Macron’s second term will be harder – his centrism pushed opponents to extreme Left & Right

Published in The Print on April 29, 2022

President Emmanuel Macron scored a decisive victory over his Right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen last week, polling 58.5% of the national vote to win a second term. It is a tremendous political achievement for 44-year-old Macron who fought his first election in 2017, created a new political party, Le Republic En Marche (France On The Move) and has sought to enlarge the liberal-pragmatic-centrist space on the political spectrum at a time of increasing polarisation. Only two of his predecessors have won second terms, Francois Mitterand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002 and both were in politics for decades.

Born in 1977, Macron graduated in 2004 from the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA), the prestigious and highly competitive school which has trained a majority of French leaders, in politics, civil service, judiciary and business. In 2008, he left government to do a four-year stint as an investment banker with the venerable Rothschild & Co, returning to government in 2012 in President Francois Hollande’s office. In 2014, he joined the cabinet as minister for Economy and Industry only to resign two years later to embark on a political career in 2016.

Macron’s political instinct was right. Coming after the Brexit vote and a Trump victory, political populism was rising and Europe was drifting Rightwards. Macron provided the alternative – Centrist politics.

Macron’s middle ground

The European Union (EU)’s precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC) established in 1957, following the Treaty of Rome, consisted of a homogeneous group of six countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands). These six countries were also founding members of NATO which had been set up in 1949.

The 28 member EU, a result of hasty expansion during the 1990s, was a heterogeneous lot. The idea of Europe with a variable geometry, proposed as a compromise to accommodate differences, disguised political disunity, with some EU members proudly claiming to be “illiberal democracies.”

According to Macron, Europe had relied too blindly on the US for its defence and needed to take charge of its destiny, of the European project. There were growing differences between ‘new Europe’ and ‘old Europe’ that created factions within NATO, after its doubling from 14 countries in 1991 to 28 today.  

The 2008 financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis highlighted the difficulty of having a common currency among 19 different countries at varying levels of development and governance structures. This had created disenchantment with globalisation. Right wing parties were gaining ground in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and even in the Nordic states. In France too, the Right-wing Front National of Jean Marie Le Pen had been rebranded by his daughter Marine Le Pen as National Rally and its image makeover was attracting the disenchanted. The fragmentation of the Left had begun in the 1990s and now it was happening on the Right.

Macron successfully exploited this in 2017 to capture the middle ground, appearing as a pragmatic centrist, committed to the EU and the Euro, pro-globalisation and business friendly but progressive on social issues. He brought a message of confidence, reviving optimism about France, based on technology, education and innovation. It was a meteoric rise and he won a resounding victory with a 66% vote.

Rebuilding the Centre

While he redefined the Centre successfully, the opposition got pushed to the extremes, on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum. The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests in 2018 were spontaneous and not led by any political party. In some ways, it was a confused protest; it saw the capitalist state as a villain but yet wanted a bigger but benevolent state as saviour to provide more services and benefits. However, Macron’s handling reflected a lack of empathy and reinforced his image of being a technocratic, pro-rich, aloof president.

Disenchantment grew and was successfully exploited at both ends of the political spectrum, by Jean Luc Melenchon on the Left and Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour on the Right.

French elections follow a two-stage process. Unless the first round throws up a winning candidate obtaining over 50% of the vote, a run-off takes place between the top two candidates. In the first round held on April 10, Macron took the lead with 27.8% but with Le Pen and Melenchon following with 23.1% and 21.9% respectively. For the first time, the candidates on the far right and far left accounted for 58% of the vote. Traditional mainstream party candidates were routed. The centre-right candidate Valerie Pecresse, who had been part of President Chirac’s team and was later Higher Education Minister in President Sarkozy’s cabinet got 4.8% while centre-left Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2014, was reduced to 1.7%.

It was a wake-up call for Macron who had not spent time on the campaign trail, engaging more in high profile diplomacy on the Ukraine war, relying on appearing presidential. The strategy had backfired and Le Pen exploited it successfully as rising cost of living became the most important issue for nearly two-thirds of the electorate by appearing a more normal and approachable candidate. In the final stages, the run-off round became a referendum, a question of who the voters disliked more. An abstention of 28%, the highest since 1969, reflects the disenchantment of the people with the choice on offer.

The message has registered with Macron who instead of striking a jubilant note adopted a conciliatory tone in his victory speech, ‘promising to be a president for all’ and thanking those who helped defeat Le Pen. The latter was an acknowledgement of the Left vote; 41% of the Melenchon’s voters held their nose but voted for Macron just to prevent a Le Pen victory.

Macron’s challenges in his second term are greater. In 2017, his party won 314 seats in the 577 strong National Assembly but this time both Melenchon and Le Pen are calling the Assembly elections scheduled for mid-June as a ‘third round’. If Macron loses control of the Assembly, he may be forced into an uneasy co-habitation that will limit his policy options. It is the fate that befell both his predecessors, Mitterand and Chirac, in their second terms. Macron is aware that French voters can be fickle; a quick and convincing image make-over is necessary if Macron has to create history, by becoming the first president to win a second term and keep control of the Assembly.


Macron’s Re-election, A Victory With Challenges

Published in the Hindu on April 27, 2022

Last Sunday, French voters gave President Emmanuel Macron his second term and Europe heaved a collective sigh of relief. Though Mr. Macron scored a convincing victory over far-right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen, his victory margin diminished compared to the 2017 run-off, from 66% to 58.5%, while Ms. Le Pen improved her score from 34% to 41.5%, reflecting the changing character of French politics. Nevertheless, given that only two popularly elected presidents have won second terms (Francois Mitterand in 1988 and Jacques Chirac in 2002), Mr. Macron has reason to feel chuffed. European Union leaders, facing twin challenges of the Russian war in Ukraine and a tepid recovery from COVID-19, have enthusiastically welcomed Mr. Macron’s victory given Ms Le Pen overt Euroscepticism.

A changing politics

France’s two-step voting process means that in the first round, voters express their real preferences; in the second round, with the field narrowed to two, they reject the one they dislike more.

At the beginning of the campaign in February, there were a dozen candidates but by end-March, most were fizzling out. The first round, held on April 10, showed the decimation of the two traditional parties that have ruled France since the 1960s, the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialists. Republican candidate Valerie Pecresse, had been part of Mr. Chirac’s team and also Higher Education minister with Mr. Nicholas Sarkozy, managed a 4.8% vote share while Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2016, got a mere 1.7%. From the days of Socialist presidents like Mitterand and Hollande, and Republican presidents like Sarkozy, Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, this was a rout.

These two parties have been losing ground, from a collective 56% of the vote in the first round in 2012, to 27% in 2017 when Mr. Macron emerged on the scene and captured the imagination of voters as a pro-Europe, business friendly, forward looking liberal. In 2017, this enabled him to redefine the Centrist vote, successfully poaching from both the Republican and Socialist bases.

Five years later, Mr. Macron had a record to defend and counter the image of being a pro-rich, aloof and elitist president. His response to the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests lacked empathy. Ms. Le Pen capitalised on this by seeking to appear more human and approachable, a single mother and a cat lover.

A rough campaign

In the first round on April 10, Mr. Macron led with 27.8%, followed by Ms. Le Pen with 23.1% and left-wing populist Jean Luc Melenchon (France Unbowed) with a credible 21.9%. Extreme-right-wing journalist turned candidate Eric Zemmour whose presence helped Ms. Le Pen appear relatively moderate also got 7% vote. Other mainstream candidates Jean Lasalle, formerly MoDem (Democratic Movement) and Yannick Jadot (Greens) only managed 3.1% and 4.6% respectively. The fact that far-right and far-left parties accounted for 58% of the vote in the first round reflects the growing polarisation in domestic French politics. Centre-left voters switched from Ms. Hidalgo and Mr. Jadot (Greens) to Melenchon and centre-right from Ms. Pecresse to Mr. Macron.

The slow rightward drift in French politics has sharpened since the terrorist attacks in 2015 and the consequent debates on identity and laicite (French version of secularism) emerged as key themes in the early weeks till the Ukraine war and rising cost of living assumed priority.

Mr. Zemmour’s campaign exploited the ‘great replacement’ theory, (originally propounded by Renault Camus) – that non-white, non-Christian and non-French are gradually replacing white Christian French population. Mr. Zemmour grew his base by asking young French people if they were willing to live as a minority in the land of their ancestors. Ms. Le Pen, conscious of the need to retain her base lest they drifted to Zemmour, promised a ban on the hijab (headscarf) and a constitutional amendment that would distinguish between “native born French” and “others” for access to education, housing and other social benefits and restricting citizenship to only those who have “earned it and fully assimilated.”

Mr. Macron was late to join the campaign, thinking that he could ensure support by appearing presidential, involved with geopolitics of war in Ukraine. Since December when tensions began rising, he has had nearly two dozen telephone conversations with President Vladimir Putin, visited Moscow and Kyiv and had multiple exchanges with NATO and EU leaders. He filed his candidature on March 3, a day before the deadline and spent little time on the campaign trail before the first round. His poll ratings slipped from 30% in early March by five points leading to a strategy shift.

It is only in April that Mr. Macron realised that the “progressive liberal centrist” platform that had delivered victory in 2017 was no longer working. The field was dominated either by a utopian extremism of the Left or a nationalist extremism bordering on racism on the Right. Mr. Macron began to talk about building a ‘dam’ to preserve the Centre. To shift the debate from ‘identity’, he promised full employment in five years, tax cuts for households and small businesses and softened his stand on raising the retirement age from 62 years to 65, spreading it over a nine-year timeframe.

For the second round, the debate turned personal. Mr. Macron highlighted Ms. Le Pen’s ties with Mr. Putin, describing him as her ‘banker’, called her a ‘climate sceptic’, blamed her policy as ‘spelling the end of the EU’ and made the election a ‘referendum on secularism and Europe’. Ms. Le Pen blamed him for ignoring the rising cost of food and fuel and declining pensions, sought a ‘Europe of nations’ rather than an EU, called him ‘a climate hypocrite’, and the election a referendum on “Macron or France’.

The obstacles, from June

Having secured his second term, Mr. Macron urgently needs to douse the flames of polarisation. The 72% turnout on Sunday is the lowest in a presidential run-off since 1969. In addition, of the 34.5 million votes cast, the three million blanks or spoilt ballots reflect disenchantment with both candidates. Mr. Melenchon has declared that Macron’s presidency ‘is floating in a sea of abstentions and blank or null ballots’. Over a third of the voters didn’t vote for Mr. Macron and many left-leaning voters only did so because they hated the far-right Ms. Le Pen more.

National Assembly elections are due in June and if the Left take the Assembly, Melenchon could become prime minister; a prospect of co-habitation that ensures policy gridlock. In such a scenario, polarisation will only increase and Mr. Macron’s centrist experiment would be a short-lived reprieve from the rightward shift.

That is why at his victory speech at the foot of the Eiffel tower, Mr. Macron struck a conciliatory note, thanking those who helped defeat Ms. Le Pen and “promising to be a president for all.”

Relief in Europe, India

Such was the concern in Europe about the election that in an unprecedented move, Portugese and Spanish Prime Ministers Antonio Costa and Pedro Sanchez and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz co-authored an op-ed in Le Monde on April 21, urging French voters to reject Ms. Le Pen. The congratulatory messages pouring in from western capitals reflect relief as a Le Pen victory would have severely damaged western unity, at a critical moment in Europe.

India too has reason to be happy with Mr. Macron’s victory. India and France have enjoyed a solid strategic partnership, established in 1998 that has expanded to cover cooperation in defence, nuclear and space sectors, climate issues and renewables, cyber security and counter-terrorism. French presence in the Indo-Pacific has prodded the EU too to shift towards an Indo-Pacific strategy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be traveling to Germany and Denmark on a bilateral visit in the first week of May. It provides a welcome opportunity to spend a day in Paris to congratulate Mr. Macron and impart new momentum to the relationship.


The Challenge Ahead For Terror-Hit France

Published in the Hindustan Times on 1st November, 2020

France has faced its own share of terrorist attacks, including from among its own radicalised Muslims. The latest cycle, which has left the country in shock, began with the beheading of Samuel Paty, a school teacher on 16 October killed by an 18 year old Chechen refugee who was enraged because Paty had shown caricatures of Prophet Mohammed during his lecture on “free speech” to the students, after advising them that those offended could leave. This was followed by a fatal stabbing of three, in a church in Nice by a 21 year old recently arrived Tunisian migrant on 29 October.

Global reactions
President Emmanuel Macron’s statement at Paty’s memorial service describing him as a symbol of “freedom and reason” and vowing that French freedom of expression means that “we will not give up our cartoons” has provoked angry reactions from Muslims in other countries, fuelled by incendiary responses from Turkish President Erdogan, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Malaysian leader Mahathir bin Mohamed.

Erdogan said that “Macron needs a mental health check” followed by calling for a boycott of French goods leading France to recall its ambassador in protest. Behind his animus are growing differences on Turkish military interventions in Libya, in eastern Mediterranean against Greece and in supporting Azerbaijan against Armenia.

If France sees itself as the torchbearer for democratic, liberal and secular values, Turkey under Erdogan (who has been in power since 2003 and ensured his continuation till 2028 through constitutional manipulations) has reversed the Ataturk reforms of the 1930s to reclaim its Islamic identity and role in a neo-Ottoman avatar.

Imran Khan, facing domestic political unrest, issued a series to tweets blaming Macron for “encouraging Islamophobia” and “hurting the sentiments and provoking millions of Muslims”. Parliament passed resolutions seeking recall of its ambassador from Paris before realising that there was none as the new appointee hadn’t joined.

Mahathir Mohamed’s tweet that Muslims have the right “to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past” was taken down by Twitter for being offensive. Ironically, none of them has uttered a word about incarceration of a million Uighur Muslims by China.

Other European countries demonstrated solidarity. Germany, UK, Italy and the Netherlands issued strong statements of support and condemned terrorist acts. In Delhi, the Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement “deploring the personal attacks” on Macron while condemning the “brutal terrorist attack” on Paty. In a subsequent tweet, PM Modi condemned the terrorist act conveying solidarity with France, even as Foreign Secretary Shringla was in Paris yesterday for talks where the radicalisation of Muslim communities would have been discussed.

Macron’s challenge
Secularism or laicite, separating ‘religion’ and ‘state’ was legalised in France in 1905. A 2004 law prohibits the ostentatious display of “conspicuous religious symbols” in public institutions. While it alienated sections of Muslims by prohibiting the ‘hijab’, it applied equally to Catholics wearing a large cross or Jews wearing the yarmulke (skull-cap). Faith was restricted to the privacy of the home in order to promote civic nationalism, in keeping with the sense of French exceptionalism.

France is home to 6 million Muslims, the largest concentration in Europe. It has been aware of growing radicalisation in certain sections of the community. Earlier this month, in a long-awaited speech on 2 October, Macron cautioned about the risks of ‘Islamic separatism’ leading to a ‘counter-society’ and said that new legislation would be introduced to prevent it. This would include measures to improve prospects for socio-economic mobility as well as tighter controls on financing and instruction in mosques and madrassahs as well as monitoring cultural and sports organisations. The suggestion that Islam was ‘in crisis’ and needed its own ‘enlightenment’ elicited a mixed response within France but little comment outside.

The challenge for France is not easy. The idea that education, hard work and following French laws and customs led to upward mobility has been challenged in recent years and Covid-19 has only highlighted it. A recent opinion poll among Muslims in France revealed that while an encouraging 60 percent believed that ‘freedom of expression’ should include satire, the same poll also indicated that over 75 percent were unwilling to include caricatures of Prophet Muhammed as acceptable satire. This is the gap that Marine Le Pen, Macron’s most likely opponent in the 2022 election, will exploit with her populist, nationalist and anti-EU platform. This is also the gap that Macron needs to bridge with his proposed legislative initiative.