Macron plays the populist card

Published by The ipaper (1st May, 2017)

We are enduring the most predictable and sterile election of modern times. On one side we see the anticipated coronation of a Prime Minister intent on dodging debate and trotting out dreary slogans about stability. On the other stands a dismal leader, provoking despair in his own party and despised by most voters. Meanwhile massive issues, underscored by a Brexit decision that will define our nation for decades, go largely undiscussed.

Now look across the Channel: here is an epic clash worthy of tumultuous times, bizarrely highlighted by events at a tumble-drier factory in Amiens last week. First the favourite for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron, met union delegates fighting threatened closure. Then his far-right rival Marine Le Pen popped up on the picket line to voice support for employees fighting ‘this uncontrolled globalisation, this shameful economic model’. Macron’s response was to head there two hours later, ignoring heckles to argue his position and listen to the angry workers.

France is still debating who won ‘the Battle of Whirlpool’. But this was thrilling raw politics, so different to our own empty election, illustrating huge issues facing both the country and continent. Le Pen pledged to protect 295 jobs from outsourcing to Poland, while one-time banker Macron told workers he would not offer false promises. Here was the perfect symbol of struggle for a nation’s soul: a pro-business moderate comfortable with modernity facing fury of those forces feeling dispossessed by Brussels, globalisation and migration.

If polls are right, the European establishment can soon breath sighs of relief. Although we have learned not to take anything for granted in today’s politics, and his lead shrank last week, Macron looks set to be crowned as youngest French head of state since Napoleon Bonaparte. The 39-year-old technocrat was barely known just three years ago. Now he is on course for comfortable victory in Sunday’s second round of voting as voters from left and right unite to thwart the far-right.

Le Pen’s election would be catastrophic. The myopic far-left clustered around Jean-Luc Mélenchon may struggle to see much difference between a fascist and a former banker, but defeated conservative candidate François Fillon was spot-on when urging supporters to back Macron by saying extremism leads to despair and division. ‘The Front National is well known for its violence and its intolerance, and its programme would lead our country to bankruptcy and Europe into chaos,’ he said.

Already this result is being hailed for turning the tide on a populist insurgency that has shaken Western politics. After the shock of Brexit and unexpected election of Donald Trump, the far right was defeated in Austrian and Dutch elections. Now we witness a classic contest between nationalism and internationalism. And although head-in-the-sand opponents of globalisation won four in 10 first-round votes, it looks like the final winner will be a passionate backer of Brussels, a believer in free trade and a liberal on migration.

Yet many people have missed the real significance of Macron. For he may be centrist, but he has adopted the tools of populism to pose as an upstart disrupting traditional politics. He was an outsider mocked by left and right when he announced his candidacy last November. He is fighting under his own banner, creating a new force in his image to the extent that En Marche! has same initials as his name. He attacks an “empty” political system, despite once serving as economy minister. And he relies on social media rather than traditional party structures to spread his message.

Macron is a moderate insurgent who challenges conventional party politics almost as much as the loathsome Le Pen. Yes, he has been lucky, his bold bid for the Élysée aided by abject incompetence of a bumbling socialist president and corruption claims swirling around Fillon. And he is certainly a more consensual character than the hate-fuelled populists of left and right. Yet it is no coincidence the two traditional French groupings were left floundering in his wake. They came third and fifth in the first round vote, left without candidates in the run-off for a presidency they held between them for 60 years.

He says he is turning a new page in French political history. He is right, even though his victory would show voters standing up for their nation’s traditional values over a person preaching fear and division. France would have shown other mature democracies that optimism can oust pessimism, liberalism can defeat dark forces of nationalism, youthful enthusiasm can win the day over embittered elders. No doubt the establishment will embrace the winner. And the party system may fight back once he is in office.

Yet his victory against the odds would defy traditional French politics almost as much as the nightmare of a Le Pen presidency. It is fascinating to see this zealous pro-European send such seismic shock to the system. So what lessons can other nations draw from this brash political insurgency? Certainly for Labour the message is clear: ditch a tarnished brand, find a fresh leader and move back to the mainstream.

Yet even the Tories, on brink of crushing victory, should ponder these unexpected events across the Channel as they confront the challenging uncertainties of Brexit. For France is not turning the populist tide. Instead a clever centrist, observing politics being disrupted by unruly new forces, surfs similar waves to the extremists. Win or lose, he has changed the face of French politics in six months – and the tremors could spread far wider.

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