The political landscape in France was changed irrevocably in 2017: or was it? We are inclined to think so because Emmanuel Macron came out of the Parti Socialiste, renounced it, and in no time at all formed his own party that catapulted him to the presidency. Yet, seven months after those remarkable events, where is the momentum for La République En Marche?
It appears, to put it mildly, to have evaporated. The party had a congress in Lyon last month that very few people were inclined to sign up for – including many of the party’s representatives in the Assemblée Nationale.
It is almost as if the people who clove to LREM in the spring have unanimously said “job done” and moved on.
Certainly, the driving force before the election was a perfect storm of political sleaze and incompetence that left the way open for a challenger from outside France’s established two-party system.
President Hollande, in one of the rare perceptive acts of his political career, realised he would be crushed if he attempted to run for a second term in office after the almost non-stop debacle of his first, and went off to spend more time with his actress girlfriend.
A genuine nonentity, Benoît Hamon, was eventually chosen as the socialist candidate, and came fifth: the PS has yet to recover, and it would be a brave person who would say it would.
As in Britain, a substantial element of the working class felt alienated by the party whose purpose was ostensibly to represent it, and looked for another pledged to challenge the vested interests of the elites of all parties who had long ruled the country.
That was why Jean-Luc Mélenchon secured 19% of the vote, not least – as also was the case with UKIP in Britain – because he vented hostility at the European Union, and how little it had done for working-class people.
But M. Macron’s best break was in the regrettable scandal surrounding the wife of the Les Républicains candidate, François Fillon. Like Tony Blair taking on John Major in 1997, he could pose as a radical candidate who had appeal to the left but did not remotely frighten the right – as seen by the choice of his prime minister from that very part of the political spectrum.
The choice came down to one between the all-things-to-all-men Macron and the ideological hard-liner Marine Le Pen – though even she muted her message in the face of this wave of moderation during the campaign. France could be radical and play it safe at the same time: so it voted for M. Macron, and it was a new dawn.
It would be untrue to say that President Macron has been idle in his first seven months. He has started on his reforms of the Code du Travail, the main blockage in any plan to restructure the French economy. The threatened paralysis of France by the syndicalistes, angry at his labour reforms, has yet to manifest itself, which is also a serious moral victory for him.
However, the discontent in what passes for his own party has now gone beyond simple apathy: 100 of its members, including some elected officials, have resigned, calling the way LREM is run “an affront to the fundamental principles of democracy with an organisational style worthy of the ancien régime”.
They claimed it had ceased to be a political movement and started to become a personality cult.
Certainly, the air of grandeur around M. Macron, and the way in which he conducts himself, suggests he has a definite idea of his place in France and, indeed, in history.
Also, a party leader was appointed at the Lyon congress from a field of one, which caused particular annoyance.
The president may feel that he does not really need a party: after all, he assembled one in a few weeks to win the election, and maybe he thinks he could do the same again.
The difficulty is that he will be the establishment next time, and someone else will turn up and challenge him.
Even four-and-a-half years out, I would put money on his main rival in 2022 being Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is in a state of re-invention after its disappointing performance in May.
With M. Macron speaking with forked tongue about the EU – one day he says to his friend Angela Merkel that he wants deeper integration, to lock France into a single European economy, then the next he talks about the need for the EU to be more democratically responsive (an unlikely consequence of deeper integration) – a way opens up for a mainstream populist party to take him on.
Mme Le Pen botched her approach to Europe in the spring. By committing herself to come out of the euro she went ahead of French public opinion: but not perhaps forever.
The Italian election next spring is likely to result in a coalition whose parties are promising a referendum on the euro too.
Brussels will go to lengths to see the project is not derailed, but Mme Le Pen knows that widespread discontent with Europe is not confined to the United Kingdom and she will bide her time: the last campaign was a learning experience and, for that reason if no other, enormously valuable to her and her party.
And another sign of that was, just as LREM was starting to crumble, the FN sent out a questionnaire to (it claimed) its 80,000 members asking them 24 questions about policy, and seeking to narrow the gulf that grew up last time between their and the leadership’s expectations.
It is the opposite of how President Macron is playing those to whom he owes his position. In a country that still prizes the values of 1789, it is a shrewd move, and one he would be wise to copy.
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