Macron bets on French political realignment

Emmanuel Macron©Getty

Emmanuel Macron

By creating a new bipartisan political movement, French economy minister Emmanuel Macron is making a risky, but not implausible bet: that the dominance of France’s two mainstream political parties crumbles after the presidential elections next year.

With his movement (he insists it is not a party) ‘En Marche’ or ‘Forward’, Mr Macron says he is seeking to transcend the left-right divide and build consensus on ways to tackle the causes of France’s malaise: a dysfunctional and inequitable labour market; a preference for social justice at the expense of free enterprise; a loss of faith in European integration.

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On all those matters the right-left split is irrelevant, Mr Macron says. The new dividing line runs between those who embrace new technologies and globalisation and those who want to protect the status-quo — between outsiders and insiders, progressives and conservatives.

“There is no consensus in the two key political parties on all these issues,” Mr Macron told the Financial Times. “My country needs a new political offer.”

Dodging questions over a possible presidential bid next year — an unlikely scenario as President François Hollande, his political patron, is planning to seek re-election — he added: “That’s not my top priority today. I want to build this progressive movement in the coming months.”

The 38-year-old is hardly the first French politician to advocate a middle way, although he is careful to eschew the centrist label.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Raymond Barre and Jacques Delors all dreamt of a political realignment on the centre ground. And France has other small centrist parties, such as Modem and the UDI, which have so far failed to break the political mould.

“Our surveys show that the mainstream political parties are deeply discredited and that there’s a strong need for another way to do politics,” Bruno Cautrès, a professor at Sciences Po, says. “But when you ask voters, they still position themselves as either specifically on the right or the left. The traditional split is deeply entrenched.”

However, unlike his predecessors, Mr Macron may have the timing right.

France’s political landscape may soon suffer an earthquake. Surveys predict that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, will qualify for the second round of the presidential elections next year. Given that the FN is still considered a no-go for the majority of French voters, this means that whoever makes it to the run-off against her is likely to be elected president, with votes from the right and the left.

“There will be an overhaul,” Laurent Bouvet, a professor at Versailles University, says. “Macron is anticipating a national unity government. By reaching out to the centre-right now, he’s signalling he is compatible with such a government.”

Macron is anticipating a national unity government. By reaching out to the centre-right now, he’s signalling he is compatible with such a government

– Laurent Bouvet, professor at Versailles University

This could land Mr Macron a job as prime minister if Alain Juppé, who is more popular among centrists than ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, wins the nomination for the centre-right Republicans (polls suggest Mr Hollande is unlikely to qualify for the run-off). Senior centre-right figures including Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former prime minister, have welcomed such a prospect.

However, Mr Macron, who lacks a political base having never been elected, may encounter competition from Manuel Valls, the prime minister he is currently serving under. Like Mr Macron, Mr Valls has irked his socialist camp with a market-oriented philosophy on the economy. He too is looking to build with other political groups.

“The next presidential elections cannot be a repeat of the traditional confrontation between the left and the right,” Mr Valls told Libération newspaper last week. “I don’t see how the winner will be able to govern alone.”

The main difference is that Mr Valls wants to seize control of the socialist party first — by pushing the party’s hardliners out to the far left and transforming the party into a social-democratic force like Tony Blair’s New Labour.

The resilience of mainstream parties suggests changing them from within carries greater chances of success than competing with them. But then, as Mr Cautrès observes, the level of discontent towards them has never been higher.

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