Liberte, egalite, disunite


Some quick take-outs from the first round of the French presidential elections over the weekend:

1. Emmanuel Macron on 23.8 per cent of the votes, followed by Marine Le Pen with 21.5 per cent, followed by Francois Fillon with 19.9 per cent and Jean-Luc Melenchon with 19.4. Oh, and Benoit Hamon on 6.3.

2. In case the names all sound French to you and don’t tell you very much, the old party establishment got thoroughly humiliated, with Fillon of the Republicans (the party of De Gaulle and Sarkozy) and Hamon of the Socialists (the party of Mitterand and Hollande) scraping a little over a quarter of the vote between them.

3. So the big winners were outsiders, but while the voters rejected old faces and associations, they did not necessarily reject old ideas. Le Pen, often described as “far-right”, is a populist and nationalist; Melenchon is on the far left; and Macron, a former Socialist and an investment banker (but of course!) describes himself as neither right nor left, but a centrist. Both Macron’s “On the Move” and Melenchon’s Left Party have been very recent grassroots movements, showing you no longer need the party machine to get votes.

4. In some ways, Macron is the antithesis of Le Pen; he is optimistic to her pessimism, pro-EU to her Euroceptism, globalist to her nationalism. But is it all vague feel-good vibe or is there any substance to Macron? As Le Pen told him in a TV debate, “Mr Macron you have an amazing talent, you’ve spoken for seven minutes and I’m unable to resume your thinking. You’ve said nothing!”

As well as wanting to improve the business environment, Macron stresses the need to boost education in deprived areas and has spoken out against stigmatising Muslims with France’s strict rules on secularism.

His championing of tech firms and the “Uber-isation” of the economy, in which people increasingly work as independents rather than as employees, has helped burnish his image as a moderniser.

“I want us to be able to start a business more easily, to innovate more easily” is one of his mantras, explained in depth in his pre-election book “Revolution”.

Sounds a bit like Malcolm Turnbull of French politics, doesn’t it? France certainly needs a moderniser, but as everywhere else it is all easier said than done, particularly since until the June elections he won’t have any “On the Move” support in the parliament, and probably a limited one thereafter.

Neither here nor there, but Macron is married to his former high school teacher, 24 years his senior, which is rather unusual even by the French standards.

5. Despite so many things going in her favour, Le Pen has under-performed, showing once again there is a significant populist strain in European politics, but in most countries it is nowhere near powerful enough to dominate and govern. The Netherlands and Germany are some of the other recent examples.

6. Baring a miracle, Macron will be the next president of France, receiving the backing of all the other parties and political forces in the second round against Le Pen. She will thus repeat her father’s experience of getting into the run-off only to be ganged up on by the rest of the French political spectrum.

7. Macron or no Macron, I can’t see France’s deep-seated and structural economic problems or the frayed multicultural social fabric getting any better in the short to medium term.