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Home Opinion What does Emmanuel Macron's ascendancy mean for the French left?
State of the Left France

What does Emmanuel Macron's ascendancy mean for the French left?

Renaud Thillaye - 27 March 2017

Whether or not he wins the French presidential election, Macron's disruption of the political landscape marks a new page in the history of the French left

Four weeks to go before the first round of the French presidential election, and the reality looks surreal to anyone who, up until a few months ago, expected outgoing president François Hollande to be opposed by political veterans Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy. Unless he makes serious mistakes, the 39 year-old political newcomer Emmanuel Macron is set to become the youngest president of the Fifth Republic. The candidates of the two dominant parties of the last 40 years, Francois Fillon (Républicains) and Benoit Hamon (PS) are unlikely to make it to the second round. Meanwhile, Front National’s Marine Le Pen could well get 45% of the vote, if not more, in the second round, in which she is almost certain to participate. Brace yourself for a dramatic showdown.  

A dirty campaign

Sadly, the pace of the campaign has so far been dictated by judicial affairs and accusations more than political debate. Never has a presidential election been so dirty.

Far from stopping at the fake job allegations about his wife, François Fillon’s troubles reached a new level when it was revealed that he had received a few suits worth €50,000 from a wealthy supporter. This came just few days before the Republican candidate was formally placed under investigation. Inevitably, Fillon has taken a big hit in the polls, dropping almost 10 points. Yet he cannot go much lower. On 20 March, during the first TV debate between the five ‘big’ candidates, he managed to pull off his calm, reassuring style, reminding everyone around that he was the most experienced candidate by far. For all the bad noise, this is a very powerful trump card for the next few weeks.

Marine Le Pen has judicial problems, too. One of her senior staff members was also placed under investigation. There is compelling evidence that she worked for the Front National from Brussels and not on EU-related matters. However, in Le Pen’s case, such accusations contribute to the far-right candidate’s rhetoric of an establishment plot against her. Her electorate simply does not buy these stories. For her voters she represents something bigger, namely the promise of something radically new and bold.

On the upside, these developments show that the judiciary does the job, and that French voters, for most of them, want greater transparency and better ethics. Once seen as moderate and composed, Fillon has dismayed a lot of centre-right voters by attacking judges and accusing François Hollande of orchestrating the leaks from the Elysée. This plays into Emmanuel Macron’s hands. The centrist candidate has placed ‘moralisation’ at the core of his platform. He is now seen a safe anchor in the centre, and the best-placed candidate to beat Marine Le Pen.

A debate on the centre-left

Commenting on these affairs takes a lot of time, with little space left for actual political debate. Yet this election is one of the most fascinating to watch for a long time and offers a lot to reflect upon.

A clear dividing line has emerged between nationalist candidates like Le Pen and, to some extent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the one hand; and unambiguously pro-EU and internationalist candidates like Hamon and Macron. Fillon stands inbetween, agreeing with the former that Vladimir Putin should be part of the game, but, like the latter, refusing to throw the EU baby out with the Brussels’ bathwater. Soundbites like “le people français est souverain” and “let’s take back control” are never very far from his rhetoric, though.

For State of the Left regulars, the most interesting standoff is the one opposing Hamon and Macron. A few months ago, Hamon stormed the Socialist PS primaries with catchy proposals such as a universal basic income (UBI), the option for companies to work 32 hours/week, the possibility for 1% of the electorate to impose a referendum on new legislation, and a clear exit strategy from nuclear.

However, French voters buy this radical narrative only to a limited extent. They see UBI as a very costly bureaucratic contraption in a country already well-equipped socially and mostly anxious about jobs. Even leftwing voters are sceptical of the idea. This proposal locks Hamon into a traditional ‘tax and spend’ position and gives the impression that he is too much of a dreamer.

This leaves the field clear for Macron to grab moderate Socialist voters. Between one third and a half of 2012 Hollande voters are contemplating choosing the former economy minister, who has received the backing of Socialist heavyweights such as the popular defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. His programme is a careful, well-targeted platform, both pro-business and with much more of a social dimension than Fillon’s. It may lack one or two big ideas, but it hits the nail on the head when it comes to the daily difficulties and unpopular taxes abhorred by French people, such as the council tax (taxe d’habitation). In the continuity of the liberalising law he championed in government two years ago, Macron promotes the vision of a more socially mobile society based on flexicurity.

What scenarios for the PS and the left?

Pundits and PS insiders have started to ponder about what awaits the French left after the election. If Macron wins, PS candidate MPs will quickly have to decide whether they are ready to participate to the governing majority or not. En Marche – Macron’s movement – aims to have candidates in all constituencies at the June legislative elections. But some local agreements between En Marche and PS MPs are plausible. This will split the PS, with the possibility of either installing En Marche as a major political force, or of creating a new, small centre-left party bringing together all those who stand ready to take part in a centrist coalition. Benoit Hamon and his inner circle are instead likely to seek a new strategic alliance with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical left.

Whatever happens, the time for a clarification on the French left has probably come. The divisions that have affected Hollande’s presidential term have left lasting wounds. Although he has not openly endorsed Macron, former prime minister Manuel Valls openly refuses to support Hamon. Criticism os Valls’s lack of loyalty has fallen a bit flat. Many moderate PS MPs and party members remember vividly how Hamon and his friends were not particularly loyal to the government in the last five years.

Such hypotheses may not materialise if Macron does not win. Yet his storming success will leave a deep mark on the French left. By arguing that Marine Le Pen must be confronted on the basis of a large, liberal-progressive coalition, Macron suggests restructuring the political landscape. The left-right divide may not be over yet, but the split right in the middle of the PS between those who are open to a coalition government and those who are not looks like the new defining line.

Renaud Thillaye is a research associate at Policy Network and manager at Flint Global

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin reporting from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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