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Why Macron is invincible Until the President's enemies stop squabbling, his politics will dominate

President of Europe? Credit: Aurelien Meunier/Getty


April 25, 2022   6 mins

The crowd that gathered last night on the Champ-de-Mars, underneath the Eiffel Tower, to celebrate Emmanuel Macron’s re-election as President were waving flags — not all of them French. Half of the guests held aloft the blue-and-yellow banner of the European Union, and, as Macron arrived, it was the Ode to Joy that blared over the loudspeakers. The French cannot say they weren’t warned.

In the closing weeks of his campaign against nationalist Marine Le Pen, Macron called the vote a referendum on the European Union, and even a choix de civilisation. A vote for him was for modernity, global capitalism and Brussels. His opponent, Marine Le Pen, wanted to take back powers for France. “There is no such thing as European sovereignty,” she said, “because there is no European people.” The 58-42 margin of his win would seem to settle the matter. But things are not that simple in French politics.

The two-round system of French voting renders important political tendencies invisible on the day of the big vote. The eloquent Leftist Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon, who was narrowly eliminated from contention two weeks ago, gave a rousing speech as the polls closed announcing his candidacy for prime minister in what he calls “the third round”. What he means is that, in June, the country will elect a new national legislature. A coherent opposition to Macron shows signs of forming, even if it is not yet clear whether Le Pen, MĂ©lenchon or someone else will lead it. And Macron’s opposition has learned lessons from this campaign that it can apply to the next one.

Macron is term limited. This is his last presidential election. But he is already a historic figure. He is both the engineer and the product of the collapse of the country’s two-party system. Since 1958, progressive Socialists have squared off against nationalist Gaullists (now called Les RĂ©publicains). In 2017, Macron, the Socialist economics minister, defected from his party, taking its elites — most of them Blairite defenders of the global economy — along with him. Gaullist globalists rallied to him, too. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy completed the process two weeks ago by endorsing Macron after the first round. The Socialist rank-and-file scattered to smaller parties, and now seems to have been gathered in by MĂ©lenchon. The Gaullist rank-and-file has drifted to Le Pen.

Something similar happened in other countries this century, usually to the benefit of the globalisers. In the US, elite Republicans became Democrats. In Germany, in the years before the last election, Social and Christian Democrat elites fused into three different coalition governments, with a more demotic wing of each party falling into the Left and the Alternative for Germany.

Much discussion of the presidential election has involved France’s “archipĂ©lisation”, after a concept developed by the political scientist JĂ©rĂŽme Fourquet. Increasingly, the elite and the non-elite political tendencies have no more contact with one another than if they were living on isolated islands. Macron is the candidate of rich cities, beach towns, ski resorts and the “instagrammable” parts of France.

But, 60 kilometres outside of France’s cities, Marine is the most popular politician. She is the candidate, writes Fourquet, of people whose work involves repetitive tasks, bad smells, irregular hours and loud noises. In the very richest neighbourhoods, though, it is as if she doesn’t exist. In the first round in the 6th arrondissement of Paris (the one that contains St-Germain-des-PrĂšs and all those cafĂ©s Hemingway drank in), she got 4% of the vote and finished sixth. Just 854 people ticked her box.

Macron favours a lot of things that upper-crust politicos like but have lately been too shy to talk about. He is the candidate of free trade. During the debate between the two rounds he boasted that he opposed the South American trade bloc Mercosur — but only because of its record on deforestation in the Amazon. He is the candidate of raising the retirement age from 62 to 65. And he is the candidate of stable investments. An astonishing 43% of Macron’s voters are already retired, according to Fourquet. That may be why they don’t mind Macron’s pension reform, which will only kick in for voters born after 1969. Le Pen dominates the generation of voters born between 1973 and 1987.

In the history of French election programming, this year’s debate was the all time, rock-bottom ratings dud. Part of the problem is that in built-out continental welfare states, campaigns turn on accounting matters — is 90€ a month a sufficient supplement for handicapped workers? Should we reform the EU’s “Posted Workers Directive” of 1996? How many minutes should an EHPAD (care home) nurse take to dress a patient in the morning? Really, they spent 2 hours and 45 minutes talking about these things. And even though much of the French public considers Macron arrogant – by turns pedantic, po-faced and mansplanatory — nonetheless, 59% of viewers thought he beat Le Pen soundly.

There is still a taboo against voting for Le Pen among polite French people, and unfortunately for her, most French people are polite. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, started the National Front in the Sixties to thwart France’s liberation (or abandonment, depending on how you look at it) of its Algerian colony. He later ran into trouble with both the public and the law for tasteless ethnic wisecracks. He was called a “fascist” and her (renamed) party is tarred as “extreme Right”.

That’s unfair. Her attempts to “de-diabolise” the party have been unceasing, even extending to expelling her father from it. Her programme would be considered that of a normal populist conservative party elsewhere: reforming immigration law to limit family reunification; various tough-on-crime gimmicks, such as a right to self defence and a lot of new prison construction; and regulation of the Islamic headscarf. One measure was especially sought after by the gilets jaunes movement which nearly brought the Macron government down in a protest against petrol taxes in 2018: English-style rights to gather signatures to petition parliament. Le Pen also wants to restore the wealth tax, formerly paid by the richest 350,000 people in France, which Macron eliminated when he first took office. Macron replaced it with a steep tax on real estate valued at over €1.3 million, which has caused havoc among low-earners with the ill-luck to inherit nice family homes.

No one really thought Le Pen was a radical. “Let’s be honest,” editorialised the weekly political magazine Marianne in the issue where it endorsed Macron. “There are a lot of things in her programme that seem to come straight out of the articles Marianne has been running for the past twenty-five years.”

Marine’s project of de-diabolisation seemed to be vindicated this year. Another candidate, the historian and TV polemicist Eric Zemmour, arrived with a project to restore the elder Le Pen’s clash-of-civilisations programme. This winter, after some early successes in the polls, Zemmour’s vote faded back to 7% and Le Pen survived the challenge. She defeated Macron in several mostly black West Indian islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe) that belong to France, and even in a number of Arab neighbourhoods in the south.

“You’d start a civil war in the housing projects,” Macron accused her during the debate,” promising to fight against her “party and its history”. Unfortunately for Le Pen, she remains a useful pretext for her opponents to use in consolidating an elite party such Macron’s La RĂ©publique en Marche. Strangely, MĂ©lenchon might have a better chance to challenge Macron in legislative elections this spring.

It is not very easy to say whom the eloquent septuagenarian represents. Some people talk about MĂ©lenchon as a “resurgence” of the old Left, since he has taken parts of the old Communist suburbs, like La Courneuve — as if those places still had the same electorate that they had when the factories were humming in the Seventies. In fact MĂ©lenchon has been winning because he is the only candidate who talks seriously about “Islamophobia”. He got 70% of the Muslim vote in the first round. He’s less the Bernie Sanders of French politics than its Sadiq Khan.

Although MĂ©lenchon has jumped on all sorts of contemporary political bandwagons — from gendered violence to  speciesism — an essential resemblance between his brass-tacks economic programme and Le Pen’s has been noted. MĂ©lenchon urged his followers “not to give a single vote to Mrs Le Pen”. Politicians often fight their rivals more than their enemies.

And right now, rivals are what Le Pen and MĂ©lenchon are: each is vying to be at the head of the same anti-Macron, anti–global capitalism coalition for the June elections, and to become prime minister of France. A question naturally arises about what might have happened if Éric Zemmour’s candidacy had not collapsed. Had he finished a couple of points higher, it would have been at Le Pen’s expense, and MĂ©lenchon, a superior debater, would have advanced to face Macron. He would have had another advantage — the lack of a public taboo against voting for him. It is hard to say where he would have finished. But it would probably have been higher than 42%.

This taboo is the interesting thing destabilising French politics just now. The country has undergone a partial revolution. The winners of globalisation have formed a new political movement — Macron’s — out of the upper echelons of the old bourgeois parties, and it stands dead-centre in the political system. The former lower echelons of those two parties are natural partners against the elite party, but they cling to their 20th-century grudges and have not coalesced. Macron’s party will rule without serious challenge until they do.

For Macron, the way is clear to begin building the Europe he sketched out in his so-called Sorbonne speech, early in his presidency. That speech, timed for the days after the German election of September 2017, was supposed to announce a new partnership between France and Germany to drive European integration forward in matters of common budgeting, common debt and a common defence. The programme was put on hold when Merkel finished far weaker than expected. But common debt instruments arrived with the European Covid bailout plan, and the Ukraine war is provoking interest in common defence.

Macron has just scored what looks like a resounding re-election. But if you dig down, he is beloved of only 40% of his countrymen. The other 60% will not lack for occasions to grumble, as the gilet jaunes did in 2018. It is a moment with the potential to remind us that French politics always looks stable until it goes off the rails.


Christopher Caldwell is a contributing editor at the Claremont Review of Books and the author, most recently, of The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

 


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Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Macron is the ultimate manifestation of the professional classes, and the professional classes are killing us. They’re too stupid to learn because they’re too arrogant to ever think they NEED to learn; they’re on “the right side of history”, after all. France is going to die under people like him, and the weight of that collapse will be like the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs. No one will be safe.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

I think that’s the threat the entire West faces, and it’s all being deliberately engineered by the Davos/WEF set. They are the only ones who, by 2030, will own everything. And will be happy.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

You are so right. I cannot stand all this “reason has prevailed” commentary going on today about the election result. Nothing has really prevailed except perhaps a feeling of complete apathy and disappointment that the current political systems aren’t giving the voter any real choices or something to get behind.
But, as sure as Wednesday comes after Tuesday, the self-satisfied commentariat will label this a triumph of right-thinking progressives over the dim populists (can we strike those two odious P-words out of the debate, please?), of EU over the nation state blah blah blah and fail to think about the deeper forces and concerns which are driving voting behaviour. Like you say – nothing can ever be learned if you think you are above reproach.
And when 2027 rolls around, nothing will have changed and we’ll have the whole media rigmarole and drama again, with all the hand-wringing and the pearl-clutching and the leftie-liberal keyboard-worriers again asking “why won’t they just vote how we want them to?”
Spare me, please. It’s so predictable.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

The aim is to make voting irrelevant, as it is in the EU so-called “parliament”.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

The professional classes are illustrated perfectly in Houllebeq’s Submission. People who don’t want to be thought badly of, so they fiddle while their country burns to the ground. And they’re the same on both sides of the channel and the Atlantic.

Peter B
Peter B
2 years ago

He [Macron] is the candidate of free trade.”
No French politician actually believes in free trade. They are all mercantilists.
One reason the EU is a protectionist bureaucracy (hiding behind a mask of “free trade”).
Separate note: “common debt instruments” will kill off the EU. Mutualisation of debt will be a disaster and is the key reason the UK needed to get out.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
2 years ago

“Former prime minister Nicolas Sarkozy”
i stopped reading you piece right there. How can you claim being any kind of French political specialist with such a blunder ?
Nicolas Sarkozy was president !!

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

Half of the guests held aloft the blue-and-yellow banner of the European Union, and, as Macron arrived, it was the Ode to Joy that blared over the loudspeakers. The French cannot say they weren’t warned.

This EUrostooge pulled the same stunt when he was parachuted in five years ago. If this arrogant, preening, Eurobotic Napoleon is what the French want, they deserve all they get.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago

France faces the same problem as Hungary, but in reverse. IN the election 2 months ago, the Hungarian opposition tried to field a single candidate in opposition to the centrist Orban. (Yes, I know the EU press likes to call him a fascist, but he is the Bill Clinton, triangulating-centrist of his own country.) This opposition candidate, PĂ©ter MĂĄrki-Zay, had to bridge communists, ex-communists, greens, and Nazis (real Nazis, not made-up Nazis like Le Pen). Needless to say this was a disaster and Marki-Zay lost in a true landslide.

Israel tried the same thing to unseat Netanyahu 2 years ago. It worked in the sense that he is no longer prime minister, but parties that agre on nothing except “get rid of the current leader” make a weak governing coalition, which is what we’ve seen in Israel since.

Demographically, LePen is in the right place. She isn’t the right person, but her platform and party are part of the future. As this article says, Macron’s voters are retired, LePen’s are in the 40’s. Yes, Melechon has the college-age sect, but as France’s immigration and economic problems get worse, that may change (we’re all Leftists until we try to get our first job — socialism often doesn’t survive contact with reality.) The only thing holding the center together is Macron. Once he’s gone, it will collapse. Imagine a National Rally vs Socialist presidential second round. In 5 years, I predict you won’t have to imagine it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

Macon won in every age group except 50-59 year olds, where it was a statistical tie. Just because she lost big amongst retirees doesn’t make Le Pen a winner with younger voters. And in fact she wouldn’t have made it in to the second round at all had she not had a decent lead over MĂ©lenchon amongst the over 60s, offsetting his lead amongst the under 35s.

William Rispin
William Rispin
2 years ago

There is no evidence that MĂ©lenchon would have performed any better than Le Pen. The combined Left-wing vote in the first round amounted to 32%.
MĂ©lenchon would have struggled to have greatly improved this score due the programme he represented. His statist economic policies would have alienated many voters from the Centre Right, while voters from the Far Right would have been put off by his multicultural approach to national identity.
A poll was carried out during the presidential campaign concerning how people would vote in the event of a Macron/MĂ©lenchon run off and the result was around 65/35 in favour of Macron.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

A lot of wishful thinking posing as analysis was published by Unherd on this election, particularly after the first round. Le Pen didn’t win 46% of the vote, she didn’t win amongst the working age population, and she’s not the future. She got less than half the swing compared to 2017 that she needed, which was entirely predictable after the first round to anyone who could count. She won’t get another chance due to demographics. The European Right, like the British Left, needs to figure out if it wants to be in perpetual self-rightous opposition or if it is willing to compromise and unite in order to credibly challenge. The era of free money is coming to an end, so presenting the economic garbage on Le Pen’s platform and expecting enough hard working taxpayers to vote for that was delusional.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephen Walshe
Andrew John Fisher
Andrew John Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I agree with a lot of this – BUT, it still seems the centrist globalists have an extraordinary aversion to taxing the uber-wealthy. These are not people who have a large house and relatively low income. That is one reason why it seems that Macron is an out-of-touch elitist, he thinks everyone should pay EXCEPT the new aristocracy.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Even if LePen wanted to compromise, how do you even begin such a project when the major parties all refuse to talk with you? Despite a platform that clearly appeals to 40%+ of the voters (by definition not far-right, unless nearly half of France are closet Nazis), the media has made LePen so toxic that no one else can work with her.
France has a blasé center-right party; it got nowhere, because it stands for nothing. Les Républicains is so centrist they endorsed Macron, which begs the question why they even bothered to field a candidate against him.

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

The Right needs to unite to win, as they have in the UK, and have not in Germany and France. Had a single candidate from the Right stood in the first round, they could have won 37% of the vote, had a big lead over Macron, and gone into the second round with real momentum. But choosing the dopey daughter of a bigoted old fart as a perennial candidate by reason of inheritance, then to spout anti-capitalist cliches, was never likely to peel away enough centrist voters to win.

tom j
tom j
2 years ago

This is normal in Western Politics. Remember the Messiah Tony Blair, in 1997? He got 43.2% of the vote! That was his mandate to remake Britain.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  tom j

Not in a simple head to head contest…

nicole MdeB.
nicole MdeB.
2 years ago

Marine Le Pen is not a nazi, calling her that is just a game to make things a little more interesting. She is just not up to the role of President. We heard that she had spent the last five years working on her program, and training with her experts, and she didn’t deliver.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  nicole MdeB.

Training with her cats, surely (though that may make her more endearing)

Cardinal Populist
Cardinal Populist
2 years ago

I predicted Macron would win, albeit with a narrower margin after the 1st rounds of the 2022 election. It was clear that Macron was able to turn this election into a referendum on Putin and Ukraine.
Candidates like Le Pen and Melenchon center their campaigns on the message that global organizations like NATO, the United Nations, WEF, and others are decrepit institutions that funnel taxpayer money into a flaming garbage can. However, for the first time in arguably more than 20 years these organizations finally had a purpose and all rose up to counter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or at least made him look bad on the global stage.
Voters unfortunately were quick to forget the massive centralization of power that has been taking place in France under Macron, and even with Le Pen’s last ditch effort to try to redirect the election to a referendum on Macron’s economic record it all failed, and in fairness it was doomed to fail from the beginning.
Le Pen never had the media on her side to shift the message of this election in the first place. I’m sure everyone reading this has never once heard a news story that doesn’t start out their report by saying “Far-Right candidate Marine Le Pen”.
The truth is both the right and left in France are doomed to fail because neither one has the institutions of France on their side to have control of the narrative. Until Le Pen or Melenchon can figure out how to turn the French institutions to their side, or get rid of those institutions all together – France’s fate will surely be decided by other countries for years to come.

Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
Noah Ebtihej Sdiri
2 years ago

Someone will have to find a way to unite the populist left with the populist right, that’s the only way to get rid of the centrist behemoth.

elmer fudzie
elmer fudzie
2 years ago

How in heaven’s name can the educated French, who’s citizenry at large, on average are college educated, can read, speak and write in no less than three languages, re-elect a Goldman Sachs shill? A billionaire in love with his own ilk, detests the average Joe.. Where is your brain France? Find it! Better not to vote at all if you fear the ultra right so much. Isn’t it more logical to bring a total collapse of the election process with a “stop-vote” revolution. This would force new candidates to suddenly emerge… It may usher in a bloodless coup launched against a gangster oligarchy and effete monopoly ruling over France. If the people of the First democracy ever in Europe do this, Americans will take note and follow suit. Why not borrow a phrase from another set of billionaires across the Atlantic, the Walton’s of Walmart; quote “our customers vote with their feet” If this statement is true, and it is, the French need to stop walking into the parlors of the super rich who provide candidates working against all that France once stood for…
Vanessa Beeley, wrote an article @ substack.com Readers may wish to visit: https://beeley.substack.com/p/did-macron-abandon-french-military? Fifty high-ranking French officers were cornered in the Azovstal Metallurgical Plant (Mariupol). Putin did not want them harmed because this would open the flood gates of hell so a corridor was opened for them to leave the plant but that Goldman Sachs shill Macron, sent an order: ‘do not surrender’ during his election push- My God, what a slithering BUM! This order came atop another undiplomatic comment, considering the crucial moment where NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg quipped on a visit to Estonia, “All for one, one for all”’ Ditto Poland’s pouring fuel on the Armageddon fire by sending T-72 tanks and weapons into the Ukraine further provoking Putin with statements like, we are (Warsaw) sending, “forces to Ukraine under NATO peacekeeping flags” The UK, France and now, Poland are entrapping NATO into a situation where invoking the collective defense clause as stipulated in Article 5 becomes necessary. It remains central to the treaty’s existence, thus binding members together, committing them to protect each other in solidarity within the Alliance. Does France really have a “center?” Two hundred years ago, France showed the world how Proles can take power from an oligarchy. The rank-and-file seized political power and took back controls over their destiny. Somehow today’s France made a U-Turn, surrendering to the parasites, to NATO centralization, therefore reneging on personal responsibility handing it over to Parisian bureaucrats ! Vive le France? ?