Having set up his own movement to challenge for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron faces a tough challenge. But there are signs he may just have hit on a way out of the current mess, and discovered an antidote to the populist virus sweeping Europe
This article originally appeared in The New European on January 27 2017
Until a few weeks ago, the French Presidential election looked set to be a dispiriting choice between the lipstick-on-a-fascist Marine Le Pen and the outdated Gallic Thatcherism of Francois Fillon. But the maverick Emmanuel Macron and his new ‘En Marche!’ movement is suddenly capturing the imagination of millions of French voters.
As an essentially independent candidate, breaking into the second-round run-off between the two leaders from the first round will still be tough for Macron. But the odds are shortening because he is attempting to offer the electorate an uplifting alternative to the established contenders. Better still, Macron may even have discovered the antidote to the far-right populist virus sweeping Europe.
As his increasingly packed and fired-up campaign rallies are showing, Macron has plenty of self-confidence. Few people would have the nerve to launch a new political movement with a name matching their own initials and expect it to carry them to the presidency within a few months. But self-belief is essential for any politician seeking office as the solution to his country’s ills. And one of Macron’s strengths is that he confidently seizes the limelight without conveying the ‘look at me’ desperation of, say, Nicholas Sarkozy.
Even so, Macron is ostensibly an unlikely candidate to overturn France’s stale political scene. He was the Economy and Industry Minister in Francois Hollande’s disappointing government until resigning last August. Previously, he was an investment banker for Rothschild & Cie. Perhaps most significantly, he is also an ‘énarque’ – a graduate of the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA), which is France’s ultimate mark of elite membership.
As Macron explains, though, this is not his whole story. He was not set on this gilded path from birth. He was born and spent his early life in the modest northern town of Amiens, the child of two doctors working in the public sector. He cites his grandmother as a particularly strong influence. She grew up in an illiterate family but rose through her own efforts to become a school headmistress and, Macron says, inspired his love for reading and learning.
Whilst Macron himself makes clear that he looks back on his upbringing as being fortunate and comfortable, it does allow him to claim credibly to have some connection to the world outside the elite salons of Paris. Whilst not being quite of it, Amiens is in the same part of the country as France’s once solidly left-wing, now Front National-flirting Pas-de-Calais rustbelt.
Macron’s recent campaign trip back to the region was heavily scrutinised. Such visits are often seen in France as an acid test of a Paris-based politician’s authenticity and ability to avoid looking like a visitor to an alien planet when venturing beyond the Paris ‘Peripherique’ ring road. One noted master of this challenge was former President Jacques Chirac, who was in many respects a high-living metropolitan rogue. But his ability to exude charm amongst the cattle of his rural Corrèze constituency earned him lots of leeway.
Macron had few farm animals but plenty of disaffected people to contend with in the struggling coal and steel towns of the Pas-de-Calais. But he passed the test with flying colours. Many of those Macron met said they were impressed by his willingness to listen and ‘speak from the guts’. One bold move was to stop at the Chez Momo chip stand immortalised in the popular French film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (roughly, ‘Welcome to the Sticks’), which plays on the negative stereotypes of the area to celebrate its deeply down-to-earth mores. There, a smiling Macron, frites in hand, challenged journalists to talk to him in local Ch’ti slang and looked far removed from the image of a snooty ‘énarque’.
This symbolism is important because Macron’s potential for success depends on him incarnating a fresh alternative to a Socialist Party that has lost its sense of direction, and the hardcore free-market ideology of Fillon that has never had broad appeal in France. The far right Front National is still having some success in adopting this outsider mantle. But decades of pushing the same poisonous shtick is making it hard to maintain their claims of freshness. Marine Le Pen’s ‘woman of the people’ pose does not stack up to scrutiny either, given that she has lived her entire life in the poshest Paris suburbs and inherited her party from her wealthy father.
That the two front-runners are far to the right gives Macron plenty of room for manoeuvre. At a conservative estimate, at least 60% of the electorate is lukewarm at best about Fillon and Le Pen. This space needs to be filled with a positive political pitch with broad appeal, and Macron is coming close to hitting the mark.
His messages are direct and grouped around four punchy, memorable headings; ‘work’, ‘freedom’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘openness’. Cleverly, and probably accurately, he bills these values as not being unique to him or even original. They are, Macron says, ‘what drives the great majority of us every day’.
The widespread British stereotype of the French being eternally radical and spending half of their lives on strike behind burning barricades is, of course, false. The majority will appreciate Macron’s emphasis on the value of hard work and the possibility it should offer to control your destiny. Macron has presented an accompanying plan for reawakening this possibility by revamping France’s economy. He proposes long-term investments in education, skills training, the digital economy and renewable energy. What is not on offer, he declares, are bogus quick fixes and evading responsibility for solving our problems by identifying scapegoats. This contrasts starkly with the simplistic slogans of the Front National, which he tells his audiences bluntly ‘is lying to you. The FN has no plan’.
Macron’s focus on increasing skills and the quality and quantity of jobs available stems from a belief that the anxiety caused by their absence is the underlying cause of the xenophobia sweeping Europe.
As yet, Macron has barely touched upon the other major insecurity issue in French and European politics; terrorism. He has no real track record in this area, which is a potential weakness. But his emphasis on internationalism and individual freedom do suggest the direction he will take, and it is a refreshing contrast to the depressing focus on drawing ever closer in on ourselves.
Rather than conform to the traditional left/right political divide, Macron is perhaps the first major candidate in Europe to embrace fully the new fault line between ‘open’ and ‘closed’. His campaign is rooted in seeking to represent the ‘open’ camp. Whilst proudly proclaiming his roots, Macron speaks passionately about open-mindedness, travel and the rich possibilities of learning from other people and places. Instead of undermining the EU, he talks boldly about reinvigorating the best vehicle yet devised to secure peace and prosperity in Europe.
Whether one agrees with Macron’s specific policies or not, the open and internationally-minded across Europe should welcome the way in which he is seeking to set himself against the prevailing winds. By presenting an unequivocally positive alternative to the destructive anger and divisiveness of the far right, Macron may have hit on the way out of our current mess.
There are precedents in France of insurgent candidates peaking too soon in a presidential election campaign before fading away. The coming months will tell whether Macron really has what it takes to change the political weather with his optimistic message of progress and renewal. But, in these tough times for those of us who favour openness over insularity, he has already provided a boost by raising the hope that it can be done.
Paul Knott is a writer on international politics. He served as a British diplomat for 20 years, with postings in Romania, Dubai, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Russia and the European Union in Brussels. He now lives in Switzerland