Before the horrified gaze of its militants, the French Socialist party — which has been a major force in French politics since 1981, and forms the present government — is falling to pieces.
There are many reasons behind this catastrophe. They go back to 2005 and the dithering leadership of the then secretary-general, François Hollande, at a time when the party was dangerously divided after the referendum on a European constitution. And they continue up to 1 December last year, when President Hollande, after again dithering for months, announced on national television, in tears, that he had bowed to the inevitable — his own failure and unpopularity — and would not run for re-election. But the most significant reason for the Socialist implosion is the sudden arrival of a man from nowhere called Emmanuel Macron.
Macron, at 39, would normally be considered at least 15 years too young to mount a serious presidential challenge in France, but the most recent polls show him in third place, just behind the front-runner, the far-right Front National’s leader, Marine Le Pen, and François Fillon, the candidate of the conservative party, Les Républicains.
His rapid rise makes Macron a genuine original in French politics and his opponents do not know what to make of him. Unlike all other serious contenders, he has no visible record of political commitment. In 2004 he graduated from the National School of Administration (ENA) and joined the upper civil service. Then, in 2008, he paid €50,000 to buy himself out of his government contract and became an investment banker with Rothschild, where he was highly regarded and quickly made a small fortune. Then, in 2012, with the election of President Hollande, his career took another unexpected change of direction: he left Rothschild to become deputy secretary-general at the Elysée. When Manuel Valls became Hollande’s second prime minister in 2014, with instructions to deregulate the French economy, Macron was catapulted into the economics ministry.
Hollande and Valls congratulated themselves on an imaginative choice, and Macron set out to please Brussels by cutting France’s deficit while encouraging business activity. In 2015 he introduced la loi Macron, a measure designed to stimulate growth by abolishing public service monopolies and union restrictions on hours. This had to be forced through the National Assembly by decree, against the opposition of Socialist deputies, an unpopular move that consecrated Macron as the bête noire of the left.
As the months in office passed, Macron openly developed a separate political agenda, often disagreeing in public with Valls. Soon after his appointment, a mysterious movement appeared called ‘Les Jeunes avec Macron’ (‘Young people for Macron’). This was launched as a ‘spontaneous’ internet site, but quickly grew into a well-organised group numbering several thousand activists whose average age was said to be 33.
Macron then began to dominate the debate on European and welfare policy — but Hollande and Valls did nothing to rein him in. In 2015, a few days after Hollande insisted that Macron was ‘respecting his authority’, the maverick minister attacked the wealth tax — a central plank of Socialist fiscal policy since it was introduced in 1989. Meanwhile, party leaders mocked his inexperience and lack of support on the left, and estimated his electoral appeal at 6 per cent.
Undaunted, the economics minister announced that he was forming his own political ‘movement’, ‘En Marche!’ (Let’s Go!), ‘open to everyone of progressive views’ and ‘aimed at younger voters’. Last August he started touring French holiday resorts appealing for a vision that would ‘re-forge the country’s politics, culture and ideology’. At the end of the month he announced his resignation, and in November he launched the presidential campaign that he must have been secretly preparing ever since he joined the government.
While the seven hapless candidates for the Socialist party’s nomination were struggling throughout December to achieve three-figure attendance at their meetings, Macron — with no party machine behind him — was attracting thousands. In Clermont-Ferrand it was 2,500, in Lille 4,000, and in Paris last month 12,000 people packed into the hall to hear him speak.
As a presidential candidate, Macron is seen as an outsider, someone who will ‘break the system’ and challenge the stifling consensus of unions, over-entitled functionaries and remarkably youthful pensioners that prevents France from responding to the challenges of globalisation. He usually describes himself as ‘centrist’ but he also objects to being called ‘anti-socialist’.
If Macron’s unique selling point is unclear, his unique talking point is that he married his former school teacher, a lady 24 years older than him. This startling fact, when first encountered, tends to bring political discussion to a halt, while all pause for a few moments of profound reflection. His latest fan is Ségolène Royal. Ségolène is the current minister of the environment, and, by chance, she too is 24 years older than the dynamic new arrival. She has repeatedly spoken of her affection and admiration for Macron. Ségolène was the defeated Socialist presidential candidate of 2007, but last week she urged the party’s voters to ignore their own candidate, Benoît Hamon — a hardline leftist sacked as education minister by Valls in 2014 — and back Macron instead.
Macron has not just divided the Socialists, he has replaced them. So how has this apparently isolated and underfunded individual managed all this in such a short time? It is clear that Macron has powerful supporters behind the scenes, and a clue may lie in the little-discussed fact that some years ago he was identified as a member of ‘les Gracques’ — a discreet centre-left pressure group loosely staffed by influential chief executives and civil service mandarins. They are pro-market socialists who long ago gave up on the Socialist party. Many are fellow ‘énarques’ (graduates of ENA) and every step of Macron’s career could have been directed by them. Spotted as a brilliant and charming student, Macron could first have been launched into the prestigious state Finance Inspectorate, then switched into Rothschild to gain business experience (and wealthy support) and then placed like a time bomb in Hollande’s outer office, where he ticked away until he could be moved into the heart of the Valls government. Last August he finally exploded into action at the perfect moment to cause maximum damage to Hollande, Valls and the entire Socialist presidential election campaign. Macron’s rise bears all the hallmarks of a classic ENA undercover operation, a fundamental part of the énarques’ stock-in-trade and one in which the country’s leading bureaucrats are cynically trained.
Now that the Socialists have lumbered themselves with a dinosaur — Hamon — as their candidate, Macron is in an even stronger position. He will be able to tune his campaign to attract moderate Socialist voters as well as the centrists and centre-rightists who flock to his meetings and are having second thoughts about François Fillon.
Mr Fillon and his British wife Penelope are currently under investigation for misuse of public funds. Both deny the accusations. Interestingly, the information that has placed him under suspicion seems to have come from dissident members of Les Républicains, his own party — angry that neither ex–president Nicolas Sarkozy nor Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, won the nomination. If Mr Fillon is formally charged, he has said that he will not run. In which case the most likely solution for his party, at this short notice, would be to select Mr Juppé in his place.
French Establishment Mount The Ramparts Against Le Pen
«Centrist» candidate Emmanuel Macron was no sooner announced winner in the first round of the French presidential election at the weekend, and with unseemly haste the political establishment rushed to close ranks against rival Marine Le Pen of the Front National.
Macron topped the poll in the first round winning 23.8 per cent of the vote. Le Pen came in second place with 21.5 per cent. Both candidates will now proceed to face off in the second round, to be held on May 7, with the other nine candidates having been eliminated.
The FN leader is entitled to call her electoral performance a «historic» achievement. It was the best result for the nationalist party in the French presidential elections since its foundation in 1972. But while her supporters were celebrating a landmark victory, the French establishment was desperately pulling up the drawbridge. Slings, arrows and boiling oil are being readied to make sure Le Pen is kept at bay from the seat of power.
Le Pen, who took over the party leadership in 2011 from her father Jean-Marie, has taken the FN from «fringe» status to now being a major mainstream political force, within a shot of winning the presidency of the French Republic.
But it is unlikely that Marine Le Pen will become Madame President – at least in the 2017 cycle. Her rival Macron is already receiving fulsome endorsements from the erstwhile two main parties, the center-right Republicans and the incumbent Socialists. Both parties suffered painful defeats at the weekend, the first time in 60 years than neither of them have a candidate going forward to the second round.
Republican candidate Francois Fillon, who won 19.9 per cent of the vote, immediately gave his endorsement to Macron, telling his supporters that Le Pen would be a «disaster» for the country. Socialist contender, Benoit Hamon, whose electoral performance crashed to scraping only 6.5 per cent of the vote, was even more vehement in endorsing Macron. In his defeat-acceptance speech, Hamon called on his supporters to get behind Macron because Le Pen was «an enemy of the state».
The so-called «hard left» candidate Jean-Luc Melénchon, of the France Unbowed party, came in fourth with a respectable vote of 19.6 per cent, narrowly behind Fillon. Considering that Melénchon was campaigning on a staunch socialist manifesto and that his party was only recently formed, it was a commendable result for the veteran left-winger. He can claim to have secured the mantle of the «genuine left» in France, and going forward has a strong base upon which to build a new socialist party. For that reason, Melénchon refused to endorse either Macron or Le Pen for the second round. To his credit, he is not selling out on political principles.
The final head-to-head election next month is shaping up to be a repeat of the 2002 presidential contest, when Marine’s father Jean-Marie caused a political shock when he made it through to second round back then. Similar to that occasion, as now, the establishment rallied to support Jacques Chirac, of the center-right UMP (forerunner of the present-day Republicans). In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen was trounced, winning only 18 per cent of the final vote, against Chirac’s nearly 80 per cent.
As before, the same maneuver of mounting the ramparts against Marine Le Pen is underway. Macron will consolidate voters from Fillon’s Republicans and Hamon’s Socialists, and he is projected to win up to 60 per cent of the final tally against Marine Le Pen.
In terms of votes, Le Pen’s FN has evolved to become an undoubted central political force in French politics. At the weekend, she garnered some 7.6 million, less than one million behind Macron, and well ahead of the other contenders. Her party’s performance exceeded that of its previous best in the 2015 municipal elections when the FN won 6.6 million votes.
Nevertheless, Le Pen’s FN is still tainted with its original association with fascism, racism and anti-semitism. Le Pen says that mainstream media labelling of her party as «far-right» is a smear. She prefers to call the FN «nationalist».
To a large extent, the 48-year-old lawyer has managed to «detoxify» the image of the party and has positioned it as a populist movement that stands against global capitalism and the European Union’s servility to corporate finance. Le Pen is campaigning on left-leaning economic policies of «social protection» and taking France out of the EU, in the same manner as the Brexit for Britain. She also wants to quit the US-led NATO military alliance and is openly calling for friendly relations with Russia. The FN aims to restore national control over French borders and implement big cuts in immigration numbers. Her strident denunciation of «Islamization» of French culture has earned her criticism of being xenophobic.
However, to label Le Pen and the FN as «an enemy of the state» seems to be an hysterical caricature. The suspicion is that it is her party’s policies of opposing global capitalism, the EU and NATO which is the real source of establishment animus, which is concealed by hollow accusations of «racism, xenophobia and fascism» and «enemy of the state».
It is notable that EU leaders also joined with French establishment figures in rushing to endorse Macron at the weekend. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded quickly to congratulate him on winning first place in the initial presidential round. With two weeks to go until the second and final round, those public comments from EU leaders seem to be a flagrant interference in the French election. Nonetheless, they underscore the urgency for the political establishment within France and across Europe to keep Le Pen from entering the Élysée Palace on May 7.
As for Macron, the branding of the «centrist» politician has the unmistakeable air of slick marketing by the powers-that-be. Of course, being avidly pro-EU, pro-NATO and frosty towards Russian leader Vladimir Putin makes Macron a keen favorite in the eyes of the status quo.
The 39-year-old Macron claims that, politically, he is «neither right nor left» and the mainstream media have glowingly dubbed him a fresh-faced «outsider». Corny comparisons are made to John F Kennedy, Tony Blair and Barack Obama. There is a palpable sense that Macron’s image is being intensely manufactured as the golden boy of politics who, it is advertised, will bring «hope and change» for everyone.
Only in a crass, superficial sense could Macron be described as «an outsider» who is forging a «new politics». It is true that he has never served in elected office. And he formed his political party, En Marche, (Forward) only a year ago.
But everything else about Macron is deeply establishment and status quo. With an elite education, he worked as a former Rothschild investment banker on a multi-million-euro income, before being appointed by Socialist President Francois Hollande as economy minister four years ago. In that post, he was the architect of the widely hated pro-business labor «reforms» (hire-and-fire), which the Hollande government forced into law last year by decree, despite massive public protests.
Macron cleverly stepped down from his ministerial post in anticipation of entering the presidential elections, and thereby gave himself a modicum of distance from the despised governing Socialists. The latter, by the way, is really a misnomer, as Hollande’s government (2012-2017) served as ardent proponents of neoliberal capitalism in the service of global finance. That is partly the reason why Hollande’s would-be successor Benoit Hamon received such a drubbing in the latest poll, while Jean-Luc Melénchon of the Communist-backed France Unbowed emerged with respectable support.
So, Macron is certainly no «outsider» nor fresh-faced «challenger» of the status quo. That’s just all superficial marketing and branding to ensure that he prevents Le Pen winning power. Macron will eventually prove to be a willing servant of global capitalism, the EU and NATO, and a ruthless economic hitman against the working class.
In his first-round victory speech at the weekend, Macron declared that he would create a France that is «fair and efficient» for everyone. The use of the word «efficient» is a creepy harbinger of the priorities that this establishment-technocrat will deliver in his presidential service to big business, global capital and US-led transatlantic militarism.
Macron’s endorsement list tells a lot. It includes: incumbent President Francois Hollande and current prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve, the foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. As well as the entire center-right Republican leadership. These two parties were solidly rejected in the first round of the presidential election at the weekend. And yet they are now cheerleading for Macron, the supposed «outsider». This amounts to failed French politicians begetting more failed French politicians. Wow, plus ca change!
The prospect that France may soon elect its first president from outside an established party in nearly a century is fuelling concern about potential political instability.
Opponents of Emmanuel Macron, the independent who has emerged as the surprise frontrunner in the country’s most unpredictable election in decades, claim he would struggle to govern because he would be unlikely to muster a parliamentary majority.
Flanked by supporters waving tricolour flags at a rally in Marseille on Saturday, Mr Macron, 39, a fresh-faced former investment banker who has never held elected office and would be the youngest president in modern French history, sought to appeal to conservative voters.
Describing himself as a “patriot”, he stressed that he would cut taxes, take a tough line on terrorism and plough more than £4 billion into helping France’s struggling farmers.
He will need conservative backing to defeat Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader. Polls show the mainstream Republican and Socialist candidates face being eliminated in the first round of the election in three weeks’ time, leaving the two outsiders facing each other in the final showdown in May.
Mr Macron will trounce Ms Le Pen, according to the polls, but only if voters unite against the far-Right.
Supporters of the conservative candidate, François Fillon, the former favourite who has been undermined by corruption allegations, argue that if elected, Mr Macron would be forced to rely on fickle support from moderate Socialists and the centre-Right.
Despite the extensive powers invested in the French presidency by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 following the collapse of a series of weak governments, Mr Macron’s ambitious centrist programme of business-friendly reforms could be blocked by a fragmented or hostile parliament.
Mr Fillon and Ms Le Pen accuse Mr Macron of being heir to the unpopular president, François Hollande, because he is backed by several leading top leading Socialists.
But Mr Macron told a crowd of thousands: “I am the heir of your energy, of your yearning for change.”
Hours before the rally he held surprise talks with Christian Estrosi, the influential Right-wing president of the southern region that includes Provence, the Riviera and the Alps.
Mr Estrosi is ideologically close ideologically to Mr Fillon but they fell out when Mr Estrosi urged him to stand down amid accusations that he and his British wife had embezzled public funds.
Mr Estrosi was booed by Mr Fillon’s supporters at a meeting on Friday. If Mr Macron wins the presidency, he hopes that the fledgling political movement he has created from scratch in barely a year will secure a majority in parliamentary elections in June.
Unlike the two mainstream parties, Mr Macron’s group, which is called En Marche! (On The Move), has yet to choose its candidates for France’s 577 constituencies.
It has had received some 14,000 online applicantstions online from supporters who are excited about Mr Macron’s pledges to cut red tape and his promise that half the candidates will be women, but many have never before stood for office.
Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst with the CEVIPOF think tank, said: “Emmanuel Macron is charismatic nationally but he will need strong, locally known parliamentary candidates. Even big names have been beaten by popular local figures when they’ve been parachuted in by the main parties.
“The only scenario in which there would be no problem with a majority would be if François Fillon wins (but) it looks doubtful because his image has been so badly tarnished.”
The campaign is growing more venomous by the day, with Mr Fillon accusing Mr Macron of being a “fraudster” and Mr Macron hitting back at him and Ms Le Pen for what he describes as their “campaigns of hate”.