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There’s too much hand-wringing about Macron’s French landslide

The president’s achievements have been underplayed - and they contain lessons for Labour and the Lib Dems

French President Emmanuel Macron celebrates his re-election. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

By any measure, Emmanuel Macron’s victory last month over Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election was decisive. A 59:41% divide in the rematch, while narrower than 2017’s 66:34 win, was nonetheless one for the ages.

The Fifth Republic’s 12th presidential election, 2022’s winning margin was surpassed only by General de Gaulle’s 1958 79:13 defeat of Communist George Marrane and Jacques Chirac’s 2002 82:18 besting of Marine’s father, National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen, as well as Macron’s own 2017 success.

Macron now joins three winners of two consecutive terms, France’s constitutional limit, with a 63% popular vote average comfortably within the range of that of de Gaulle and Chirac’s 67% average as well as Francois Mitterand’s 53% across two contests.

The 18-point in 2022 margin conforms to widely-used standards of electoral ‘landslides.’ Few dispute, for example, such status for the near identical outcome of 1984’s U.S. presidential election, in which Ronald Reagan crushed Walter Mondale 59:41, prompting Newsweek’s front-page headline: ‘Avalanche!’

Closer to home, such iconic landslides as Labour’s 1945 and 1997, delivered by Clement Attlee and Tony Blair respectively, yielded only 12-point margins; Margaret Thatcher’s in 1983 and 1987, merely 14 and 11. Harold Macmillan’s Tories in 1959 won around a 100-seat majority on five points; Harold Wilson’s Labour in 1966 did so by only six.

Contemporary liberal fixtures such as Barack Obama (seven and four points) and Justin Trudeau (seven points followed by plus one and then minus one) didn’t win nearly as well as Macron. 

Unlike these North American victories, Macron’s first round 28% not only beat far-right Le Pen (23%) by five points and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders type figure, but also standard bearers of the traditional centre-right Republicans Valérie Pécresse (5%) and Socialist Party candidate and struggling Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo (2%) by 23 and 26 points respectively.

Amid much hand-wringing about 2022’s abstention rate—the second round’s 28% was the highest since 1969 – Macron’s mandate still seems more solid than international peers. Compare France’s Anglo-Saxon allies in which Boris Johnson returned to No. 10 with a 33% no-vote share, and Biden entered the White House with 28% abstaining, confirming the higher value France places upon civic participation.

Nor was 2022 the triumph for ‘fascism’ that many on the left found or feared. If anything, Le Pen 2.0 is a nationalist in the political space occupied by Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, or in continental Europe, Victor Orban’s Fidesz, Poland’s Law and Justice Party or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland. It also is worth recalling that fewer than half a million votes ensured that Le Pen went forward to the second-round rather than her mirror left-wing champion of the ‘left behind,’ Mélenchon.

Le Pen’s European policy, demanding no further pooling of sovereignty; immigration curbs for EU citizens; and a referendum on the euro; is almost indistinguishable from Tory policy under William Hague and David Cameron. All of which would have likely triggered a ‘Frexit’ despite her disavowal of this, especially her insistence that EU law become subordinate to French legislation. Le Pen’s stated aim of remaining in the EU is less nationalist than Theresa May or Boris Johnson, both wedded to a hard exit. 

Like Le Pen’s somewhat moderated anti-Europe stance, Macron’s contribution to 2022’s strong showing also has been underplayed. France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate is at a 13-year low and shocking youth joblessness down 10 points in five years. At 7% and 15% respectively these are steeper than more flexible Anglo-Saxon, German and Scandinavian economies but nonetheless an achievement that eluded centre-left François Hollande and centre-right Nicholas Sarkozy, post global financial crisis.

Not unreasonably Macron argues that these are among the benefits of his labour market reforms, support for apprenticeships, tax cuts and reforms designed to boost work, skills and entrepreneurship. 

As with the fabled 1980s recoveries that fueled those Thatcher and Reagan landslides, and subsequently those of Blair and Bill Clinton, France’s rebound is unevenly distributed, failing to reach many dependent on the ‘old economy’—although French income inequality is lower than the UK or US. But even uneven recovery is a step up from stagnation and creates funds for a stronger safety net.

Combine this progress against France’s seemingly intractable jobless woes with 7% growth last year—the fastest in five decades—and a 4% inflation rate compared to the UK’s 6% and 9% in the US—and France looks in better shape than the Anglo-American faltering economies where recession beckons, headed by economic nationalists in the mode of Le Pen for much of the past few years.

As with all Western democracies, comparisons with competitor nations tend to leave voters cold, a hard fact that has only been reinforced by the Great Recession and the sluggish growth that followed in its wake. But dive into the election data and there are further grounds for French optimism and perhaps, trickiest of all, increasing the political coalition of the beneficiaries of global, knowledge-based growth long-term.

Obviously, in such a lopsided election result one would expect Macron to take the lion’s share of France’s 96 mainlanddépartements: 73 to 23. The successful candidate was particularly strong in the Atlantic-facing South West; the middle and East bordering Germany, including Alsace; channel-oriented Brittany and Normandy; the Ile-de-France Paris metro region, which are most globally connected.

A metropolitan-rural divide familiar to Britain since 2016’s referendum also is evident. Macron secured 85% in Paris; 80% in Lyon, France’s second city; 78% in both Strasbourg and Toulouse and 72% in Montpellier, France’s fastest-growing city. These stronger-than-national performances by Macron compare with just-above-average in troubled Marseille at 60% and 55% in traditionalist Nice. College cities and towns also came out for Macron, who scored 67% in Aix-en-Provence, for example.

Much has been made of Macron’s among voter blocs which lie largely outside the labour market. And Macron did perform better than the national average among 18-24 year-olds (68%) and 70% of the over-65s, safely beyond Macron’s proposed retirement age of 65, which the president views as necessary to financially secure France’s comparatively generous pension system. Those closest to retirement, the 50-59 age group, is the only age group where Le Pen outscored Macron, 

More than reflecting differences across the West about intergenerational equity, sociology also seriously showed up in the second-round results. Senior business executives and highly qualified professionals plumped for Macron by 74% while Le Pen scored 58% among working-class voters from manual to clerical employees. Counting the professional middle classes and self-employed, Macron won 60:40 per cent. 

There also was a marked income differential between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Macron won 76% of those earning more than 2,500 euros (£3,000) monthly post-tax but only 44% from those whose monthly remuneration is less than 900 euros (£750).

But as is increasingly the case in Britain and the United States, a sharp education divide has emerged as a significant determinant of voting habits. Accordingly, Macron over-performed his national result among graduates, earning the votes of 63% of those with a university qualification and 78% of French voters who hold a higher-level degree. However, the president won only 53% to Le Pen’s 47% among those with no education or training beyond the baccalaureate, roughly equivalent to only graduating secondary or high school. Among school dropouts, Le Pen won 56% to Macron’s 44%.

Growing the majority of beneficiaries from the emerging global, information-centred economy is obviously key for any Macron successor in an electorate that many observers, with some justification on 2022’s first round results, view as a three-way divided between right, left and centre. But an overlooked lesson is how Macron didn’t simply try to split the difference between right and left.

The winner’s use of the slogan “En même temps”—translated literally as “at the same time”—shouldn’t be confused with soggy centrism. In fact, when first test-driven in a campaign stump speech Macron provided context: “We must be able to live, work and learn at the same time.” 

Centrists such as the Liberal Democrats in the UK whose 12% 2019 vote share was around one-fifth of Macron’s 59%, would do well to note Macron’s embrace of radical reforms beyond mindless centrism for the sake of it. Combatting climate change and increased energy independence is championed—but by supercharging France’s already strong commitment to nuclear power. A commitment to the European Union’s free movement principle is accompanied by support for EU-wide curbs on non-EU immigration. 

Macron’s demand for ‘more Europe’ contrasts with noticeable Lib Dem silence while his iconoclasm toward public services is quite different from such sops to what passes for the Lib Dem voter base, for example, the proposal that state school league tables and testing are dropped per union demands.

Meanwhile, the Left might take note only of socialism’s electoral failure, per Melenchon’s voter glass ceiling, where Keir Starmer has progressed from Corbyn, but also Macron’s rejection of what the French call ‘le wokeism’ and his keen embrace of public sector reform in Blair’s mould.

All segments of mainstream British politics could learn from Macron. The right in Britain might ponder why France, where the state spends 61% of the nation’s GDP, compared to 51% in the UK, enjoys equality in living standards as expressed by GDP per head, according to the OECD. And with lower consumer price inflation than the UK, Conservatives might also consider how the British pound has lost 44% of its value since 2000 compared to 32% for the euro, a sounder currency, on Statistia figures.

France is ahead of the curve in a West-wide shift from class-based parties to a new alignment arranged around identity with educational achievement its strongest electoral indicator. Take note, Brits!

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser. His blog can be found here.

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