This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on April 24th, 2017 – just after the first round of voting in the French Presidential election when Macron and Le Pen emerged as the two front runners in Round Two: www.broadsheet.ie/le-pen-and-now
You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief last night as the first exit poll results from the French presidential election emerged showing Emmanuel Macron as the front runner. Macron, the former Economy Minister under Socialist President Francois Hollande and now independent centrist candidate now faces off against the second placed right-winger, Marine Le Pen in round two of the election in two weeks’ time.
It wasn’t just EU officials and other EU heads of government who were relieved, but also the heads of the polling companies whose predictions turned out to be extraordinary accurate, in many cases within just 1% of the result.
That sense of relief continued into this morning with European stock markets rallying and the Euro rising to a five-month peak with the news that France is likely to have a more centrist pro-EU President Emmanuel Macron.
Only a month ago the polls suggested that Le Pen might emerge as the lead candidate in the first round followed by Macron, with some showing Le Pen as high as 27% and Macron around 25%. However; the collapse in recent weeks of the socialist party candidate Hamon saw the far left’s Melechon rally and join the leading pack, consisting of Le Pen, Macron and the conservative candidate Fillon, all within 3-4% of each other.
Macron’s youth and relative inexperience became election issues. The first public election that Macron has ever fought will not likely see force will see him elected as president. The accusation that “he rose without trace” has been thrown at macron. The line was first memorably uttered by Kitty Muggeridge about David Frost in the 1960s and was intended to convey both the suddenness of his rise and the lack of any obvious intellectual connection.
It is an unfair accusation. Macron does have a track record it does have some experience having served as economy minister under President Hollande. Indeed, it even has a track record having managed to even reform French labour law, via the eponymous Loi Macron.
As a colleague of mine commented at the time of Macron’s time in office: labour market reform in France is difficult at the best of times and almost possible most of the time. Macron encountered some stiff opposition from within the Social party with about 40 socialist deputies rebelling in protest at Macron’s modest proposals to modernise French labour law: including allowing shops to open 12 Sunday per year as opposed to the previous five and making changes on collective dismissals and the provision of a suitable alternative positions for french workers were made redundant.
So great was the rebellion that the President had to invoke a little used article within the French constitution giving the government the power to bypass the National Assembly and push through a law when you didn’t have majority support. It was a rare victory in the history of French labour market reform and allowed Macron to secure a reform measure that was aimed at the opening of the French economy.
For this reason Macron has never been trusted by the Socialist Party but neither he is a Gaullist (now called Les Republicains – interesting aside, the Gaullists were once Fianna Fáil’s allies in Europe). Macron is outside the French party system. His En Marche! movement is centrist socially liberal and pro-EU with more than a hint of The Third Way/Neue Mitte of Blair and Schroeder.
It is no wonder that Brussels and most other European political leaders are happy to see Macron safely through to Round Two and safe in pole position to win the presidency with about 60/60+% of the vote. His endorsement by Les Republicain’s Fillon and the Socialist party’s Hamon yesterday sent strong signals to their voters who to back in Round Two – but they will not all follow their advice.
But there is even a greater reason for EU leaders to feel happy. Marine Le Pen’s strong antipathy towards the Euro and the European Union, not to mention her easy and friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, would have considerably upset relationships in Brussels and sent the EU Commission and Council into a tail spin.
However, as often happens with Brussels, particularly with the current EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, it is possible that the EU may take the wrong lesson from the result and see a potential Macron win as some vindication for a euro-federalist project.
Le Pen’s support much like Brexit and even the Trump win in the USA is partly a populist revival, but it is also a response to globalisation and to the threats to the livelihoods posed by the twin pressures of international labour competition and automation.
Without question, even more than with Brexit, or even with Trump, there are clear elements of racism and xenophobia in Le Pen’s support base, but not every one of Le Pen’s 7.6 million voters is a racist or a bigot. This will be even more true when she adds to that total in Round Two. By that point, she may have secured another 4 – 5 million votes from those who backed Fillon/Melechon/etc. in Round One. The vast majority of them are just people who are worried and frightened at the prospect of globalisation and see in it a loss of national identity and attachment.
It is a sense that was better expressed by the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, during her speech as Tory leader when she said: ‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’.
Yes, we can see that Le Pen’s coarse appeal to patriotism and love of country does verge on the fascistic, nevertheless she does dissemble her true purpose just enough to allow it to strike a chord with many who do not see nationalism and national pride as a dirty word or concept.
Neither is it one that is entirely incompatible with the modern globalised world, nor a Europe working more closely together. To quote EU Council President, Donald Tusk from his open letter to EU leaders from last September:
“The keys to a healthy balance between the priorities of Member States and those of the Union lie in national capitals. The institutions should support the priorities as agreed among Member States, and not impose their own ones.”
Yes, we should cheer if and when Macron is elected in two weeks’ time. But, when that cheering has died down; let us then take a long hard look at the wider lessons from the campaigns in the Netherland, France, in the UK and later this year in Germany. Let us see then if it is now time to pause: to stop the treaty changes for a while and to let the changes already made time to bed down and gain a wider acceptance. This pause may be of even greater importance to us as our closest former ally takes themselves out of the EU.