He Risks Defeat
I had lunch in a Parisian cafe recently with a journalist who had spent the whole French presidential campaign vilifying the leftwing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and trumpeting the merits of the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the columns of a respected (if declining) centre-left weekly.
I asked him if had there been a deliberate effort among intellectuals and mainstream politicians to engineer a run-off between Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election. “Why, of course,” he laughed. “We’ve been at it for a year.” Considering how obvious the strategy had been, I cannot claim to have revealed much of a secret. Still, it’s nice to know I was not being paranoid.
We finished our lunch, the journalist commenting on every passing woman with the old-fashioned sexism characteristic of the French ruling class, while I reflected on the astonishing irresponsibility of the strategy. It may have seemed like a good idea: pitting Macron against the Front National leader was the surest way to ensure the former’s victory. Yet the tactic could be about to backfire, with terrifying consequences.
The rise of Macron is characteristic of the age of spin doctors: it illustrates both their power and their limits. It is truly astonishing that the man who inspired (as personal secretary) and implemented (as finance minister) the policies of President François Hollande could be branded as something radically new.
To achieve this feat, spin doctors resorted to celebrity-building in ways previously unknown in French political life. Macron was new because he was young and handsome, and because he had never been elected before. He appeared repeatedly on the front pages of Paris Match with his wife, whose name is chanted by his supporters at his rallies. In the final weeks of the campaign Macron was so careful not to expose the true nature of his programme (which amounts to little more than the unpopular liberalism-cum-austerity implemented by Hollande) that his speeches degenerated into vacuous exercises in cliche and tautology.
Last spring, France saw nationwide protests against the labour laws that Macron had largely designed. The opposition was not only to their content, but also to the manner in which they were passed: the government bypassed a parliamentary vote. During these demonstrations police used high levels of violence, yet Macron never uttered a word to calm things down. He has already announced that he would resort to governing by decree if needed, and it is easy to anticipate increased social tensions by the autumn. To those who would oppose him, Macron would answer that he is implementing the programme on which he was elected.
Theoretically, Macron should defeat Le Pen hands down. The problem is that the meaning of such a result would be unclear: how many would have voted for him, and how many against her? Because it is impossible to answer this question, it would be impossible for Macron to take a hard line against social protests on the grounds that the election validated his programme.
Of the four frontrunners in the first round, Macron had the fewest “conviction” voters. According to a poll, fewer than half of those who voted for him did so because they believed his programme would change life for the better. Thus he needs to get his validation in the second-round count, and hence cannot do what Jacques Chirac did when facing Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 run-off: Chirac immediately made clear that he would not interpret votes in his name as expressions of support.
Macron has done the opposite: he boldly stated that he only wanted votes based on genuine commitment. In so doing, he has run a major risk: he has dared people who oppose him (and there are many) to abstain. An astonishing proportion of voters seem ready to call his bluff. The situation has become so alarming that a Le Pen victory is becoming less implausible every day.
Journalists are now rushing to the rescue, desperately admonishing the French: they must stop Le Pen from coming to power. But the calls may be falling on deaf ears. It is not difficult to understand why. A few weeks before the election, something important happened that was largely unnoticed: an opinion poll showed that the main concern of the people was neither unemployment nor immigration, but the reform of state institutions and the implementation of a radical sixth republic. There is a deep resentment towards a state they perceive as oppressive, corrupt and violent.
Mélenchon achieved his impressive first-round result because he campaigned on the promise of a radical reform of the state. He was thus able to bring back to politics people who had abstained for years, and also to claw back Le Pen voters. (He cut her lead over him from seven percentage points in 2012 to less than two this year). These voters are not interested in the comparative merits of a Le Pen or a Macron government; their anger is directed at the “deep state” (police, justice, administration). They are even less inclined to vote Macron, because they know – everyone knows – that the second round was deliberately staged. They feel they were set up, and abstention seems to them a dignified act.
Macron has just days to take stock of their anger and adopt the only strategy that can secure his victory against Le Pen: showing humility, and reducing the severity of his programme. The only problem is that he might not be aware how serious the situation is. There is a certain Dangerous Liaisons charm about the microcosm of journalists, intellectuals and politicians who shape (or think they shape) the political destiny of France. According to my lunch companion, Macron has infinite confidence in his charisma and is blissfully unaware of the threat.
Why, then, take the risk of allowing an individual such as Le Pen a path to power, I asked. I received no answer – another woman had caught his attention. France, no doubt, is in good hands.