Saturday,23 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Saturday,23 June, 2018
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

President Macron

The election of Emmanuel Macron as president of France is an impressive feat and maybe even a miraculous one, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Emmanuel Macron convincingly won the presidential race in France last weekend by a larger than expected margin. He scored 66.1 per cent of the vote.

The last week of the race for the presidency was catastrophic for the other contender, Marine Le Pen, who mishandled her television debate with Macron during the week before the election. Her alliance with a small right-wing party may or may not have huge implications for the future. In the short term, Le Pen has had to modify her economic programme, which rested on leaving the Eurozone, and to plead for a formula with two currencies, the franc and the euro. This sounds implausible, even absurd, to say the least. My guess is that her uneasiness with this “modification” to her programme explained her shrieking and vulgar attitude during the television debate.  

Of course, she faced a serious dilemma. She coveted those who had voted on the first round of the elections for the radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon as well as those who had opted for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon. Her initial option of leaving the euro pleased the first group, but not the second, which included many older people fearing for their savings. Moreover, the political culture of the first group is deeply anti-right-wing, so courting it seems to have been a waste of time. And Le Pen’s last-minute recipe of two currencies failed to convince anybody and may even have put a lot of people off.

Preventing the National Front from winning an election is a powerful incentive to vote for many French people. On the other hand, some 16 million voters, or one third of the electorate, did not bother to choose between Le Pen and Macron and abstained in the elections. Le Pen, despite a weak campaign before the first round and an abysmal campaign last week, managed to cross the threshold of 10 million votes. This says a lot about the sorrow state of the mainstream political parties in France.

Macron’s victory could be read as another illustration of this crisis. Most of those who voted for him did so because they were tired of the main political parties. Nevertheless, his victory is an impressive feat and even a miraculous one.

He is the youngest president France has ever had, and four years ago he was an unknown. He decided a year ago to leave the government and to run for the presidency against his mentor, then president François Hollande, who nobody suspected at the time would not run for office again, and he did so against all the odds. He did not have an effective network, and everything had to start from zero.

In France, the president has a lot of leverage, and he can punish such a rebellion by a protégé, even killing a political career. This act of “treason” on the part of Macron was thus a bold move. His unconventional marriage to his former schoolteacher is further proof of his will power, as provincial towns in France, such as the one Macron comes from, are more conservative than Paris. His biography tells us a lot about his resolve.

Macron sensed an opportunity. He belonged to a group of Socialist Party senior civil servants and intellectuals who wanted to change the political culture of the party. A good half, maybe more, of the party’s activists still have problems with the free market or with what they call “unbridled” capitalism. The party’s voters were also divided, with many upset by the anti-free-market rhetoric of others among them. Many of these “market-friendly” activists joined Macron from the beginning, providing him with numbers and money. They were fed up with Hollande’s hesitations and back-pedaling, with his inability to impose a “political line” on a party marred by permanent feuds, and with backbench MPs continually harassing the government.

I think no one, not even Macron, thought he could win the presidency this time round. Instead, he was targeting the next elections in 2022. But then an incredible series of events helped him. Hollande committed many blunders in 2016, these decisively weakening him. By the end of the year he had decided not to seek re-election. This was an unprecedented earthquake, and as a result most of the country’s traditional right and left concluded that the election was already settled and that the right would easily win.

None of them felt compelled to attract non-affiliated voters with a moderate candidate, and the right opted for a very right-wing candidate, and the left for a very left-wing one. This left a lot of space in the centre of French politics. Then various scandals decisively weakened Fillon’s bid for the presidency, which was already showing signs of weakness. Despite some blunders on his part, Macron became the frontrunner and crossed the threshold of 20 per cent of the vote, an unprecedented feat for a centrist candidate since the victory of former president Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s.

While we should pay tribute to Macron’s incredible feat in being elected French president, we should also underline the depth of the problems awaiting him. His is a victory by default, and everybody knows that this is the case. At least half of French voters seem to have a deep hatred of Macron and for the things he stands for, which they identify with cultural and economic liberalism. France is a slowly declining power. It is a deeply divided country and a heavily polarised one that faces difficult choices and challenges. Structural economic and social reforms are both necessary and will be difficult to carry out.

Macron has many assets. He has a thorough understanding of the economic issues, and a lot of the “dirty work” has already been done for him by Hollande. Indeed, the legacy of the latter has been underestimated, and the pundits’ assessments should be reconsidered. They have focused on the hesitations, the changes of focus, and the lack of speed, and they have overlooked what has been done.

We should also not forget that the presidential election is not the final round and that Macron will have to win the legislative elections in June if he wants to be able to implement his programme. Can he win them? The pundits are divided: some tell us that the French are rational and that they do not want to see political paralysis. That being so, they will provide Macron with the needed majority in parliament. The electoral dynamics favour him. However, others, studying the electoral map of the first round of the presidential race, say a majority in parliament will be mission impossible for Macron, even if we take into account the opposition’s divisions and collective ineptitude.

Macron was elected on an ambiguous platform, and he needs to clarify many points before the next round. His supporters agree on the necessity of change, but they strongly disagree about what this means. All of them are pro-European and claim to be “modern” and “progressive”. A majority are even “market-friendly”. But Macron has yet to name a prime minister or a team of ministers.

He enjoys saying he is both right-wing and left-wing. Nice as this may sound, it is not enough. He has to tell the voters how he intends to balance the right-wing and the left-wing. The composition of his team should provide us with some indications. 

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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