The French president's disastrous showing in recent elections has left him in dire need of a political enemy to exploit
Article by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, Paris-based journalist and political commentator.
With 10 months to go until the next French presidential election, it looks as if Emmanuel Macron is going to lose the bet he made in 2017.
Back then, a little-known technocrat who had never been elected to any position and had served as economy minister for barely two years, he built his presidential campaign on the belief that he could change France and up-end old-style politics by cherry-picking the best from the Left and the Right.
His signature catchphrase was “en même temps”: “at the same time”. You could work for social justice and at the same time breed French tech giants. You could pack the National Assembly with fresh faces looking as though they were on work experience, and at the same time have a cabinet of docile old men from previous regimes looking for a career extension. He’d stepped into de Gaulle’s custom-made boots: he was Le Chef.
The second round of regional elections at the weekend was a disaster for Macron and a victory for the old-style politics he had hoped to replace. The French rejected Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (it scored about 20 per cent, down by a third), hammered Macron’s LREM movement (6.9 per cent), and re-elected the incumbents in every single one of France’s 13 regions: five are on the Left, seven on the Right, and there was victory for the SNP-like nationalists in Corsica.
The most worrying sign for Macron was the success of the centre-Right Les Républicains. The fact the party went missing in action in 2017 was a major factor in helping a maverick outsider to the presidency. But if you add the 38 per cent of the vote they won to that of Le Pen it suggests that there exists a solid conservative majority in France. What’s more, Les Républicains now have several plausible presidential candidates, with the northerner Xavier Bertrand leading the pack.
After such a result, anyone else would grovel, cap in hand, to the voters, promising they had got the message. Not Macron. While his ministers showed up on late night news, explaining that local votes had no effect on national politics, their boss was quick to assert that it was all business as usual.
On a visit to open a Chinese-owned factory in Douai (by coincidence at the heart of Xavier Bertrand country), Macron posted a flurry of tweets. “For the past four years, we’ve followed a method. And the results are there! France has become the most attractive country in Europe,” began a thread listing what he saw as his government’s greatest achievements.
There followed a smorgasbord of right-on policies including his work on renewable energy and anti-discrimination, as well as boasts about the available slots for Covid jabs and the #chooseFrance foreign investment campaign. “In 2022, our economy will be the best-performing in Europe!”, he concluded triumphantly.
It is tempting to enjoy his bravado as a comic refusal to accept reality; but the truth is that our lame-duck president will never be as dangerous for Brexit Britain as he is now.
Typical of France’s élites, he has always seen power as a zero-sum game: in order for France to win, others must lose. With Angela Merkel preparing to leave office in September, Macron believes he has a shot at becoming “King of Europe”, the policy-shaping leader of one of the main founding nations.
Taking Brexit Britain down a peg or two is key to realising this ambition. He feels that any “victory”, whether it be major or petty, is not only a vote-getter at home but a chance to further his European ambitions.
Blocking fish lorries at Calais or Rotterdam (or stopping sausages crossing the Irish Sea) creates exactly the sort of incendiary headlines that enable him to grandstand as the defender of EU principles.
This is also the best way to leverage what is left of his presidency. The Fifth Republic gives more power to the president than the US Constitution, especially in terms of foreign policy and defence, so expect international activism from Iran to Africa, enlisting the WHO and the UN on the way.
No Frenchman has ever seen a large supranational behemoth without computing how it can be made to serve his interests (after all, most of them were initially devised by the French). Right now, for Le President, that means helping him to get re-elected.
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