French­man run­ning as best bet against far right

Em­manuel Macron, a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with no party af­fil­i­a­tion, is count­ing on vot­ers shocked by Brexit and Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JAMES MCAU­LEY james.mcau­ley@wash­post.com

In a con­tentious elec­tion that could prove piv­otal in Europe, some see a sav­ior in Em­manuel Macron. The con­test for the French pres­i­dency comes af­ter the twin shocks of the Brexit vote and the elec­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Trump, two wa­ter­shed vic­to­ries for right­wing pop­ulism against “es­tab­lish­ment” politics. And France — with con­sis­tently high un­em­ploy­ment, wide­spread out­rage over Europe’s mi­grant cri­sis and a pop­u­la­tion reel­ing from a string of ter­ror­ist at­tacks — could fol­low suit. Or not.

This is Macron’s mis­sion: to en­sure that his coun­try does not suc­cumb to the pro­found po­lit­i­cal tur­moil that has rocked Bri­tain and the United States in the past year. But his method is un­usual, and maybe risky. In a year that has wit­nessed a global re­jec­tion of the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter in fa­vor of ex­tremes, Macron — with no party af­fil­i­a­tion or sup­port — has billed him­self as a rad­i­cal cen­trist, a can­di­date for all.

“I am not go­ing to say that the left or the right is mean­ing­less, that they are the same thing, but are these di­vi­sions not a hur­dle?” the debonair for­mer econ­omy min­is­ter asked a cheer­ing crowd of thou­sands in a speech in Lyon this month. “I want to rec­on­cile the two Frances that have been grow­ing apart for too long.”

But can this vi­sion of a mid­dle road — a French “Third Way” — pre­vail at a time when the po­lit­i­cal cen­ter seems in full re­treat?

For now, Macron re­mains ex­traor­di­nar­ily pop­u­lar, es­pe­cially among Parisian elites and younger peo­ple. His ral­lies draw crowds num­ber­ing in the thou­sands, and he in­spires an en­thu­si­asm that re­minds some of the zeal gen­er­ated by Barack Obama — an­other as­pir­ing uni­fier — in 2008.

“He’s worked in the pri­vate world, and the fact that he is not just a ca­reer politi­cian means a lot. He knows the real econ­omy,” said Mar­gaux Pech, a mem­ber of Je­unes Avec Macron (Youths With Macron), the siz­able ac­tivist or­ga­ni­za­tion work­ing on his be­half.

“It’s also about Europe,” she said. “I have an Italian grand­mother and fam­ily in Por­tu­gal, and I am very much a real Euro­pean. He’s the only can­di­date who de­fends that.”

That is true. Macron is fun­da­men­tally pro-Europe at a time when his main­stream op­po­nents have been crit­i­cal of Brus­sels, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Na­tional Front, has ar­gued for tak­ing France off the euro al­to­gether. Macron also cham­pi­ons so­cially lib­eral po­si­tions, es­pe­cially the free­dom to prac­tice re­li­gion in an of­fi­cially sec­u­lar state in­creas­ingly sus­pi­cious of Is­lam.

But at the same time, Macron is a for­mer in­vest­ment banker who, while he was France’s econ­omy min­is­ter, drafted a law de­signed to stim­u­late eco­nomic growth by tar­get­ing the coun­try’s os­si­fied la­bor mar­ket. The pro­posal was so un­pop­u­lar it had to be en­acted by de­cree. Many on the left con­se­quently see him as the can­di­date of big busi­ness. As Macron told a trade union­ist last year: “The best way to af­ford a suit is to get a job.”

To his crit­ics, the con­tra­dic­tions can­not be sur­mounted.

“These po­si­tions are not rec­on­cil­able,” said Vir­ginie Martin, an an­a­lyst at Kedge Busi­ness School in Paris. “The wel­fare state in France is very strong on the French left. But peo­ple are fed up with it on the right. These are two fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent po­si­tions on what the state should do.”

Macron, in fact, runs up against the con­straints of his cen­trist creed al­most any time he ut­ters an opin­ion.

In Al­ge­ria last week, he re­ferred to French col­o­niza­tion as a “crime against hu­man­ity,” in­fu­ri­at­ing right-lean­ing vot­ers. But the same thing hap­pened last year among left­ists — whose sup­port he also needs — when he at­tacked the 35-hour work­week, a hall­mark of French life.

“A long time ago, the left be­lieved . . . that France would be bet­ter off if peo­ple worked less,” said Macron, who still de­scribes him­self as a man “of the left.” “That was a wrong idea.”

“There is in­deed an elec­torate that doesn’t rec­og­nize it­self in the clas­sic left-right di­vide,” said Gérard Grun­berg, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Sciences Po in Paris. “But the prob­lem with Macron’s elec­torate is that it con­sists of peo­ple too far to the left cou­pled with peo­ple too far to the right.”

With the pos­si­ble ex­cep­tion of Valéry Gis­card d’Es­taing in 1974, a cen­trist politi­cian has never won the French pres­i­dency.

But the pe­cu­liar cli­mate of 2017 could pro­vide an­other ex­cep­tion, and other cir­cum­stances fa­vor Macron, as well. The So­cial­ist Party has strug­gled to field a vi­able can­di­date, and the fortunes of the cen­ter-right Repub­li­cans have dwin­dled fol­low­ing a nepo­tism scan­dal that has all but de­stroyed the can­di­dacy of François Fil­lon.

Macron is seen as the can­di­date with the best chance of de­feat­ing Le Pen, who is con­sid­ered al­most cer­tain to qual­ify for the sec­ond and fi­nal round of the pres­i­den­tial vote in May.

“A lot of vot­ers are choos­ing a ‘tac­ti­cal’ vote rather than a vote of the heart and might de­cide to vote for the can­di­date most likely to raise the most se­ri­ous ob­sta­cle to [Le Pen’s] vic­tory,” said Cé­cile Al­duy, an an­a­lyst and pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity.

The prob­lem? If Macron does win, it re­mains un­clear how he would pro­ceed, given that he has no party sup­port be­hind him and his blend of ide­olo­gies will prob­a­bly be dif­fi­cult to sell in the French Par­lia­ment.

As Martin put it: “With whom will he gov­ern?”

ROBERT PRATTA/REUTERS

Em­manuel Macron, the for­mer econ­omy min­is­ter who calls him­self a rad­i­cal cen­trist, de­liv­ers a speech dur­ing a cam­paign rally in Lyon, France, early this month.

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