Richard North, 25/04/2017  
 


It says something of the general election campaign – still cranking into gear – that, briefly, the English media have found the French election marginally more interesting than our own.

But it should come as no great surprise that the English press is just as ill-informed about French politics as it is about everything else. Thus do we have the Daily Mail proclaiming a "New French Revolution", marking the success of Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the presidential contest, with Marine Le Pen taking second place.

Only an English paper, though, could describe a process which puts a Jesuit-trained enarque in pole position as a "revolution". As a former member of the Socialist Party, a senior member of President Hollande's staff and then Minister of Economy and Finance, Macron is nothing if not a political insider, from the very heart of the establishment.

Furthermore, although the English media is also making great play of the "wipe-out" of the traditional parties, political parties by no means have the same resonance in France as they do in the UK.

The centre-right, in particular, has been playing fast and loose with party names, from de Gaulle's Union for the New Republic (Union pour la nouvelle république or UNR) onwards. Having been started up as a platform for de Gaulle, it was replaced for the 1968 legislative election by the Union for the Defence of the Republic (Union pour la défense de la République or UDR).

In December 1976, the UDR was replaced by the Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République or RPR), a New Gaullist Party, devised as a machine of reconquest behind one man, Jacques Chirac (who, as presidential candidate later took on Le Pen senior).

Before the 2002 presidential election, RPR and non-RPR supporters of Chirac gathered in an association: the "Union on the move". It became the Union for the Presidential Majority (Union pour la majorité présidentielle or UMP), largely as a personal platform for Jacques Chirac.

Then in May 2015, with a Socialist government in power, the party was renamed and succeeded by the Republicans (Les Républicains). This party, formally less than two years old, provided the platform from which François Fillon mounted his challenge, gaining seven million votes and 19.94 percent of the poll, against Macron who took 23.7 percent, and Le Pen with 21.53 percent.

With parties of the right tailored to provide platforms for presidential candidates, it was entirely logical for Macron to set up his own party for the centre-left, to replace the hugely unpopular and discredited Socialist Party.

Although Macron now calls himself an "independent", his dependence on a tailor-made political platform is entirely in keeping with traditional French politics. The "wipe out" of traditional parties, therefore, is meaningless.

As to his stance on Brexit, he made this very clear before the referendum. France, he said, would not allow its British neighbour to be given any special status. "We are inside or outside, and the day after the departure, there will be no financial passport for the British establishments", he added, stating that the European Council must issue an ultimatum to the British about their intentions.

As far as the President of the Republic was concerned (and that most likely will be he), Macron had a very clear message: "If the United Kingdom wants a commercial treaty for access to the European market, the British will have to contribute to the European budget like the Norwegians or the Swiss. If London does not wish it, it must be a total exit".

Bizarrely, Norway does not contribute to the EU budget, but you would not expect French politicians to be any better informed about EU matters than their UK counterparts. The "invincible ignorance" we experience is not confined to this side of the Channel.

Looking at the "challenge" that would follow this referendum, in his view, the EU had two priorities. It had to: "avoid the contamination of the 'Brexit' and immediately relaunch the momentum of a positive project for Europe". 

Even if "Remain" prevails, Macron said at the time, France will take the initiative. "If we allow 'Brexit' to gnaw at the European adventure, you will have similar debates among the Danes, the Dutch, the Poles, the Hungarians, and this is already the case". Thus, he says, "we must return to the original promises of the European project: peace, prosperity and freedom". 

This, then, is a man from whom we cannot expect too much, although he will at least be predictable. And if the UK can offer a "European" solution to Brexit, then we could find in the new President a friend and an ally. It will be easier to deal with a "European" than a French nationalist from the de Gaulle mould.

However – assuming Macron gets the presidency – the real effect will not be felt until we see the outcome of the German federal election. And there, it seems more and more likely that Merkel will be re-elected chancellor.

Given that Macron has married a woman 24 years his senior (his one-time school teacher), one might be able to make tentative assumptions about his relationship with Merkel – positing that the Franco-German "motor" might be re-energised.

And it is this combination of two strongly Euro-centric leaders that will make the difference – even if it is not necessarily decisive. The one thing about which we can be certain is that the European Union performs best (in its own terms) when there is harmony between Berlin and Paris. And this, above all else, is what Macron may bring to the table.

As for Marine le Pen, it is doubtful whether she could ever overcome the electoral inertia that grips French politics and, while some voters are happy to have their fling on the first round, they invariably come into line in the run-offs. We have no reason to believe otherwise in this election.

The only real dampening effect on Macron's ambitions is likely to come in the legislative elections in June later this year. With the Socialists in disarray, the established party is unlikely to prevail. Macron's En Marche "movement", on the other hand, has not been around long enough to build up an effective party machine.

On that basis, one can speculate that Les Républicains will gain the majority of seats in the Assembly. And if that is the case, the newly-minted president may be forced into a period of cohabitation, limiting his freedom of action.

However, when it comes to Brexit, there is no discernible difference between Macron and Fillon, with the latter arguing for it to be "fast, hard and uncompromising". If that represents the position of Les Républicains, we will, if anything, be better off with Macron. But it also means that there will be few divisions that "Team Brexit" will be able to exploit.

All in all, from the election just past and the ones to come, we are probably no worse off, but no better off than we could expect. We are going to have to deal with Brexit, and if there was any expectation that the political calculus could change with either the French or German elections, that is fast evaporating.






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