France is being swept by a new populist movement promising radical change and a solution to the country’s divisions and inequalities. No, not Marine Le Pen – Emmanuel Macron!
France has long been known as a nation of radicals. Stereotyped as stubborn and contrarian, the French have often flirted with ideologies on both the left and right that would be considered extreme by the standards of their neighbours across the channel. With the presidential election just two months away, France may be on the verge of accepting another ideologue – this time the far-right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. She has the potential to write the third chapter in the story of nationalist resurgence across the West. Polls – if they can be trusted – suggest a lead for Le Pen in the first round, followed by a comfortable defeat at the hands of her opponent in the second. But with the original favourite – conservative former prime minister François Fillon – engulfed in scandal, there is still plenty of opportunity for Le Pen to rewrite this narrative.
But Marine Le Pen is not the only candidate to take advantage of Fillon’s weakness. Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year old former Rothschild investment banker and finance minister in the previous government, has emerged as an unlikely challenger. Presenting himself as a political outsider (an untruth that has somehow caught on), Macron’s clean-cut image and brand of centrist populism has captured the imagination of the centre of a French electorate disillusioned by the traditional left-right dichotomy that he has sought to repudiate (admittedly, the bulk of his core support comes from the so-called liberal elite). He has solidified his anti-establishment credentials by refusing to participate in the Socialist Party primaries, thereby distancing himself from a party still reeling from the dramatic unpopularity of the incumbent president, François Hollande. Instead, Macron has formed his own progressive political movement, En Marche! (Forward!); its membership now numbers nearly 200,000.
His platform is yet to be released in full, but it has taken on a resoundingly social liberal, pro-European character – though he seems unwilling to attach a label to his movemet. His aim is to walk a line between the untrammelled Thatcherism of Fillon and the more anti-business rhetoric of Benoît Hamon’s Socialists. Thus, Macron would work to scrap the 35-hour working week for younger and older workers, establish broader unemployment benefits, while making it easier for businesses to let workers go. Where his position truly diverges is regarding immigration and the European Union. Although he recognises the deep ethno-religious divisions in French society, he is unapologetically in favour of both immigration, and deeper EU integration. He has consistently sought to change the conversation towards one in which the European Union and the movement of people are seen as vehicles for growth, rather than nationalist, drum-beating scapegoats for France’s inequalities and high unemployment. Ultimately, his is a positive worldview, propagating the politics of hope, rather than the fear that engulfed Western discourse over the course of 2016.
Hit pieces by Russian propaganda outlets have already begun to emerge, but so far the only dirt they have is that he is a former banker, and that he might be gay.
There is one important threat to Macron: Russia. A Macron presidency would be antithetical to Russian designs on Europe, and with Marine Le Pen having received indirect funding from Vladimir Putin via Russian banks, it is clear whose campaign the president is supporting. Even Fillon – broadly sympathetic to Russia – would be preferable, so the collapse of his popular support must have come as something of a blow to Kremlin apparatchiks. Hit pieces by propaganda outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik targeting Macron have already begun to emerge, but so far the only dirt they have been able to unearth is that he is a former Rothschild banker, and that he might be gay – the former is common knowledge, and the latter is a non-issue in French politics, even if it is true. Nonetheless, the French media, political, and security establishment is steeling itself for further Russian interference; we can only hope that the long arm of the Kremlin cannot be allowed to meddle with this election, as it did Trump’s.
From the Russian perspective, the chief danger of a Macron presidency is his unwavering commitment to European integration. With a sceptical White House to the West and a hostile Russia to the East, a federal Europe is more important than ever; a strong, united Europe must become a reality if its members are to remain secure. A victory for a fierce Europhile like Macron would therefore also be a vote of confidence in the European Union – if he is joined at the top table by Martin Schulz as German chancellor in the Autumn, the EU will have received the tacit backing of the population of its two biggest and most important members. The European army and greater integration will surely follow. This can only be a good thing – except for Brexit Britain, whose fate is to become a satrap of Trump’s United States.
Forecasts currently put Macron into the second round of voting, behind Le Pen. In the second, he would not only beat the Front National’s candidate, but do so comfortably. In just a few short months – thanks chiefly to Fillon’s implosion – he has become the favourite to triumphantly enter the Élysée Palace in May. He still has much to do to convince the French electorate of his credentials, but the relative weakness of his opponents means he may march to victory as little more than the ‘least bad’ option. Nonetheless, his victory would represent a triumph for the centre, for liberalism and for hope. To prove that the populist right is not the answer to Europe’s problems, and to save the great European project, we need a candidate like Macron to win.