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Full-On in France

Full-On Confrontation in France

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MacronMania & Le PenFever: Full-On in France

by Mick ter Reehorst

There is a buzz going through the political landscape in France, a sense of the possibility of change. Hope, if you will. It’s not quite unlike the Obama-mania of 2008, and also not unlike the Trump phenomenon for that matter. The French media headlines are full of it, and the radio talk shows and late night TV programs can’t stop speculating. As always with these kind of political shake-ups, there are a lot of skeptics, groups of criticasters and nay-sayers who grow almost as fast as the supporter base. Yet, there is no denying that there is something happening in France; a full-on confrontation between and against the traditional parties.

Emmanuel Macron, 39, the figurehead of the political movement En Marche! and the former economy minister of President François Hollande’s administration, has been gathering massive crowds at his rallies and has become a maverick outsider candidate for the French presidential elections.

“Never accept those who promote exclusion, hatred or closing in on ourselves!” he yelled to a large audience of several thousand in Lille. “Macron! Président!” is the - perhaps slightly unoriginal - chant he gets in return. He is charismatic and one of the youngest presidential hopefuls ever.

At the central Paris office of En Marche! there are rows of young political aides frantically typing on their computers, refreshing their Twitter-feeds, and calling to journalists, community managers and their overseers. Camaraderie and youthful (perhaps even naive) political enthusiasm are hanging in the air, amidst the papers outlining the propositions laid out by the local committees, a major part of the direct democracy elements of En Marche! Two girls high-five each other after seeing an explosion of positive Tweets and two guys are grinning from ear to ear while watching a video of Macron speaking in Lille. One thing they all have in common: nobody expected that they would be in such a cheerful mood at this point in the campaign.

Tomorrow - #RevolutionEnMarche

Tomorrow - #RevolutionEnMarche

“But something changed, the movement was getting broader. It was not just a Parisian bubble anymore. I felt that on December, 10th at the first big meeting at Porte de Versailles. There were more than 15.000 people. Something changed then”.

But it’s not only Macron who has seen his popularity and chances to win increase. On the other side of the spectrum, Front National and Marine Le Pen continuously paint a grim picture of how fed up the French are with the traditional parties. And Le Pen is right. The French are fed up with the traditional parties.

On the left, President Hollande decided not to run for a second term, a first for French Presidents since 1958. Benoît Hamon, having won the primaries of the Left, is scrambling to get the socialist act and programme together. On the right, former President Nicolas Sarkozy was harshly rejected and François Fillon, a hard-line conservative has taken to the stage. It is illustrative for a political elite that is unable to deal with these political shake-ups, a situation reminiscent of Bernie Sanders’ movement in the United States.

It is a trend that has taken flight everywhere around Europe and around the world, this total disillusion with the established elite and traditional politics. Yet the strange thing with Macron is, that he is shaking up the parties, who in turn fall back on old ideologies, nationalistic appeals and produce programs full off anti-globalization and Euroskeptic oneliners.

“Macron is an economic liberal, pro-labor market reforms and he is shaking things up by talking about Europe in a positive way”, says Asseraf. “He bases his program on research and pragmatic ideas”. Five years ago, that would be any traditional party’s normal approach to policy, yet in this day and age, all bets are off. Being outspokenly pro-European has become unique, even for a centrist like Macron. The common thought is that Europe is not sexy, mass immigration is a problematic issue and the nation has to regain its sovereignty. Brexit and the populist parties have influenced everyone. This, more so maybe than a possible political win for Le Pen or Macron, is the total political shake-up that is coursing through the Western democracies.

Macron and his ideas for Europe

A full-on confrontation has ensued between everyone at the same time, the old and the new, left and right, between generations, those who have benefitted from globalization and those who feel disenchanted and disenfranchised. It is not unique to France, but it is the first time in modern history that the country has seen such complete political upheaval in its modern history. The fact that the Front National has a real chance of moving into the Elysee shows the inability of the major parties to reassure their voter base.

Polarization has led to politicians on the old left-wing dichotomous division of the political battleground to retreat to their base, tail between their legs, in order to regroup. Fillon has appointed someone to just be his ‘anti-Macron man’ and the left is looking for ways to combat Le Pen and her appeal to working class voters in northern France, the traditional socialist backlands.

Patrick Kennedy, an expert on French politics and the role of youth in politics told Are We Europe that “a party like Front National, for example, has done much in this area as it sees its success tied to the ability to recruit new voters, especially amongst young people”. Macron is apparently able to do the same, and a recent study put him on top of the chart as France’s most likeable politician, especially amongst youth. And according to Kennedy, “youth will be critical on areas like voter turnout, and new voter recruitment, but at the same I also see French youth aligning themselves less with party dynamics and party politics and more along issues like global warming or immigration for example.” And this is where Macron is gaining his support. The new generation of voters does not align itself with ideological standpoints, but looks at issues in a more pragmatic way. Combine that with a well-organized, visual, data-based and airtight online campaign strategy, and the result is a noticeable trek towards these different movements, Front National included.

On the other hand, there is a lot of criticism of Macron's person.
They say he doesn’t have a plan. He has never been elected to office. He has no experience. The ideas will not work. He is too liberal, he is too centrist, or he is too much connected to the socialists. He is a banker, and just as much part of the elite as any of the traditional politicians.

Everyone has something to say, and some rebuttals make a lot of sense. Yet, almost all of the above holds for Le Pen, who adds heavy flirting with nostalgic nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia to the equation. So, what?

Well, that is probably why they are so popular, with young and old alike. As Emma Ettlinger, 17, and also part of the Parisian En Marche! team says, “It’s all the same, the Parti Socialiste or Les Républicains. We’ve tried it already and it didn’t work. The Front National and En Marche! are new, and that is what people are choosing for”.

Adding ever more suspense to the coming months are the high stakes that come with this election. Trump, Brexit and growing support for anti-establishment and anti-European movements around the continent up the ante for the European Union. France has historically always been its most outspoken proponent, and a win for Le Pen will change everything. European unity is further away than ever, and internally, France is recovering from a weak President, terrorist attacks, and of the highest unemployment rates in Europe due to an economy that just will not pick up after the crisis.

Let’s add some background on the voting procedure. The first round of the elections will take place on April, 27th, open to any candidate who meets the requirements (such as having 500 signatures by mayors or other elected officials). If no candidate has an absolute majority, the two candidates with the most votes will go to a second round on May, 7th. Last time, now-President Hollande and then-President Sarkozy faced off against each other. At the moment, most polls predict a face-à-face between Fillon and Le Pen. What this shows, is that the left lies in shambles and the right has rallied around a hard-line conservative to combat Le Pen. What it also shows, is a division in France that has never been seen before. Macron will have to try to convince enough left-leaning, right-leaning or non-voters to make it to the top two at the first round. He will look either to unite the two sides, or stand above it.

“There are different Frances, there is a France of the insider who can enjoy globalization and everything that happens. The other France is the outsider, who feels excluded and outside of the system. We have to reconcile those Frances”, says Ettlinger.

It remains to be seen whether Macron and his army of passionate young political strategists will be able to do that. But being 'pas de gauche, pas de droite' (not left, not right) is working out for the moment and has resulted in MacronMania and Le PenFever. It will be an interesting and exhausting ride.

Read an article on the French elections in our archive