Elections around the world: France: The revival of citizenship?

Catherine Fieschi, Executive Director of Counterpoint, sees signs of a new force in French politics as Emmanuel Macron has found a formula that appeals to voters from different ends of the spectrum. 

As French voters hurtle towards the 23 April and the first round of the French presidential election, the threat from the right wing populist Marine Le Pen on the one hand, and a campaign marred by the unstoppable corruption investigation against the mainstream right’s candidate François Fillon on the other, have conspired to create a kind of disheveled fever pitch: 80 per cent of French voters say they are ‘extremely interested’ in the campaign. Yet only 60 per cent have definitely made up their mind as to who they will vote for. This close to round one, it is unprecedented.

This year’s cycle of elections (first for the presidency, and then a few short weeks later, for the national assembly in June), are seen as a make or break moment: an opportunity fraught with danger. For many it is a chance for France to regain some vitality in both economic and social terms. But it is also seen as a bend in the road; the main candidates each have a distinct programme, all of them offering different kinds of ‘breaks’– ranging from Le Pen’s nationalist break with the EU, to ‘Thatcher lite’ economic liberalism on the part of the damaged Fillon, with shades of Macron’s liberal social democracy in the middle. As for the traditional left, both candidates offer a mix of environmental commitment and traditional keynesian approaches.

Corruption scandals aside, what has most focused media and foreign attention has been the ever-growing support for Marine Le Pen – will she precipitate France into Frexit? Will there be a continuation of what has been perceived as a populist ‘domino effect’? A close second to this top story, has been the focus on relative newcomer Emmanuel Macron – François Hollande’s youthful finance minister, who quit his job last summer to start his political movement En Marche! (Let’s Go!) and then threw his hat in the ring for the race to the presidency, only to become Le Pen’s most likely opponent in the second round on 7 May. Credited, as I write, with roughly 25 per cent of the vote, he is seen as the only one able to beat the leader of the FN given his capacity to mobilise a critical mass of voters from both sides of the spectrum—less traditional socialist with a liberal bend, and voters of the soft centre right, who have nowhere else to go. Polls credit him with 65 per cent of the vote (against 35 per cent for Le Pen) if he makes it into the second round. And so his story has become that of the ‘default’ candidate.

Although there is undoubtedly a measure of truth to this characterisation, this version misses out on some of the real enthusiasm that his movement has created: it misses out on the transformation of politics at the local level that En Marche has helped to usher in, by capitalising on a somewhat unsuspected appetite for involvement. Macron has talked of reform but without Fillon’s sledge-hammer approach to the role of the state. He has managed to conjure up a vision of a France capable of rewarding entrepreneurs without sacrificing protection. His words have been welcomed by younger voters (millennials in particular) for whom France’s political system seemed to offer nothing but the prospect of high taxes, low rewards, miles of red tape and the same old faces (most of whom were sent home in a series of bloody primaries). Decentralised but disciplined, grass-roots without being amateurish—the En Marche local organisers are neither the disaffected Italians of the Five Star Movement, nor the nostalgic youth (!) of Momentum, or Corbyn’s Labour party. While En Marche! has a decent presence online, its main strength is the combination of spontaneity (anyone could start a chapter anywhere in Europe and the call for candidates to the legislative elections were genuinely open) and its leader’s almost athletic approach to politics: he turns up. Again, and again.

Whether this will be enough to carry Macron through to the presidency, and most worryingly for some observers, to transform En Marche! into a political force powerful enough to garner a significant number of MPs, remains to be seen. But the movement has given voice to an ill-defined, but growing number of French people who are neither just activists, nor just voters and whose wish it is to participate as citizens of both France. And Europe.

This article was originally published in LGiU’s C’llr Magazine, April 2017.

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