24 April 2017

France: Uncertain Future

Author: Régis Genté / Source:
Emmanuel Macron votes in the first round. Photo: En Marche!
Sunday evening, at 20.00 exactly, right after the closing of the polling stations, the main French TV channels announced the result of the opinion polls made during the day: Emmanuel Macron, aged 39, arrives first and Marine Le Pen, 48, second.

It is very likely that the first will be the next French President, while he was almost unknown two and half years ago.

Many candidates and political leaders have asked their supporters to vote for Macron in the runoff on May 7, in a kind of "republican front” to unite against Le Pen, an extreme right candidate.

The (almost) final official results show that Macron got 23.8% of the votes, Le Pen 21.4%, far ahead of the candidate of the right wing François Fillon (19.9%, who lost after being stuck in a scandal for having paid his wife as MP assistant while she never worked for him) and the one of "La France insoumise” ("Rebellious France”, far left, associated with the Communist party) Jean-Luc Mélenchon 19.6%.

So, the runoff of the French election will take place between a candidate who went to visit Ms. Merkel during the campaign (Macron, on March 16) and another one who went to Moscow, to be welcomed by Mr. Putin (Le Pen, on March 24). At least in this sense, things seem clear. But we should not be blinded by this clarity.

Le Pen’s tactics
It is the interest of Me Le Pen to show that from now on, the choice is simple. An hour after the announcement of the first result, Marine Le Pen declared that now French people have a clear choice ahead. "The great challenge of this election (runoff) is about the savage globalization which endangers our civilization”, she said, showing both her happiness for scoring higher than in 2012 (17,9%) and hiding her disappointment (she expected to finish first, this time).

Knowing that she has a little chance to be elected on May 7 (first surveys predict a 62/38 victory for Mr. Macron), Le Pen’s main challenge today is to be considered by the 47 million French voters as the main opposition, the alternative to the establishment. That would put her in a perfect position for the June parliamentary election and for the 2022 Presidential race. The ones who say the far right was defeated yesterday are wrong.

Policy antipodes in the round two
Indeed, Le Pen is all what Macron is not. She put at the core of her program the fight against the globalization and the restoration of what she calls the "sovereignty” of France. She is hoping 0 with support of Mr. Putin or Mr. Trump to re-create a world of nation-states. She speaks about the need to defend "France’s identity” against the elite that she describes as the main supporter of multiculturalism. She wants to end the influence of the financial powers. This is why she ran on a quasi "socialist” economic program contrary to her father who was much more liberal in this field. Le Pen is advocating to leave EU and Nato, and of course speaks for abandoning the Euro in order to restore the former national currency the French Franc.

Macron, who started his carrier as a high official (at the Inspectorate General of Finances) and then as a banker at Rothschild & Co, is on the contrary a liberal, in politics as in economy. He is pro-European and pro-Nato, confident that France benefits from being more open to the world. Quite logically, he received a phone call from Barack Obama last Friday, to wish him "good luck”.

His detractors say that he is the candidate of the French "oligarchy”, of the "system” as Le Pen puts it, and that he doesn’t take into consideration the negative impact of the financial system on the current worldwide crisis and – by extension – it being a root cause of a deep political crisis that France. Yesterday, almost 50% of the French voted for a candidate that advocate either for leaving the EU or speak for its deep reorganization, so that it ceases to be the "Europe of finance”. It would be difficult, and probably dangerous, to ignore how electorally significant that opposition to the EU is now.

Who are you, Mr. Macron?
Macron’s "victory” is difficult to qualify. It is anything but a plebiscite won in support of Europe and openness. He got only 23.8% of 77% of the voters.

It is true however, that his meteoric rise is unheard of on the French political arena.

Macron’s bet to go beyond the traditional right-left cleavage has worked. But what does it mean exactly? Is he the last avatar of a Fifth Republic that seems to be deeply sick and where right and left doesn’t mean much anymore?

Being both right and left, he might be the change the voters expect. Macron explains that he is doing politics in a totally new way. It is not that obvious whether he can achieve it. What is more obvious, it is that he could be the President that François Hollande wanted to be, a social-democrat who tries first to create jobs (unemployment is top the problem for French voters) by - for example - "softening” the labor code. Hollande couldn’t really implement a comprehensive "liberal” labor legislation because he faced formidable opposition inside his own party.

Macron said during his campaign that he is the "candidate of labour”, saying that he will create jobs by freeing the "energies” of the French people. If he succeeds, he might stem the deep crisis that France is in. Otherwise, Le Pen has a bright future… and France a very brown one!

Fight for the right to govern
The only way for Macron to succeed, is to get a majority in the Parliament and through it, appoint his preferred cabinet. Having no party to lean on, is a huge obstacle. The social-democratic part of the "Socialist party” will be the core of his team. The Minister of Defense, and right hand of the President Hollande, Jean-Yves Le Drian will be probably one of the pillars of the "new” ruling team. But what about other heavyweights of François Hollande’s governments? They will have to take the fall of what is seen, sometimes unfairly, as a disastrous five years in office. Macron can also count on the Modem, a small, but important centrist political party, led by François Bayrou. But that might be not enough.

If "Les Républicains”, Fillon, Juppé and Sarkozy’s party, agree to vote for Macron for the runoff, it is because they are already thinking about finishing first in the June parliamentary election. Fillon, whose financial misdeeds cost the party a place in the runoff, will be pushed out and the party has to rebuild itself in a very small time. The way it will position itself in the political scene will be very important, especially to not let Le Pen saying that she is the only credible opposition. On the left side, the "Socialist party” is about to implode. Jean-Luc Mélenchon might benefit from that, by taking the most left-leaning faction of the party and continuing to court the ecologist vote. After an impressive campaign, he might be in a position to create a powerful, resolutely leftist pole.

The French political arena is now fragmented. If Macron doesn’t manage to get a majority in June, he will be condemned to form a coalition. But with whom? This is the biggest question that should preoccupy him in the coming days and months

Régis Genté is a French journalist, working for le Figaro or Radio France Internationale, based in Tbilisi and covering the post-soviet region since 2002 

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