Saturday, April 20

Macron’s appeal to unity succeeds but far right makes strong showing | French presidential election 2022

On the campaign trail in Denain, one of the poorest towns in France, Emmanuel Macron walked into a crowd of voters to “take the pulse of the nation” and a woman pushed forward to sum up the mood. “We’re living in misery,” she said. Others shouted: “This country doesn’t work” and “We’ve had enough”. When one father described not managing to make ends meet, Macron said: “That’s what I’m fighting for.” The man shot back: “That’s not the impression I have.”

Macron, a young, former banker, who had loosened labor laws and promised the biggest overhaul of the French welfare state since the war, was lauded internationally for making France a “star economic performer” of the pandemic era – growth had bounced back faster than expected from the Covid crisis, unemployment was at its lowest level for more than a decade, and government caps on gas and electricity prices kept French prices from rising as fast as those in European neighbours.

But, as Macron got up close to voters in town squares across France in the past two weeks – keen to compensate for a persistent image as haughty and cut off from everyday concerns – he realized that the cost of living crisis and people’s very real fears of making ends meet would play a greater role than he had anticipated in the campaign. His economic statistics from him on paper did not match everyone’s felt experience on the ground. Six months earlier, the far right’s Marine Le Pen had foreseen that workers on low and middle incomes felt they weren’t being heard or understood. She styled herself as “the candidate of a France that is suffering” and went under the radar across the countryside to listen to them.

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In the final two weeks of the campaign, Macron tried to catch up by shaking hands and explaining his economic record, arguing that this was the first election in decades in which France’s mass unemployment was not the central theme, because he had boosted job creation. But he found, by his own admission, “people who do not feel they’re being taken into consideration, who feel resentment… who feel humiliated or looked down upon”. He said: “I try to listen in an objective way.” He accepted that if he were to win re-election, things must be done “more simply, more directly”. He said: “We have to reconcile the working class with politicians.”

During the campaign, Macron conceded that if the French far right had risen to its highest ever levels in the presidential first round – with Le Pen and the newcomer TV pundit Éric Zemmour taking more than 30% – it was because he himself “had not managed to calm a certain anger”.

That anger will certainly be one of the main challenges in the next five year presidential term. the gilets jaunes anti-government protests in 2018 and 2019 had shown that people’s sense of injustice could spontaneously erupt into a large scale and long running protest movement that was not contained by traditional trade unions or defined by political voting patterns, but which pushed people to demonstrate every Saturday for months on end.

Some in Macron’s government had initially felt this year’s election would play out along the lines of moderation, “reason” and science versus the “hatred and division” of populists.

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But it became clear in the final weeks of the presidential campaign that “rationality” was not enough: there needed to be an emotional connection to people’s everyday lives. Le Pen attacked Macron as “power without empathy”. His brilliance from him at number-crunching and his professorial explanations of the efficiency of his policies from him were seen by some as technocratic abstraction. Macron accepted in the final days of the campaign that only getting a level to French people’s lived experience and emotional feeling would work. “I’m very aware of the precariousness, of the fragility, that you can lose everything,” he said of people who were struggling.

Macron said he had picked up on the signs of “trauma” in a society where more than 140,000 lives were lost to Covid, and where voters’ main worries were making ends meet, followed by the war in Ukraine and concerns about the climate crisis. “It’s the first time that even children have stopped me in crowds to ask me about the war in Ukraine,” he said, shocked, in the final days before the vote.

A 72-year-old former elected official in a village in the Oise, where a majority had voted Le Pen, said: “People’s mood can be summed up in one word: uncertainty. Uncertainty over health, over part-time job contracts, over how much you’ll be overdrawn by the end of the month. Uncertainty about the prospect of nuclear war, and the planet burning.”

Against this backdrop of doubt towards the political class, Macron accepted that the country was fractured and divided. The immediate challenge is how a sense of unity can begin to be knitted back together and what form the parliament will take in June.

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Analysts now carve French politics into three blocs. Macron is holding together a broad centrist bloc, which five years ago spread from voters on the social-democratic left to the center right, and this time moved more to the right to take voters from Nicolas Sarkozy’s old party of government. Then there is a far-right bloc – including not just Le Pen but the newcomer Zemmour, whose inflammatory anti-immigration rhetoric and warnings of society at war have left a lasting trace on the political debate. Finally, there is a bloc on the more radical left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which is increasingly tapping into concerns about ecology and the environment.

But signs of disillusionment with politics persist, including the millions of voters who did not turn out at the ballot box. Analysis by the academics William Genieys and Said Darviche found that more than 61% of French voters chose candidates in the first round whose message was “anti-elite” – including the Le Pen and Mélenchon, and many smaller figures, who had all argued that traditional political elites were stopping equality and hampering real democracy .

Macron argued that he could unite France “in the important moments”, such as the Covid crisis. I have promised a new method of politics to take broader points of view into account. On the last day of the campaign, I promised “to find a path and the reasons to make us live as a nation united”. His political opponents of him said they would hold him to the challenge.

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