It has been a year since I wrote on this blog. A blogger’s absence can often be explained by personal or family issues, too much work, and so on. A lover of politics, policy and the ups and downs of the French political scene, I simply found myself with political writer’s block. I had tired of the same incompetence by the national government, whose political philosophy I supposedly shared and whose members carry the same political card that I do. The gradual decline of the standing of President Hollande was taken for granted by the public, and his candidacy for another five-year term seemed unlikely. At the same time, the US Presidential race seemed to crowd all other political discourse, with its epoque-like struggle. French politics simply could not compete.
But now it is time to take another look.
President Hollande did indeed announce on 1 December that he would not stand again. A man whose public pronouncements had been largely ignored for some time thus wrote himself out of the public sphere. Despite his periodic attempts to intervene in the campaign following his announcement, he remains inaudible and irrelevant.
Both the centre right and the centre left held successive primary elections, which allowed for an interesting contrast through the numerous (probably excessive) debates between the candidates. The right, obsessed with the idea of the “Providential Man” who will save the country (De Gaulle casts a long shadow after all…), focussed on personality and temperament, plumping for the dour conservative François Fillon. It turns out Fillon has not been at all dull. More of that later. The left presented us with a range of political philosophies, a veritable struggle for the heart of the left. Primary voters plumped for a traditionalist in the form of Benoit Hamon, whose rather plodding nature is coupled with a talent for launching new policy ideas (but not how to implement them).
Fillon then imploded, amidst accusations, and now criminal charges, that he funnelled public money to his family in the form of salaries for fictitious jobs. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen continues to ride high in the polls, with her low risk campaign strategy and Benoit Hamon continues to stagnate. For all his energy, Jean-Luc Melenchon seems content with making lots of noise, however he is failing to capture many protest votes that seem to be in Le Pen’s firm grasp.
And then there is Emmanuel Macron.
When the former senior civil servant, investment banker and government minister, resigned from the government in August 2016, the idea that he might make a successful run as an independent candidate was faintly comical. The cost of elections in the 21st century, the absence of any support across the country from an army of elected officials and party members, and no clear idea what he might stand for seemed like insurmountable obstacles.
The start was not promising. Macron’s ministerial “career” (two years) was mixed. I wrote early on about his reforming zeal. Whilst the first draft of the controversial law that bears his name was far-reaching, the finished product was the product of multiple concessions made to various lobbies. It failed to make much economic impact. The most symbolic measure was the liberalisation of the trade in national coach services – hardly something that will go down in history. What was different with Macron however was his advocacy for reform, even if, as a relatively junior Minister, his action did not match his rhetoric. Of course, the government really didn’t have much of a democratic mandate to engage in a widespread liberalisation of the French economy, having not had any such measures in the Party or Presidential platform in 2012 (although that didn’t stop the previous Socialist government of Lionel Jospin from doing something similar in 1997 to 2002).
Starting a new “movement” called “En Marche” (“On the Move”), he immediately did two things that I found disconcerting. First, the name of the organisation, taking his initials, EM, suggesting something like a cult of personality. This has remained to this day. Over the last few months, when questioning the lack of detailed content in Macron’s speeches on social media, I have been frequently shocked by the virulent nature of his supporters who would broach no criticism of the man. Personally, I find it all rather politically immature, although in his defence it matches the notion that, under the Fifth Republic, the Presidential Election is the meeting of one man, one people. This pompous notion (see “providential man” above) plays into the hands of the right, more relaxed with the notion of the benevolent strong man. The personality cult was probably a political necessity given that he had no guiding principle to build his movement, only his person, but it is disappointing as he could easily have painted himself as a liberal and wrapped himself in centuries of liberal political philosophy.
Instead he began the Grande Marche (literally the “Big Walk”). This was billed as a first-of-a-kind door-knocking exercise and involved volunteers getting “ordinary citizens” to answer questions on what they thought were the solutions to France’s problems. The questionnaire itself was pretty vague (“what is working in France today in your opinion?” – yes, really) and led to a second round of regional committees that discussed and debated specific propositions. These propositions were a foreshadow of the eventual manifesto, but the committee debates were heavily skewed by the way the proposals were pitched to them. One suspects that the manifesto had already largely been written. There was also no obvious link between the Grande Marche and the regional committees (or even the questionnaire). The whole process seemed principally about enabling Macron to say that his presidential programme “came from the people”, rather than an elite-filled room.
I’ll talk about the manifesto’s content in another post; its publication at the beginning of March meant that a lot of its content had been previously trailed, and much else was similar to other proposals made by other parties, almost all of which had already published their proposals. But to focus on Macron’s manifesto is to miss the point – his strength, and why he is now hovering at second in the polls, his is freshness. And so far that freshness puts him, according to ever major poll for the last two weeks, into the second round against Marine Le Pen, and in the polls for the second round, makes him President.
The fact that a man who has never held elected office, whose personal political philosophy is not particularly clear, whose proposals show little sign of originality, who has no support from any established political party, is now a frontrunner shows that French politics is interesting again. And so I am back.