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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Bold, haughty, hyper: will Macron throw it all away as France fights for its future?

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Germany’s “watershed” election? Yawn. For a truly stimulating contest, Europe must look to France, where pre-poll noise levels are rising rapidly. Political debate ranges from the repulsive to the bizarre. Issues that matter most to EU and UK citizens – nationality, migration, climate, cost-of-living, place in the world – are under brutal examination. For floating voters angry about English fish wars, there is even, potentially, a President Poisson.

In an age of predictable, managed and blatantly fixed elections, France’s looming democratic denouement is refreshingly rambunctious and emblematic. As April’s presidential contest comes into focus, the question of identity dominates. What does it mean, these days, to be French? Who belongs – and who doesn’t? Is France a global power or mere cultural theme park for Chinese tourists?

It’s a conundrum deeply familiar to the British. While France, unlike the UK, faces no immediate secessionist threat, it suffers similar internal social, economic, racial and geographical divides – and an imperial hangover, too. The far-right, xenophobic, nationalist-populist tendency common to both countries finds more powerful public expression there. At one time, the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter, Marine, held a monopoly on bigotry. Now it’s an ugly free-for-all.

The new champion of hate is Éric Zemmour, a TV chat show celebrity likened to Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. He demands the “re-Frenchification” of France. “We have to tell French people of migrant origin to make a choice who they are,” he said last month. The French “feel colonised… and have an existential fear of disappearing”. Zemmour wants to ban non-French first names, Islamic headscarves and much else besides.

Although he has yet to say he will run, Zemmour’s headline-grabbing is undermining Marine Le Pen, who launched her third presidential challenge last month under the supposedly fumigated banner of the National Rally. Struggling to regain the initiative, she is promising a national referendum to “drastically” curb immigration, in part by ditching EU freedom of movement and refusing asylum.

Le Pen remains favourite, at this stage, to win a second-round run-off place against the centrist incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, in a repeat of the 2017 election. Macron won easily then with 66% of the vote and would be expected to do so again. But if disillusion, coupled with defections to Zemmour, splits the far-right vote, a centre-right candidate with wider appeal could seize the second-round spot. Such a scenario poses a real threat to Macron.

Problem is, the centre right, represented by the conservative Les Républicains party, has yet to agree a candidate. Xavier Bertrand, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, leads the pack, closely pursued by Valérie Pécresse, council leader in the Île-de-France. Then there’s Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator who is probably better known in Britain than in la France profonde. But nothing is decided.

All the same, if the centre right does eventually rally round one candidate, if that candidate is endorsed by a party vote in December, and if a campaign meltdown similar to that which overwhelmed François Fillon in 2017 is avoided, there is good reason to believe Macron may face a second-round opponent who, unlike Le Pen, has a realistic chance of beating him. That’s a lot of “ifs”. But a lot could change.

Whatever happens on the right, it seems Macron need not fear the left. Airy talk of a social democratic revival across Europe after the SPD’s slim victory in Germany ignores French political realities. Divided as ever into factions, the choice on the left ranges from Anne Hidalgo, Socialist party mayor of Paris, to communists, Trotskyists and the maverick leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise (Unbowed France).

If the French left, broadly defined, and the Greens united behind one presidential candidate, it could in theory win enough votes to secure a run-off spot and beat Macron. But that’s just not going to happen. Macron’s main worry in this respect is that many on the centre left will more readily back a centre-right second-round candidate, rather than him, if Le Pen has already been eliminated.

Le Figaro’s latest daily poll of polls predicts 25% first-round support for Macron, followed by 19% for Le Pen, 15% for Bertrand, 13% for Pécresse and 10% for Mélenchon. One poll last week put Zemmour on 13%. Sadly, Jean-Frédéric Poisson, another rightwing hopeful, is floundering. So despite everything, the election remains Macron’s to lose. Will he blow it?

In recent weeks, busy-bee Macron has been hit by an egg and slapped in the face on “meet-the-people” tours. He’s been confronted by the misery of the excluded and the unextinguished, visceral anger that infused the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). He struggles to reconcile his vow to uphold secular values and eradicate Islamic “separatism” with a vision of a country at peace with its differing racial, religious and cultural aspects. The pandemic may produce more booby traps.

Macron talks a big, unguarded game about France in the world, too. For him, the question of identity is also bound up with the nation’s status as a leader of Europe and a respected power in Africa and the Indo-Pacific. So last month’s US-UK plot to torpedo a prestige submarine sale to Australia amounted to a personal humiliation. It made him look silly, France look weak – and, worse still, irrelevant.

Like the submarine debacle, multiple other issues at home and abroad could yet blow up in his face before next April. They point to fragility at the heart of the Macron presidency. His peculiar brand of bold, haughty hyperpolitics, which brought unexpected glory in 2017, is a vulnerability, too. Political enemies may fail to dethrone him. But ultimately that may not matter. Mercurial Macron has seven months to defeat himself before the guillotine descends. Hold on to your chapeau.

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