Monday, March 27

As France goes to the polls, voters are asking: who really is Emmanuel Macron? | Marion Van Renterghem

Yon the autumn of 2018, as the gilets jaunes movement took off, Emmanuel Macron faced a crisis in France that also represented a personal political failure. A little more than a year previously, he had arrived at the Elysée, elected on a centrist, social-liberal, pro-Europe agenda. He embodied fierce opposition to national populism, yet now it seemed the president on whose watch populism in France was growing. At the time, I wrote an article for the Guardian asking if centrist and anti-populist leaders were creating breeding grounds for the populists they had sworn to defeat. Barack Obama, after all, had been followed by Donald Trump. In Italy, Matteo Renzi produced Matteo Salvini. In the UK, a post-Blairite Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government had produced Brexit. So after Macron, what?

The answer came on 24 April of this year: after Macron, Macron. But which Macron? And at what cost? After five years in power and embarking on a second term, the president who pledged in 2017 to “do everything to make sure you never have reason again to vote for extremes” faces the first round of legislative elections on 12 June in a political landscape more divided and extreme than ever.

The country is split into four watertight blocks that are seemingly unable to talk to each other. We have a strengthened far right: Marine Le Pen received 2.7m more votes in the second round of this year’s presidential election than she did in 2017. The radical left is also stronger. The hard-left Eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon came third in the first round of the presidential election, and he has imposed himself as the strong man of the left and all its competing factions. We have an extreme abstentionist bloc, an expression of public weariness, indifference and/or violent rejection of politics, and an extreme centre, a combination of right and left that has formed around Macron.

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The catch phrasein meme temps” (which roughly means “at the same time”), which Macron used repeatedly in his first election campaign to convey the promise that two seemingly conflicting ideas could coexist, has come to define Macronism. The slogan has served him well. He managed the incredible feat of becoming the youngest president in the history of the French Republic and of being elected twice on the vague promise of a large, catch-all pro-European reformist center that is neither right nor left – a sort of Blairite third way but without the machinery or support of a major party. Macronism’s En Marche manifesto was, essentially, Macron himself.

Macron’s movement vampirised the traditional parties – right, left and Greens. He was elected because he was the reasonable middle way for a democratically fragile country. But Macron himself helped to accelerate this polarization of France. In seeking to airbrush away the old party dividing lines, his great centrist “at the same time” mission sucked in all the air on either side of the political center ground, leaving oxygen for nothing but the radical left and far right.

At the solemn official investiture of Macron II in the Elysée’s “salle des fêtes” last month, two of the vampire’s victims stood in the front row among hundreds of guests. Neither François Hollande nor Nicolas Sarkozy showed much joy at being there. Never before in the history of the French Republic had one, let alone two, former presidents attended the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected head of state. Nor had two former rivals from the right and the left previously called on voters to support them. Hollande and Sarkozy did it this year for different reasons: one to block Le Pen, the other to make sure conservative ideas were represented. Perhaps most remarkable was that the two major parties of the center embodied by these former presidents, whose dominated French political life for decades, were wiped out at the national level. Macron was reelected on their corpses.

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Anti-Macron protesters in Paris, France, in July 2021. Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

But we still don’t know who Macron is. Big horizontal wrinkles on his forehead and less hair give some insight into the five years of crisis that marked his first term of him, from the yellow vests through Covid, to Putin’s war in Europe. In his 7 May inauguration speech, he vowed to reinvent himself on the strength of the decisive new mandate entrusted to him by the people. aware of how reviled he is among certain groups of French voters, and that many even among his own supporters are fed up with his top down Jupiter act, his inability to delegate and his propensity to operate behind closed doors, he also promised “a new method”.

Brand new, then. But to what end? This president, brilliant enough for us to bring him back for an encore, is strangely the one we understand the least. His contradictions of him mean he can be an economic liberal and “in meme tempsto statist. At times he’s a technocrat, demonstrating no obvious stake in society, the attitude that first enraged the gilets jaunes, and sometimes he is more of a socialist than any previous French head of state, indebting the country with “whatever it takes” to limit the effects of the Covid crisis.

He is firmly against the nationalist-populist extremes of the right and left, yet aligned with them in his self-centred practice of power.

Both versions of Macron are pragmatic. They adapt to circumstances, based on a few unwavering convictions: Europe, their primary political identity, is the only battleground on which they will not compromise. They encourage business, work, individual emancipation. Both have succeeded in making unemployment a thing of the past, and they have imposed their vision of a more sovereign Europe.

But Macron must now choose between his different identities if he and his rebranded centre-right coalition are to win an overall majority, govern effectively and confront multiple and converging crises: the collapse of purchasing power, inflation, a colossal external deficit, growth at half -mast, fractured social cohesion, the energy transition and the war in Ukraine.

Mélenchon has forged an alliance on the left to challenge Macron in parliament with a pact linking the Socialist party, the Greens and the Communist party. The New Ecologic and Social People’s Union or Nupes, as Mélenchon’s bloc is called, could, in the current mood, comfortably win between 160 and 200 of the national assembly’s 577 seats (289 seats is the threshold Macron needs for an absolute majority). Nupes share several traits with the far right, including a rejection of “elites” and “the system” – and, in some cases, Euroscepticism tinged with a questionable leniency towards Putin. Even if Macron secures enough votes to govern effectively, we can expect his many emboldened opponents to be agitated and noisy both in parliament and on the streets.

But which Macron will respond? He’s been strangely absent and silent throughout this campaign. His second term of him looks as fragile as his reelection was spectacular.

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