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Macron, the failed Machiavelli Will the President's attempt to split the Right win him the next election?

There's a lot to worry about lads. Photo by Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images

There's a lot to worry about lads. Photo by Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images


May 17, 2021   6 mins

There’s a word much bandied about at the moment by the French to describe the aggression which has seized their country’s politics: La zizanie. Dictionaries translate it as as “mischief”, “discord” or “dissension”. It is used in the Asterix comics whenever the indomitable Gaullish village erupts (yet again) into a brawl and everyone starts bashing everyone else. Just as in Asterix, so now in real life.

The current outbreak of political zizanie in France may seem obvious. There is, after all, a presidential election 11 months away. But that, in itself, cannot explain the degree of hysteria and personal hatred — between political opponents but also between supposed allies — which has enlivened and disfigured French politics in the last three weeks.

Right at the heart of the current political turbulence is President Macron, who generates an exaggerated, blind fury among his opponents on Left and Right — largely undeservedly. He can be deeply annoying, this is true. And his record is patchy. Mostly, though, he is still paying the price for being a successful upstart and a centrist from outside traditional, political structures.

In the present zizanie (which shows no signs of abating), Macron has been both victim and a would-be aggressor. He is the intended victim of a campaign of poison-pen letter-writing by a group of retired and serving military officers who allege that France is on the verge of “disintegration” and “civil war”. They should be taken seriously for what they are: a Trump-like campaign by people close to the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to semer la zizanie or sow discord. But they should be taken less seriously for what they describe: a dystopian and vastly exaggerated picture of France’s genuine problems with radical Islam and other forms of violence.

They may succeed — or they may blow up in Le Pen’s face.

Much less has been written abroad about recent attempts by Macron himself to semer la zizanie among the French centre-right — the political descendants of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Macron’s attempts to carve off another chunk of the French centre-right probably says more about the future of French politics than the generals’ letters.

To bolster his chances of winning again next April and May, Macron would like to split Les Républicains, the troubled centre-right party which has already been leaking members: both of his Prime Ministers, Edouard Phillippe, 2017-2020, and Jean Castex 2020-21, and several of his most senior ministers are refugees from the centre-right.

Les RĂ©publicains are divided and further sub-divided, often in mysterious ways, by personal animosities, jealousies and ideological differences. Broadly-speaking, one wing of the party is economically liberal, pragmatic, European-minded and compatible with Macronism. Another is nationalist-authoritarian, hates Macron’s guts and plays footsie with Marine Le Pen. There are other people in the party, both leaders and the led, who feel uncomfortable with both camps.

This split — and the lack of credible leaders — is making it hard for the party to find a presidential candidate for next year. By pushing the two sides further apart Macron hopes to colonise even more of the centre-right vote than he managed in 2017. Even ex-President Sarkozy argues (privately) that part of his old party should embrace Macron in next year’s election. He believes that the pragmatic non-Leppenist-leaning section of the party can only become a force in the land again if it merges with, and eventually swallows, Macronism.

So Macron seized an opportunity presented by two-round regional elections at the end of next month to generate zizanie within Les RĂ©publicains. The elections are for 13 French regions and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National can potentially capture at least one for the first time. Macron’s five-years-old centrist party La RĂ©publique en Marche (LREM) has no chance of winning in any region, the top-down party having failed to build local support and with no popular local leaders. It does, however, have enough strength — around 11% in most regions — to help decide the outcome of the 2nd round of the regional elections on the 27 June.

Macron’s people erected — or so they thought — a de facto alliance in the Nice-Marseille region (Provence-Alpe Cote d’Azur or “PACA”) between Macron’s LREM and the incumbent, centre-right regional president, Renaud Muselier. This alliance was supposed to take the form of a joint list of candidates in the first round of the regional election, including  centre-right politicians and leading figures in Macron’s LREM, including a junior minister.

The justification for the deal was simple — and a relatively normal procedure in French politics — to prevent Rassemblement National from coming first in the first round and making it harder for them to capture the region, home to 5,000,000 people, in the second. Cue an explosion of uncontrolled anger within Les RĂ©publicains, with the national leadership saying that this was not just a normal electoral manoeuvre or procedure but an attempt by Macron to destroy their party — correctly.

Muselier, 62, told a friend that in 28 years in national and regional politics he had “never seen such violent insults and accusations” as he faced within his own camp. Eric Ciotti, a member of parliament for Alpes-Maririmes (the Nice-Cannes area) accused Muselier of “stabbing his party in the back”. Asked about Ciotti — a rent-a-quote populist, whose comments are often indistinguishable from those of Le Pen — Muselier said: “I prefer to deal with honest people, people with a real vision.”

The French investigative newspaper, Le Canard EnchainĂ©,  adores and encourages all forms of political zizanie. It  revealed that Ciotti, the man shrieking against alliance with Macron’s party, had made a secret non-aggression pact with Rassemblement National in 2017 to ensure his re-election in Alpes-Maritimes.

Ciotti and other ferociously anti-Macron centre-right politicians in the Provence region are also accused of maintaining private close links with Thierry Mariani, the Lepennist candidate for regional president. Mariani, also 62, is a former centre-right politician and was transport minister under  Sarkozy.

“Ciotti and others are appalling hypocrites,” a Les RĂ©publicains insider told me. “They act like dealing with Macron’s people is like playing cards with the devil but they are closely aligned with and have many contacts with Le Pen’s party.”

Yet is there a difference between dealing with Macron and dealing with Le Pen? Both would like to destroy Les RĂ©publicains, after all. “There is something about Macron and his people which sends some of our people crazy, and not just those on the right-wing of the party,”  the insider said. “There is a smugness about Macron and his people, a we-are-always-rightness about them. Others have not swallowed the humiliation of Macron’s victory in 2017. There is also a section of opinion in Les RĂ©publicains whose thought-patterns are little different from Lepennism — Islamophobic, Eurosceptic, authoritarian.”

Macron’s great mistake, he said, was to make his attempted pact with Muselier so transparently a pre-presidential election manoeuvre. It should have been presented as something purely local to the PACA region — an alliance to keep out the far right.

The RĂ©publicains’ national leadership withdrew official support for Muselier’s campaign, threatening to kick him out of the party. He backed down, and said he had never made any alliance with Macron’s LREM.

As a result, two senior Macron-friendly local leaders — the influential mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, and mayor of Toulon, Hubert Falco — resigned from the RĂ©publicains, with Estrosi saying that he planned to build a “wide” new party of the centre and centre-right (presumably with Macron).

And then things became confusing. Macron was originally left looking like a failed Machiavelli because his PACA alliance with the centre-right had fallen apart. Within a couple of days, Musellier announced that his list of candidates would embrace one in four from Macron’s LREM party but no senior Macroniste figures from Paris.

So there had been an an alliance, of kinds, after all. Who had won now?

Le Pen’s position in the PACA regional election may well have been strengthened by all, the Macroniste-RĂ©publicains deal justifying her old mantra: “All the other parties are just one party. We are the only opposition.”

Her man Mariani (a fan of Vladimir Putin and apologist for the Syrian regime) leads in the first round of the Provence region, according to polls — a lead which has widened since the squabble began. On the other hand, Muselier has also proved a resilient and wily politician, and may yet attract enough support in round two to hold on to the regional presidency.

The undisputed losers are Les RĂ©publicains, who have lost two important southern chieftains and appear more split than ever between the Macron-detesting and the Macron-compatible. In the medium term that should, despite his initial embarrassment, be good news for the President of the Republic.

More gyrations, and zizanies, are to come. Two centre-right chieftains from other regions — Xavier Bertrand in the industrial north west and ValĂ©rie PĂ©cresse in the greater Paris area — hope to do so well in their own regional elections next month that they emerge as the chief rival to Macron and Le Pen. Both walked out of the RĂ©publicains party during previous zizanies. Should the party endorse one or the other? How should party members decide? And which should they choose?

The broad Left, in the meantime, is engaged in a noisy zizanie of its own. The Green Euro MP Yannick Jadot, ephemeral presidential candidate in 2017, is pushing, sensibly enough, for a single candidate of the Left. For this he has been viciously attacked by the hard-left Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon and accused by other Green politicians of trying to steal a march on their party primary in September.

What does this all mean for the likely outcome of the two round presidential election next April and May? Macron remains steady in the polls at around 40% approval — a high figure for an incumbent French president in recent times, although that support may be soft. His hopes depend on continued ebbing of the Covid pandemic and success of a much-improved French vaccination programme.

If Les RĂ©publicains continue to fight one another, if no credible “traditional right” candidate emerges, Macron may well feast on centre-right votes next Spring.  But so would Marine Le Pen. That is the great weakness, or great gamble, in Macron’s strategy of divide-and-conquer. He may capture part of the centre-right vote next year. Much of the rest may emigrate to Le Pen.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

‘Mostly, though, he is still paying the price for being a successful upstart and a centrist from outside traditional, political structures.’
Macron is an Ă©narque who worked for the Rothschilds, was previously a minister in the Hollande govt, loves the EU, and is using the threat of climate change to destroy the lives of normal people . As such, he is the embodiment of the establishment and the traditional structures and was put there as such.
Meanwhile I have no doubt that John sneaks a dig at Trump even into this shopping lists. And, as always, there is the complete lack of concern for those killed by Islamists and criminals – 11 policemen/women were killed last year in France.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Macron is an Ă©narque

Yes, he came from outside of Paris and made it through Grand Ecoles because he is smart and hard worker . Should France (or UK, Germany, USA) let the village drunk run the country?

worked for the Rothschilds,

Despite the historical connotation (what are you hinting ?) the bank is tiny and while reputable his frankly unimportant. JPMorgan, Goldman, BNP, SoGen etc. are all bigger and more important.

loves the EU,

Plenty of people do, the French people had the chance to vote for LePen – only 33% did. The Dutch just had the chance to vote for the populist and only c.20% did. Despite your “magnificent’ mental gymnastics people don’t seem willing to give power to the populists. And there is a good reason for that – LePen couldn’t answer basic questions about EU or economic policies during the presidential debate. AfD is tearing itself apart.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jeremy Smith
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

You seem to be suggesting that I am anti-semitic, when in actual fact I consider Jews to be the most useful people on the planet. I was merely pointing out that he made a lot of money for a bank of some kind, and I named that bank.
As for whether or not the village drunk should be put in charge of the countries you list, I don’t see how they could done a worse job than those who have been in charge for some decades now.

Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I attended Sciences Po Paris and I can confidently say that it is one of the most overrated elite schools in the world. Its main strength is its extensive carnet d’adresse composed of influential and well-connected people in France and abroad.
As for the French loving the EU, the only time they were asked on the matter 15 years ago, they voted against the European constitution.
The only reason Macron appears to be smart is because of the abysmal intellectual quality of the opposition. People like François Boulo on the left and Marion Marechal on the right would tear him apart.

John Lewis
John Lewis
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Be fair now. He did mention the problem with radical Islam.

Vastly exaggerated was his term of choice.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 years ago

“In the present zizanie (which shows no signs of abating), Macron has been both victim and a would-be aggressor. He is the intended victim of a campaign of poison-pen letter-writing by a group of retired and serving military officers who allege that France is on the verge of “disintegration” and “civil war”. They should be taken seriously for what they are: a Trump-like campaign by people close to the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to semer la zizanie or sow discord. But they should be taken less seriously for what they describe: a dystopian and vastly exaggerated picture of France’s genuine problems with radical Islam and other forms of violence.”

Conveniently forgetting to add that about 60% of French citizens agree with at least some of the sentiments set out in those letters. Might that have been relevant information here?

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago

Imagine underplaying the very real abd recognised threats facing France because shock horror those whose duty it is to protect France have called it out. The establishment truly is evil

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

Put aside the dealing between French politicians LePen has the same problem as before. While many French (the True French!) agree with her on immigration and Islam they also have reasonable questions about her policies on economy and EU/EZ. Although she has abandoned per previously policy of leaving EU/EZ (because it is not popular – yes, it is not!) she has (as far as I can tell) not been able to articulate a vision about France in/on EU. The reality is that France can not run away from geography, its economy is fully integrated in EU. From Airbus to electrification to semiconductor policy France can not do it on its own. It needs EU and its market.
France (Europe) need a pan-european answer to immigration and Islam.

Johnny Rottenborough
Johnny Rottenborough
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith—While many French (the True French!) agree with her on immigration and Islam they also have reasonable questions about her policies on economy and EU/EZ
Unless the True French stand up to immigration and Islam they will become a powerless minority in a Muslim country. Everything else, including economic policy and the EU, is of secondary importance. The same applies to every other (formerly) white Christian nation.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Exactly. You can reverse disastrous economic, foreign, industrial or environmental policies etc, but you cannot reverse demographics once they reach a certain point. Sadly, we are probably now beyond that point in western Europe and the Islamization is inevitable.

Johnny Rottenborough
Johnny Rottenborough
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Fraser Bailey—Having reached this stage of Islamization, and with voters in Western Europe still blindly supporting the mainstream parties which engineered it, a coup followed by a dictatorship seems the only way out. Needless to say, I hope I am wrong.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I used to think that. To lapse into the vernacular I thought Europe had lost its ‘bottle’.

However the recent Balkan Wars revealed that there is still an enormous reservoir of barbarism and ferocity that Europe an call upon to “repel boarders”.

Perhaps ‘we’ effete Western Europeans should recruit an Eastern European mercenary force to rid us of this pressing dilemma?

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Jake C
Jake C
3 years ago

Makes you wonder why Western Europeans were essentially on the side of Islamists in that conflict.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jake C

Pressure from the US to appear even handed!
Impress the KSA fo example that it is not always anti Muslim.

(Only when it comes to Israel.)

Looney Leftie
Looney Leftie
3 years ago

I’m not sure if comparing Macrons rating with that of Hollandes is much of a positive. I also don’t think Le Pens party is as far right as it used to be. Although her fathers ghost still looms large, Marine has managed to rid the party of quite a lot of the loons. In my opinion, Macrons splitting of the centre right party is very dangerous ground for him, I believe Le Pen will benefit the most from this split. Time will tell.

Last edited 3 years ago by Looney Leftie
Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Looney Leftie

Le Pen has always been leftish economically. But we now live in a world where to be a left-liberal is to support the Tech giants, other large corporations and the Military Industrial Complex (at least in the US), and to be on the right is to oppose the insane forever wars, and to stand up to tyrannies like China. It is very telling that Lichfield always attacks the peacenik Trump who merely wanted to bring jobs back to the American working classes, which is what Le Pen wants to to.

Looney Leftie
Looney Leftie
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I also think the whole spectrum of politics has moved to the left. Johnson is doing a great job as a Lib Dem PM! It also seems anyone who is generally right wing is branded ‘far right’, not saying Le Pens party wasn’t ‘far right’ (as I state above) to begin with, but not so sure it is now.

Last edited 3 years ago by Looney Leftie
Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I know US very well and it was the Left that opposed (historically) corporate power and the Right that was comfortable with it, Only now have the Republicans discovered (they are the stupid party after all) that Big Tech is monopolistic, crashes competition and free speech.
P.S. I am still waiting for Trump to release his taxes.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

What the same Trump who ordered air strikes on Syria because the rebels blamed a chemical attack they perpetrated on the Assad regime

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
3 years ago
Reply to  Jim Jones

Yes a ‘token gesture’ and Mr Assad’s chaps were warned in advance, so no harm done, I gather.

Last edited 3 years ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
3 years ago

This is the SECOND article today that suffers from poor editing (too many chieftains and not enough Indians ?). Do authors really not bother reading back what they have written, it strikes me as incredibly sloppy and undermines what might otherwise be good and informative opinion pieces.

Last edited 3 years ago by Tom Lewis
G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

I hate to say so, but I agree.

Usually read most of these things when I wake up so put often it down to just being fuggy.

Full of interesting stuff, but this piece seriously needed someone to tighten it up a wee bit.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

To be fair to Macron he does sometimes ask the right questions, which puts him ahead of the vast majority of politicians. Thus far, however, I have not seen him come up with any of the right answers.

Last edited 3 years ago by Fraser Bailey
Jon LM
Jon LM
3 years ago

The use of ‘Islamophobia’ as a pejorative presupposes that Islam is benign, and that it is irrational to fear it.

I reject that premise.

AC Harper
AC Harper
3 years ago

But that, in itself, cannot explain the degree of hysteria and personal hatred — between political opponents but also between supposed allies — which has enlivened and disfigured French politics in the last three weeks.

But as the Evening Ball wears on the courtiers scrabble for advantage for position and patronage in the next Court… and most courtiers have already realised that there will not be enough elite jobs to go around and that means that other courtiers must go.

Pierre Henri
Pierre Henri
3 years ago

If the retired officer’s views should not be taken seriously, then why should François Hollande, of all people, be quoted by Davey and Lhomme (Un prĂ©sident ne devrait pas dire ça, 2016) as saying “Car c’est quand mĂȘme ça qui est en train de se produire: la partition” (this is actually what is ongoing : a partition). Isn’t a partition what a country such as Ireland in the 20th century, experiences, following a civil war ? And shouldn’t Macron himself be taken seriously for much of what he says about the “separatist” threat ?