support from German chancellor Angela Merkel to Barack Obama, and including leftwing Syriza in Greece.

A democratic opportunity
Now the scales have fallen from many people’s eyes as they look on the parade of politicians they have seen on TV since the last millennium, with their tacky histrionic utterances, their petty rivalries, factionalising plots within their own parties, their well-entrenched habits of living on the take, with material privileges that only shock their many onlookers in these crunch times, who struggle, barely surviving, from crisis after crisis.

They wonder about the fate of a disorientated PS and LR on the verge of implosion with some trying to jump onto the winning bandwagon, while others for the sake of sectarian or other interests look to the extremes for a solution.

Even the FN, long monolithic under “Father” Jean-Marie, is now threatened. Marine Le Pen’s worse than expected defeat, her catastrophic debate with Macron which blew any credibility she had assembled over time of making her party look more palatable, more mainstream, once again exposed the familiar Le Pen grimace behind that smiling face. Now, if they fail to get enough MPs elected, her younger, more right wing and ambitious niece Marion Maréchal Le Pen and her clique are waiting in the wings, daggers drawn, to unseat her and her cronies, considered as too much to the left.

The French have used their democracy to give this young man in an old country a chance to experiment with a new type of politics. Yes, his majority is not as big as that of former president Chirac in 2002 when he defeated Le Pen, the father, with 82% of the votes. True, many of those who voted for Macron in the second round did so mostly to oppose the FN: they do not share his views. But this has been common practice ever since De Gaulle’s first election, and should it delegitimize him?

A responsibility to succeed
What it does do, is to give Emmanuel Macron even more of a responsibility to succeed, if he wants to prove to those who sent him to the Elysée Palace to make their lives better, to secure a better job or simply a job, that they made the right choice after all.

That he is not the smiling front of “extreme finance” but someone who wants to do his utmost to deliver on his promises. To disprove those who are predicting that his election today will bring the FN into power in five years’ time. Or refute those like Mélenchon, of France Insoumise (Unsubdued France), who is already boasting that it will be his ultimate reward to win the legislative elections next June, single-handed, on the basis of having won only 19.23% of the votes, that is 14.6% of registered voters.

Now the hard time begins for the newly-elected President Macron. He will first have to form a new government – which will be announced next week – before competing for the legislatives, a field wide open to left and right, blending new and old faces, men and women, some coming from the political world but half from business, labour or civil society, under a clear cut mandate to convince the voters that they can work together – for the first time since WW II – and that he can do it.

La République en marche
He will have to lead his new party, rechristened on Tuesday, La République en marche, towards a majority, an absolute one if he has his way, or a relative one if he can’t: and build a working and lasting coalition around him if he wants to achieve his reforms, many difficult to implement, some (mostly social), already unpopular with many.

He will have to prove that the extremist forces so long entrenched in France would lose a large part of their influence if he starts to deliver and disprove former Socialist PM Lionel Jospin who, twenty years ago admitted that, on the unemployment front, “we have tried everything”. A formidable challenge indeed for a man who had just started university at the time.

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Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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