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.


AUKUS Alliance – How (Not) to Win Friends

Published in Hindustan Times on September 25, 2021

Last week witnessed the aukward birth of a new security alliance – AUKUS –  bringing together Australia, United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), coupled with a deal involving US and UK building eight nuclear attack submarines for Australia. The announcement was guaranteed to create waves in the Indo-Pacific but the fall out of Australia cancelling the five-year old deal with France for a dozen diesel powered attack submarines created bigger waves across the Atlantic.

The objective of AUKUS is “to deal with rapidly evolving threats” and it envisages closer intelligence sharing and cooperation in areas of AI, cyber warfare and quantum computing. The three are already part of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network, together with Canada and New Zealand. Up to this point, it would have been seen as an attempt to shore up an Anglo-Saxon grouping in the Indo-Pacific, attracting dismissive commentary from Beijing and mild speculation about how AUKUS would engage with the Quad. It is the abrupt cancelling of the submarine deal that has shocked and angered France.

There is more than just the Euros 31 billion at stake. Both Australia and France saw it then as a long-term investment and recognition of shared interests in the region. It is true that there was some unhappiness about growing costs and time delays. The hard fact is that in last five years Australia’s threat perceptions about China have radically changed. Relations have nosedived with Australia curbing Chinese influence activities and cutting out Huawei and China has retaliated with significant sanctions on Australian imports.

Yet the reason that France reacted angrily and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described it “a stab in the back” is because Prime Minister Scott Morrison had visited Paris in June. The outcome was a highly publicised Vision Statement, a long-term strategy for enhancing partnership through the Australia-France Initiative (AFiniti). It was followed by the inaugural session of the 2+2 Strategic Dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers on 29-30 August. For Le-Drian, it was a blow because he had negotiated and concluded the deal in 2016 as Defence Minister during the Hollande period.

In 2015, Australia had specifically sought diesel-electric boats. France outbid competition from Germany and Japan with the Barracuda nuclear attack submarine, modified into a conventionally powered Shortfin Barracuda Block 1A design. An unwritten understanding was that if the nuclear-power option was to be explored, it would be available. Former Australian PM Tony Abbott has been urging a switch since 2017. In 2016, Australia concluded that US would not share nuclear propulsion technology. USA has shared it only with UK but that relationship is different as the US even supplies UK the Trident SLBMs.

In a biting comment about the US, Le Drian complained that “this brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision looks very much like what Mr Trump used to do, Allies don’t do this to each other, it’s rather insufferable”. France has recalled its ambassadors from US and Australia for ‘consultations’ to convey its displeasure. Asked about UK, he dismissively said that it was just “the third wheel” and UK’s “opportunism had been a characteristic trait”.

The reactions in the region have been along predictable lines. China has called it “irresponsible” and warned that it can “exacerbate an arms race”. Japan and Taiwan have welcomed the submarine deal while South Korea has been muted. Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced concerns.

With the Quad summit taking place in Washington, Foreign Secretary Shringla distanced the Quad – “a plurilateral grouping of four countries that have a shared vision of their attributes and values” from AUKUS – “a security alliance between three countries”, adding that “from our perspective, it is neither relevant to the Quad nor will it have any impact on its functioning”.

Following a telephone conversation between Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, both sides have tried to put a lid on the issue; both leaders will meet next month and the French ambassador will return to Washington. However, the French will recalibrate its ties with the Anglosphere. Unlike UK, France has always seen itself as an independent global player and preferred greater autonomy while being pragmatic about the US lead. This attribute has been a key factor underlying its close strategic partnership with India that dates back to 1998.

India’s nuclear submarine programme (ATV) began in the 1980s but progress has been slow. That is why India has been leasing Russian nuclear attack submarines (INS Chakra I and II) since the 1980s and Chakra III is due in 2025. India’s programme switched after 1998 to the ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) class with Arihant deployed, and Arighat now on trials. It will move in tandem with development of longer range SLBMs, K-5 and K-6 with 5000 kms and 6000 kms range respectively.

The shortfall is in achieving the target of 24 submarines, 18 diesel-electric and six nuclear-powered, originally set out in 1999. Six conventional boats are being built under Project 75; six more conventional vessels were cleared by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) earlier this this year under Project 75 I with deployments scheduled for 2030s.

The Navy has agreed to give up the third aircraft carrier in order to fast-track the six nuclear attack submarines project. Now that US has breached the taboo regarding nuclear propulsion and cleared the way, the time has come for India and France to set a new milestone for strengthening their strategic partnership. As French strategist Bruno Tertrais explained, “Trump didn’t care about allies; Biden does, but perhaps not all of them equally”.


Why France Is A Reliable Strategic Partner For India

Published in Hindustan Times on 20th January, 2020

Since the end of the Cold War, India has signed ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreements with more than thirty-five countries. Among the earliest was the one with France, signed in January 1998, during President Jacques Chirac’s visit to India. Last week, the strength of this partnership was in evidence at the UN Security Council when China sought to raise the subject of Kashmir in an informal, closed door session, originally convened to discuss the situation in Mali. France, supported by Russia and the US and other non-permanent members, led the move to block the Chinese initiative.

Roots of ‘strategic convergence’
India and France share a common trait of civilisational exceptionalism and after the Cold War ended, both countries were quick to espouse the virtues of multipolarity. French discomfort with a unipolar system was clear when French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine described USA as a hyperpuissance. Visualising the changing geopolitics with focus shirting from Euro-Atlantic to Asia-Pacific, France decided on India as its preferred partner in the Indian Ocean. Even before India’s nuclear tests in 1998, France declared that India’s exclusion from the global nuclear order was an anomaly that needed to be rectified. After the nuclear tests, France displayed an instinctual understanding of India’s security compulsions.

The strategic dialogue begun in 1998 has grown over the years to cover nuclear, space, defence, cyber security, intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism cooperation. Bilateral military exercises between the three Services, beginning with the navies in 2001, followed by the air forces in 2004 and the armies in 2011, have now became a regular feature. Cooperation in the space domain began in the 1960s with French assistance to set up the Indian launch facility at Sriharikota but languished in later years because of export controls. The dialogue helped restart this cooperation and ISRO and CNES now work on joint missions. After the US cut off nuclear fuel supplies for Tarapur in 1984, France became the fuel supplier. Following the Nuclear Suppliers Group waiver in 2008, India and France signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement providing the framework for building the French EPR reactors in India.

Theatrics in the UNSC

Regarding Kashmir, France maintains that it is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and therefore does not merit discussion in the UN fora. China had first raised Kashmir at Pakistan’s behest in August, shortly after Article 370 was abrogated and the state of Jammu and Kashmir divided into two union territories. On 16th August last year, the UN Security Council held an informal closed-door session, the first time Kashmir had appeared on the agenda of the UNSC after 1965. India’s stand that the developments in Kashmir were an internal matter received considerable support. An attempt was made again by China in December to take up the issue but finessed by France and other countries.

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had addressed a fresh letter on Kashmir to the UNSC in January and this time China decided to introduce it into a previously scheduled meeting (convened to discuss the situation in Mali) under the agenda provision of ‘Any Other Items’. French
lead was quickly endorsed by the other permanent and a number of non- permanent members bringing the meeting to a closure. On that day, Foreign Minister Qureshi was in New York calling on the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The Chinese action coming after the informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held in Mamallapuram in October makes it clear that China remains insensitive to India’s core concerns. The announcements on ‘strategic communications’, that differences do not become disputes and the plans of holding 70 major events in the two countries to mark 70 years of establishment of diplomatic relations are unlikely to put a gloss on growing differences over CPEC, BRI, Indo-Pacific, China’s veto on India’s membership of the NSG and attempts to block the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

Establishing a comfort level
A close strategic partnership with Russia was forged during the height of the Cold War and it has stood the test of time. Yet there are occasional murmurs in Moscow about India’s growing proximity to the US, particularly in the Quad (a grouping of Australia, Japan, US and India) which Foreign Minister Lavrov described as a ‘divisive concept’ last week at the Raisina Dialogue in Delhi. Delhi too has been blindsided by Russia’s new engagement with the Taliban and by extension, Pakistan.

The strategic partnership with the US is more recent but has developed strong roots with more than 50 bilateral dialogues covering all aspects of bilateral relations. Beginning from scratch just a decade ago, US has also emerged as a key defence supplier. Yet, it is clear that US has its own
interests in the region when it comes to Pakistan, Iran and its negotiations with Taliban.

The test for a strategic partnership is not that there must be convergence on all issues; the test is that where there are differences, these are expressed in private and not publicly. This is where the India-France strategic partnership, nurtured over two decades, demonstrates its resilience.