AFTER Brexit and Trump, Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France counts among the great political surprises of recent times.
His rise to potentially unchecked political power has invited comparisons with all powerful leaders of the Hexagon’s past.
Is he the Sun King, the most supreme of all Europe’s absolute monarchs? Or perhaps like another King Louis, XVI, who faced a revolt of the masses and lost his head.
After taking the Elysee Palace in May, Macron stormed the National Assembly. His 350 (out of 577) seats dwarfed the 137 for Francois Fillon’s Republicans and 44 for Benoit Hamon’s Socialists, the two main parties for more than three decades.
Yet the voter abstention rate hit record highs of 58 per cent in the second round of the parliamentary election. Despite his shock success, Macron’s hold over France is less solid than some predicted and he would like.
Macron’s obsession with pomp has been rightly ridiculed in the French press. Not content with French historical comparisons, Macron has been reaching into classical mythology — promoting himself as king of the Roman gods, Jupiter, no less.
Aloof from mere mortals, he’s also distancing himself from the media, cancelling the traditional Bastille Day TV interview, for example.
Most seriously Macron appears determined to bypass parliament and rule by presidential decree.
Initial enthusiasm with Macron’s “democratic revolution” may soon give way to disillusionment: a dramatic situation where the former banker and Socialist minister may have all the levers of formal power but lacks backing on the streets.
Macron’s ambitions are large. His sell to the electorate was to bring France and Europe back from the brink, after Britain voted to exit the EU and Euroscepticism appeared to overwhelm even Europe’s founding member and long-time motor.
His resounding defeat of Marine Le Pen in presidential elections in May appeared to put paid to a Gallic rejection of the EU dream.
The Front National (FN) secured just eight seats, half of Le Pen’s own modest target of 15. But for how long?
The 39-year-old Macron talks of “reforms” — code for rolling back of genuine reforms of capitalism secured by ordinary people and the left in decades of struggle, from cuts to the public sector and welfare state to deregulating labour markets.
Rather than workers, it is business interests that must be championed. Gone is the Gaullist defence of “difference.” The most pro-European French leader ever seems ready to embrace the federalist dream.
Unlike other so-called centre-left modernisers like Britain’s Tony Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who sought to change traditional parties from within, Macron invented a brand new movement La Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move), to pursue his project.
Against forecasts that he’d soon be facing difficulties “cohabiting” with a parliamentary majority of one of France’s two major parties, in the space of just a few months he converted a vehicle to make him president into a party that overtook them at the ballot box.
Macron’s success was as dramatic as the collapse of Socialists from whence he came. President Francois Hollande had promised to deliver jobs and defend the 99 per cent against the rich and the greedy bankers.
Instead unemployment rose on his watch (only in recent months falling to close to the levels when he was elected in May 2012), while he quietly dropped plans to reign in France’s financial sector (responsible, among many crimes and misdemeanours, for a big chunk of Greece’s unsustainable debt) as well as his 75 per cent tax on earnings over €1 million.
Hollande also promised to defend French interests against an austerity-crazed Germany swaggering over the continent but in the end stuck with Chancellor Angela Merkel and delusions of France being equal partner in the famed Franco-German European tandem.
It is questionable whether he’d have pulled it off without a scandal involving Fillon. But, vampire-like, his aim was to draw strength from a party that was bleeding to death.
A protege of Hollande, we are led to believe that Macron stabbed him in the back. But the policies he is pursuing are a rebranding of the least progressive elements of the last Socialist administration, such as Hollande’s bid — opposed with varying success in the streets — to reduce labour standards and cut business taxes (leading to a huge hole in the public finances).
His plans to slash housing benefit and to weaken France’s wealth tax so that it applies only to property, not investments, will benefit the richest 10 per cent, a study published recently found.
For appearances’ sake, a youthful, apparent outsider was needed, and candidates with no political experience. Macron’s plan — backed by many in the Establishment, including within the Socialist and Republican parties — was, as Tancredi in The Leopard puts it: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.”
But why did the French go for Macron and not Jean Luc Melenchon and his La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement, which together with the more traditional left flank of the Socialists and the Communists (PCF) offered hope of genuine, radical reforms.
As in 2012, Melenchon brought a message of hope with his brilliant oratory, mass meetings and clever use of digital technology. This time, he also effectively tapped into youth culture (Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in Britain perhaps learned a thing or two from him).
Melenchon was pipped for third place by Fillon, with 20 per cent of the vote. But in the parliamentary elections, winner takes all (in the second round runoffs, at least), and Unbowed France and the PCF failed to co-operate, except in a minority of localities.
This was partly down to frictions caused by a battle for hegemony over the radical left (similarly playing out in Spain between upstart Podemos and the Communist-led United Left), with Melenchon seen as more assertive of the two. There was the added complication that the Socialists, under new leader Hamon, had moved much closer politically to their left flank (a case of far too little too late). Without cooperation locally, the risk was to further split the vote.
In the end, France Insoumise and the PCF combined won three million votes and 27 seats, enjoying the funds and prominence that comes with a parliamentary group but are nevertheless a marginal parliamentary force, behind the Socialists in terms of seats.
There may be a more fundamental ideological reason for this. Le Pen gained 10.6 million votes in the presidential elections on the back of calls for a referendum on EU and euro membership, as well as her politics of law and order and proposed anti-immigrant clampdown.
Even her much diminished three million score in parliamentary elections showed she has as much support as the radical left, whose position as critical supporters of the EU and European monetary union have seen many in blue-collar heartlands to switch their political colours from red to brown. (It has been said by observers and indeed it’s a debate with the FN itself, that Euroscepticism cost the party the election. In fact Le Pen substantially toned down the anti-EU rhetoric towards the end of her campaign, while her rather poor personal TV performances were no doubt a factor too.)
Within the left, there’s been little Left Exit, or Lexit debate, even though regaining political and economic sovereignty would be popular. The risks of ducking the issue are huge. The monetary and fiscal one-size-fits-all straightjacket of eurozone membership does not allow individual countries to manage their economies according to the needs of their citizens.
Few countries bar Germany — whose surpluses mirror the debts of Europe’s south — have benefited. It’s not just the leaders of Greece or Italy. Macron is condemned to crisis management too. When he falters — in fact, if you care to believe them opinion polls, his popularity is already slipping — do we really want Le Pen at the guillotine?