The promise of French President Emmanuel Macron’s time in office was straightforward: He would transcend the concepts of left and right, and consign populism to the margins of French politics. His rise to power in the spring of 2017 was an apparent lifeboat for liberals traumatised by Brexit and then-US president Donald Trump: here was the “centrist” prince over the water, a beacon of good governance and confirmation that the grownups were back in the room.
It has not worked out that way. Champions of so-called centrism believed that Macron would be a desperately needed antidote to political polarization.
However, Macronism has acted as an accelerant, not a coolant, leaving the country more troubled, divided and disillusioned than when this former investment banker secured office.
Illustration: Lance Liu
Macron’s likely re-election, thanks to tactical voting, should not obscure a damning fact: The far right will come closer to holding power in a western European nation than at any time since 1945.
As I arrived in Paris a couple of hours before voting concluded in the first round, a taxi driver voiced what has become a common refrain: “Macron is for the rich.”
Within months of Macron — widely known as the “president of the rich” — taking the post, more than eight in 10 French citizens believed his tax policies favoured the wealthy.
His drive to hike the pension age is a class issue, too: After all, the richest French men have a life expectancy 13 years higher than their poorest counterparts, and deprived citizens have fewer healthy years to look forward to.
His introduction of a “ carbon tax “was a case study in how not to tackle the climate emergency: By hitting less-well-off people most, he violated the basic principle of what is called a just transition — that the cost of preserving civilization from calamity must not be shouldered by the poor.
Public consent for necessary measures will be destroyed by such an approach.
As the first-round post-election poll revealed that the left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon had narrowly failed to reach the second stage of the contest, the expressions of grief and rage on the faces of his supporters were strikingly similar to those who had witnessed the routs of US Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries and former British leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn in his contest with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: These were younger citizens aggrieved at their hopes being snatched away by older generations.
On his election, Macron became the youngest president in French history, but his base of support comes from older voters — above all, the over-70s — and he is a distant third among under-35s. It is Melenchon who is most popular among the young, many of whom say they might abstain in the second round.
“I am scared if I vote, and I am scared if I don’t vote,” one young woman told me, arguing that by waging war on the public sector “he [Macron] is creating a monster” and laying the foundations for a far-right victory next time.
I hear this narrative again and again.
It is easy to berate these youngsters: to tell them to park their grievances, since, however profound, their fury with Macron, the victory of the far right’s Marine le Pen would be infinitely worse.
Yet, attacking the disillusioned is rarely convincing.
When I put to these voters the racist menace posed by the far right, they note that French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin denounced Le Pen for being “too soft on immigration.”
Macron has praised Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain as a “great soldier,” and has been condemned by Human Rights Watch for tearing down refugees’ tents.
In his 2017 campaign, Macron pledged to curtail police excesses, yet, when his carbon tax unleashed the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement, protesters were dealt with brutally.
“I have never been so scared of protesting as I have been under Emmanuel Macron,” young left-wing intellectual Edouard Louis told me.
Rather than acting as a firewall against right-wing extremism, Macronian “centrism” absorbs its racism and authoritarianism, further legitimizing the far right in the process.
Undoubtedly, a minority of Melenchon supporters will defect to Le Pen’s camp: These are voters who do not think in terms of “left” and “right,” but who resent a system they understandably believe is rigged against them, and who were most convinced by the radical left’s answers in the first round.
“Macron only thinks of the rich. He’s a guy who’s all about the money,” one older Melenchon supporter in the northern city of Douai told me.
That does not mean the left has nothing to answer for: the nearby town of Henin-Beaumont is a former stronghold of socialists and communists, but is now firmly Le Pen country and the place she cast her own vote.
Many working-class voters came to believe that the Socialist Party had nothing but contempt for them, and under former French president Francois Hollande — a presidency that promised to confront austerity and then did no such thing — the party collapsed. Indeed, in this election, the center-left’s standard-bearer, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, chalked up a paltry 1.74 percent, finishing seventh even in the capital.
While Melenchon did unexpectedly well, the radical left — as in other European countries, except where it governs as a junior partner, in Spain and Nordic countries — is yet to emerge victorious from the rubble.
If Macron wins, albeit with a tighter margin than in 2017, expect a mixture of relief and triumphalism from centrists. This failure to learn lessons is a profound error. Witness, too, the fate of US President Joe Biden in the US. Again, the promise was that with the “grownups” back in charge, the years of turbulence would end and politics would become boring again. No such thing happened. Instead, Biden’s popularity has collapsed — not least among the young, who cannot be described as natural Donald Trump supporters — and a revival of the president’s predecessor is entirely plausible, with potentially terminal consequences for US democracy.
This is an age of grievance and fury driven by stagnating living conditions and justifiable pessimism, however much predominantly affluent centrists dismiss the consequences as mass irrationality.
One Macron supporter told me that far-right success was down to conspiracy theories and that “a lot of French people forget they are extremely lucky.”
The centrists believed that by presenting an image of moderation and statesmanship, they could make all that go away.
They were wrong.
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