Europe at a French crossroads?

Tony Kinsella24th May 20178min
France’s Fifth Republic, it must be remembered, is a semi-presidential elective monarchy designed around the personality and preferences of General Charles de Gaulle to address the dramatic challenges France faced in 1958. De Gaulle saw the presidential election as an “encounter between a candidate and the people”. Macron has breathed fresh life into that very concept and has been extraordinarily lucky.

Tony Kinsella is a former campaign director and Irish Times columnist who now spends much of his time in France.  The views expressed in this guest blog are those of the author.

 

Mould Breaker

On the eve of the seventy-second anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany, Emmanuel Macron swept into power with 66% of the votes cast to become the eighth president of France’s Fifth Republic on May 7 last and the youngest French leader since Napoleon Bonaparte became First Consul at the age of 30 in 1799.

At 39 years of age, having never before run for any elected office, and at the head of a political movement, En Marche (On Our Way), that was barely a year old, President Macron broke all the rules of French politics, and won.

He has created a 22-member government under the right of centre (but former social democrat) Mayor of Le Havre, Edouard Philippe, drawing in some of the best talents of the Left (six ministers), the Right, the Centre (three ministers each) and the key figure from France’s influential but fractured environmental movement, Nicolas Hulot. He honoured his campaign promise to draw on the skills of civil society, with exactly half the government coming from outside the political sphere and with parity between men and women.

 

Quintessentially French

An adroit tap on the fractured and decidedly hollow shell of what had been François Mitterand’s Socialist Party (PS) has seen it shatter. The political centre, ostracised under President Sarkozy, has been revitalised with François Bayrou installed as Minister for Justice. If the traditional centre right, re-branded as Les Republicains (LR), is desperately seeking to deny that anything has changed, LR candidates in the forthcoming elections are considerably less sanguine.

The seemingly inexorable advance of the far-right Front National has been halted as its leading candidate, Marine Le Pen, self-destructed live on national television. A radical, if somewhat nostalgic, far left under former PS minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, rallied 19% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election, but faces an altogether more daunting task in holding that vote and transforming it into National Assembly seats in June’s parliamentary elections.

While the pace and the scope of all this change is breath-taking, full of promise for a new European Union dynamic, and a possible precursor for a remodeling of European politics, it is also quintessentially French. Mr. Macron’s ascent and breakthrough would have been impossible in any of Europe’s other parliamentary democracies. The structures and systems of France’s Fifth Republic offered him a narrow window of opportunity, an opportunity he recognised, seized and transformed into victory thanks to the latent desires of the French electorate, and a well-run campaign.

France’s Fifth Republic, it must be remembered, is a semi-presidential elective monarchy designed around the personality and preferences of General Charles de Gaulle to address the dramatic challenges France faced in 1958. De Gaulle saw the presidential election as an “encounter between a candidate and the people”. Macron has breathed fresh life into that very concept and has been extraordinarily lucky.

 

How He Won

Macron benefited from President Hollande’s decision not to seek re-election. The Left’s primary saw voters choose Benoit Hamon over the abrasive outgoing Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Mr. Hamon then ran an ineffective campaign competing for votes on the left rather than towards the centre. The Right’s primary saw Nicolas Sarkozy definitively rejected. Alain Juppé would have been a direct competitor for centrist voters. However, coordinated conservative Catholic support secured the LR nomination for the previously unexciting François Fillon, whose image of probity, a safe and clean pair of hands, never recovered from being accused, and later charged, with a million Euro fraud.

One element of Macron’s success, often overlooked, is his innovative political analysis and more crucially, his courage in putting forward clear arguments based on that analysis. Here, his background is key. He worked as an editorial assistant to philosopher Jean Paul Gustave Ricœur in 2000, holds a degree in philosophy and draws inspiration from Ricœur’s works, most notably in analysing situations and problems.

A central insight is the critical importance of the individual as a means of changing group situations. One Macron policy offers a clear example of this approach – schooling in socially deprived areas where he has pledged to reduce the teacher to pupil ration in primary schools to 1:12. This, he argues, is the key to enabling the children to realise their potential. Their individual successes will then become a major factor in tackling social deprivation and boosting development, especially in the underprivileged suburbs ringing Paris and the other big cities.

 

A Clean Break

Macron came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to steer a pro-business and individually targeted political programme through the Socialist Party. The logical response was to found his own progressive political movement outside the PS. His election makes that a courageous and informed decision. Had he lost, many would have called it foolhardy.

The success of Macron’s approach poses questions for all of Europe’s Socialist and Social Democratic parties, many of which have difficulty in adjusting to the realities of the very societies they have done so much to create. They all come with an element of Marxist heritage and that remains the case even in parties such as the German SPD, which officially removed the Marxist element from the party programme at its 1959 Bad Godesberg Congress.

A primary goal of socialist parties has always been the achievement of social justice by ending discrimination and removing barriers to social equality. Their achievements, in areas such as providing universal access to public education and introducing social welfare and health systems, not only powered them to success across 20th century Europe, they also changed the political paradigm. No major European party of any persuasion would today think of campaigning to remove such pillars of our societies – even if many like to snip away around the edges.

But an inevitable side effect of the Social Democratic success story is the dissolution of the traditional working class. When miners’ sons and maids’ daughters can become university graduates they do not generally seek to make their careers down mines or in domestic service.  What then becomes the role of class-based politics in societies where the vast majority of people belong to one or other element of a large middle class?

 

The Macron Response

Macron’s response is the construction of a progressive, humanist and internationalist movement, one that recognises the achievements of earlier generations but seeks to go beyond them.  The Macron platform rejoices in the existence of the European Union as a space in which states and peoples can both succeed and advance. It also celebrates the globalised economy, seeking to better regulate it while helping those adversely affected by its actions.

One example of this philosophy in action was Macron’s visit during the election campaign to the workers of the doomed Whirlpool plant in his home town of Amiens. Having met trade union representatives off-site, he then spent an hour and a half with the striking workers on their picket line. He confirmed what they already knew, that their factory was closing and their jobs were going to Poland. He promised his support for decent redundancy packages and a comprehensive retraining package. It would be going too far to suggest he won them over, but he did earn a grudging respect for his courage and the clarity of his remedies.

 

Next Challenge

President Macron’s next challenge is the National Assembly elections on 11 and 18 June next. Early polls suggest that he will achieve at least a working majority and it remains to be seen if he can take the 289 seats required for an overall majority.

The country is broken into single seat constituencies and the electoral system is unique, consisting of two rounds held on successive Sundays.  A candidate must receive the support of at least 12.5% of the registered electors in order to progress into the second round and that effectively means winning almost 20% of the votes cast. In the second round, the candidate who receives the highest number of votes is elected.  Success depends to a large extent on what in Irish terms is described as being “transfer friendly”. How many votes can a candidate attract from those who voted for one of the candidates eliminated in the first round?

 

State of the parties

Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) is registering around 30% in early polls, with LR and the Front National (FN) on 19% each. The hard left Mélenchon vote is about 12% and the PS trails with 6%.  It’s clear that LR candidates who survive into the second round will attract other voters and so could return with 120 Deputies, of whom 30 would be open to supporting a Macron government. FN candidates will not attract many other voters and could return with a group of 30-40 Deputies. Relatively unknown Mélenchon candidates are likely to fare even less well, while the low national PS figure may hide local discrepancies and any PS second round candidates will be “transfer friendly”.  That would suggest a bloc of some 200 seats, of whom about 30/40 could support Macron.

As for the LREM, it could well return with an overall majority in its own right and, as said, can probably count on the support of another 40 or so LR and PS Deputies in the new National Assembly. An additional wrinkle is that some 200 outgoing Deputies are not seeking re-election.

There is an obvious health warning that the election campaign has yet to really begin but we can expect an impressive LREM campaign with a distinct possibility that President Macron will enjoy an overall majority in the incoming National Assembly.

 

Multiple Challenges

He and his government will then face multiple challenges from liberalising aspects of French labour law, to reducing the country’s public expenditure from its current level of 55% of GDP, through reinforcing the fight against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, and persuading Berlin that the EU needs a new economic dynamic. He not only needs to address shortcomings on the supply side of the French economy, but also to act on the demand side, not least through improving the lot of those on or near minimum wages.

The challenges are multiple and awesome, but far from insurmountable.

 

Innovative Model

If he succeeds then France may once again offer an innovative political model to the rest of the democratic world.

If Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated anything this past year it is that he and his movement are a new beginning for France and an exemplar for Europe. What he has done may be quintessentially French but it has brought Europe to a cross roads where the road signs point to a future that’s more promising than seemed possible when he started his march forward only eighteen months ago.