News last week that former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was backing Presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron is but the latest windfall for the man increasingly likely to become France’s next leader. Criticisms of Macron’s youth and inexperience are countered by polls showing that, while he and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen are tied in their country’s affections and therefore likely to be the two candidates to make it through the initial round of the contest, he is predicted to win the final.
Macron’s recent ascendency is a product of both fortune and opportunism. A former adviser to current President Francois Hollande, and an economy minister in Valls’ second cabinet, Macron quit the centre-left Socialist Party (PS) last year to set up his own action group, En Marche!, before announcing his widely-anticipated run for the Presidency. Officially named ‘Association pour le renouvellement de la vie politique’, En Marche! is usually described as centrist; Macron famously characterised his ‘movement’ as being ‘neither on the right nor the left’.
Macron’s persona has been the focus of greater attention than his policy platform. His 2016 book, Revolution, was described in the TLS last week as ‘written entirely at the level of abstract, general principles, and with very few specific policy prescriptions; it is inconceivable that candidates for the highest office in any other major democracy would express themselves in this vein’. But his emerging moderate reformism includes pledges to bring greater flexibility to the labour market, to reduce the budget deficit, to cut corporation tax, and to invest in renewable energy. Alongside a modernising embrace of business, this focus on reducing spending and tax has led to comparisons with third-way politicians.
Macron’s image feels third-way, too. As well connected in the media world as the financial sector (he worked for several years at Rothschilds), Macron has both classic French style and the ’rock star appeal’ that drives rallies across Europe, including a sold-out appearance at Central Hall in Westminster in February. The beneficiary of a typical elite Parisian education, he rebelled by marrying his 24-years-older female school teacher. And although he has served time in the civil service, he has never previously run for political office. Macron ticks electoral boxes on both sides of the left-right spectrum — while attempting to override those sides and profit from popular populist sentiment: he claims to be able to ‘beat the elites from within’. Wanting to return France to its elusive Republican path at the same time as emphatically supporting the EU — during a time in which its popularity in France is ever waning — is supposedly made coherent by an engagement with fears about the right’s exploitation of divisions provoked by this changing mood.
Macron’s ambiguous appeal is significant not least because his success derives from problems within both of France’s traditional parties. Long the subject of intrigue, until recently Macron’s role was seen as potential kingmaker: someone whose candidacy could to a small but theoretically decisive extent affect both major parties. The centre-right Republicans (LR, formerly known as UMP) felt threatened by his appeal to the liberal faction among their voter base. And PS — Macron’s more natural supporters, given his political history — recognised that his break-away approach might reinvigorate the leftist support that had been long stalled by the party’s internal fragmentation.
That this seemingly marginal candidate has become favourite is owing to events that have solidified the problems within both PS and LR. LR selected Francois Fillon as their Presidential candidate in an open primary last autumn. At the time, Fillon’s win was hailed as a turning point: his free-market ideals were compared to Thatcher’s, and his victory over the more famous Alain Juppé and infamous Nicolas Sarkozy was seen by many as a principled repudiation of entrenched establishment scandal. Fillon’s explicit anti-corruption platform has since crumbled in the face of PenelopeGate (accusations that he arranged political sinecures for his wife and other family members); just last week, the Welsh-born Penelope Fillon herself was charged. Therefore, while it had been long predicted that the final presidential duel would feature Le Pen and her LR opponent, Macron is now polling significantly above Fillon.
The unpopularity of Hollande, who is usually portrayed as slow and unassertive, was seen as emblematic of failure of the left — not least to the extent that if he had run in the party’s open primary and had been selected their candidate, it was widely expected he wouldn’t have made it to the final round. Consequently, he chose to become the first President of the Fifth Republic not to seek another term. The eventual winner of the primary process was UBI supporter Benoit Hamon, who beat the former PS Prime Minister, Valls, in a second round, after which Valls promised to support Hamon’s campaign. That, last week, Valls rescinded upon that promise, is symptomatic of the degree of division facing the left in France. Valls’ commitment to Macron shows the latter’s navigation of that division.
Valls is only the latest in a stream of big-name Macron supporters. Several weeks ago, ‘veteran centrist’ Francois Bayrou decided to back Macron rather than running for the presidency himself, claiming that he was making this ‘sacrifice’ because ‘the danger is too big, we must change things’. This followed commitments from the popular defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Green’s Francois de Rugy, and the Socialist Christophe Caresche, who said: ‘for a man of the left, Emmanuel Macron is the only way to effectively counter Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election’.
And the opportunity Macron offers for beating Le Pen seems the most likely overall reason for his strengthening position. It has always been assumed that the controversial Le Pen will reach the final round of the presidential contest; interest in her would-be contender has been unsurprisingly high. For many whose principal objective is to prevent her success, therefore, support for that candidate feels a price worth paying. But, regardless of his background, Macron’s popular-style approach — his rallies, enthusiasm over efficiency, seeming willing to address France’s long-term structural economic problems while cheerleading its historic place in the world — also represents another option to some of her anti-establishment supporters.
Macron’s rise may have been backed by fortune, but, in response to that fortune, he has capitalised on the centrist gap in a way few other European politicians have managed. The current situation offers him a chance to offer the change that France’s economy needs — change greater than his rhetoric offers so far.