On Thursday, a message from Barack Obama appeared on Emmnauel Macron’s campaign website. The former US president anointed the favourite to win the French Presidency and his embryonic En Marche platform as the European standard bearer of progressive modernity.
This will go down well with Obamaphile college graduates, perhaps Emmanuel Macron’s biggest support base. It is no surprise that a sizeable French state and the centralised nature of the country have produced such a powerful urban, secular, multicultural group. French nationalism has lost its allure. These Gallic world citizens see French influence not only projected through the EU but through the engines of globalisation, from the UN to corporate capitalism.
Macron has been packaged as a dynamic symbol of radical change. But he is a depressingly typical example of the type of figure thrown up by continental democratic systems which run into trouble. He is a hybrid figure promoted by a bankrupt left-wing administration who has been put to the task of absorbing the centre and the moderate right in a new governing formula.
‘Transformism’ is the term for this conjuring trick. It originated in Italian politics after unification in 1870. The aim was to prevent deep internal problems, ones that the conventional politicians had no intention of tacking, from overwhelming the ruling order. Co-opting the opposition and neutralising former rivals with favours was the method used. It led eventually to Mussolini and fascism and when tried out again in the Italian Second republic, a meltdown of the parties resulted in the 1990s at the end of the Cold War.
France was dominated by cartels of parties and fleet-footed political insiders for nearly a century until in 1958 de Gaulle imposed a semi-presidential Fifth Republic. But it was France’s socialists who moulded contemporary France. From François Mitterand to François Hollande their achievements have been meagre. French competitiveness and its proportion of global trade have sharply declined. The education system is a shambles, particularly at secondary school and university level. The country is now the scene of Europe’s worst terrorist insurgency.
But these policy failures don’t matter probably in the eyes of most career Socialists. What counts is that they inserted their people right across the French power structure: the bureaucracy, justice system, technocratic establishments, the much-changed decentralised system of government have been moulded to suit the urban, secular, and multi-cultural priorities of the French Left. Much patronage has come the way of the party through its hold over the French State.
In relation to devolution, Tony Blair was an amateur compared to the way that the Socialists altered the shape of French government. Ultimate control by Paris remains unbroken but a lot of intermediate tiers soak up money. Just one reason why the proportion of GDP spent by the state in France is 57 per cent compared to 43 per cent in Germany.
France has already seen a form of interventionist rule by a kind of Gallic Common Purpose in which ambitious media owners, civil servants, political fixers, and academics promote a globalist left-wing agenda. In Britain, rule-making by a similar paternalist oligarchy was nipped in the bud by hostility from the burgeoning online media. But in France, the media has often been a willing tool of those in power who are willing to reward collaborators with franchises and sinecures.
Now 73, Jacques Attali, who was a close adviser to President Mitterand from 1981 to 1991, is a counsellor to Macron. In Britain it is hard to imagine such a figure remaining active in public life after recurring controversies, one of which led to his departure as head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But this social theorist, senior civil servant, musician and homme d’affaires has remained influential in nearly all political seasons.
The fact that Attali was an adviser to the centre-right President Nicolas Sarkozy sheds light on why a possessive but ineffective Left remains at the centre of power. French conservatives around de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic. But they had no philosophy for governing on a moderate, sensible basis with which they could shape, or even merely influence, the institutions that the socialists have bent to their will. Arguably, it was no different in Britain. Thatcher’s Conservatives had an economic project but no idea of the importance of promoting balance and pluralism in the universities and the justice system and the media where one political point of view increasingly prevails.
François Fillon, the Republican party candidate, did have the makings of a conservative manifesto for France. But he was taken out in a skilful operation involving bureaucrats and media allies of the Socialists. He now faces a possible trial on the kind of corruption charges that a large part of the political class would probably also face if similar investigations were pursued with equivalent ruthlessness.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, is the standard-bearer of those who feel excluded by Paris-centred insider rule. She has massive working-class support and does well among men, those aged 35 to 65, the unemployed, farmers and those living in the countryside or in small towns. She is feisty, very much in control of the party founded by her father whom she expelled because of anti-Semitism, and appears a stable personality.
But she has no detailed policy agenda for managing France. This becomes clear when she is tackled on the economy where it seems she would use the centralised machinery of the State to help her supporters. On dumping the euro and withdrawing from the European Union, she can offer no specifics and descends into platitudes when cornered on these issues. Macron is agile enough to laugh off barbs from her, such as the one thrown at him in their television duel on 3 May when she said: ‘no matter who wins the election, France would have its first female president — either Le Pen or Merkel’.
Many more young people who feel ill used and unwanted by those in charge of official France could have gone over to Le Pen if she had unfurled a programme for governing. It would have had to receive room alongside her plans to ally with Russia and Assad in Syria, disengage from NATO, and pursue a Eurosceptic course (which now has been much watered down). She will still, of course, get plenty of youth votes mainly due to Islamist perspectives openly on display in the centre of French cities and suburbs a as well as owing to disenchantment with the Philistine and hedonistic public values of the current elite.
If Le Pen reached the Elysee, I don’t think the sky would fall in. Initially, there would be plenty of disorder (not all of it coming from Islamists) but the police and security services (where support for the FN is strong) would likely obey a leader who gave them coherent orders to improve law and order. On the economic front, she would have major difficulties and would have to show ingenuity and resolve, which so far hasn’t been on display.
But the same applies to Macron, the likely winner. He was a minister dealing with economic issues for a large part of the Hollande presidency and he cannot escape responsibility for the economic malaise the country finds itself in.
He is likely to pursue image building in the style of Obama and Justin Trudeau in the name of a globalist agenda. He will view greater EU integration as vital for maintaining France and the EU’s global status. He is unlikely to be troubled by Germany’s insistence on a currency policy that gives it the lowest unemployment rate in Europe but wreaks misery in Mediterranean Europe, including southern France.
Aided by spin doctors and a sympathetic media, Macron has shown grit on the campaign trail. His likely next task will be to manufacture a majority in the 577-seat French National Assembly, at the June parliamentary elections, based on loyalty to him and a suspension of partisan enmities. The new pro-Macron front is likely to encapsulate many of the chief defects of the despised political order with few positive new features.
President Macron will be tough against his rivals further to the right who refuse to play his political game. He will not be a force for compromise in relations with Britain or Trump’s America. Protectionist, nationally-minded France will be further dismantled under him. So will a secular republican France as Muslims are discreetly given social and religious autonomy in the hope of peace on the streets. Macron is the 21st century man on horseback facing into a storm he is supremely ill-suited to subdue.
Tom Gallagher is completing a novel entitled ‘England – to be continued’. An earlier book, ‘Scotland : A Warning to the World’ was published in 2016.
(Image: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay)