During the 2017 French presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron presented himself as the last bulwark against the ineluctable rise of populism. Rejecting as outdated the dichotomy of right and left, he persuaded many across the political spectrum to vote for him in the first round and ended up confronting Marine Le Pen in the second – which he won by a landslide but with a near record abstention rate. The traditional parties were marginalised. The conservatives, renamed Les Républicains in 2015, had moved to the right under François Fillon. When Fillon failed even to reach the second round in the election, he was replaced by Laurent Wauquiez, who further radicalised the party. The left, meanwhile, collapsed. The Parti Socialiste, more divided than ever, came fifth in 2017, and La France Insoumise, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, lost its initial momentum.
In the run-up to the European elections in May, opinion polls showed that the French would vote on the basis of national issues, which persuaded Macron to repeat the two gambles he had taken in 2017: that the only serious challenger would be Le Pen, and that by dramatising the choice between his own list and that of the far right, he would clean up on the undecided vote. His first hunch was correct, but not the second. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, whose lead candidate was a young unknown, Jordan Bardella, came in ahead with 23.3 per cent of the vote; Macron’s party, La République en Marche, whose list was led by the former minister of European affairs Nathalie Loiseau, took 22.4 per cent. Loiseau spent much of the campaign demonising Le Pen: an irony, as it turned out when the press revealed that in her youth Loiseau had stood as a candidate for a student body at Sciences Po on a far-right list including Christophe Bay, now one of Le Pen’s close collaborators.
Despite all this, Macron had two reasons to be happy. First, support for Les Républicains had plummeted to 8.5 per cent, less than half Fillon’s result in the presidential election. Second, the left was more divided than ever: La France Insoumise won only 6.3 per cent, a third of Mélenchon’s score two years earlier, while the Parti Communiste Français, with 2.5 per cent, barely did better than the Parti Animaliste, which ‘brings animals’ voices to the European elections’. French electoral procedure requires that a list get at least 5 per cent of the vote to be represented in the European Parliament. Of the 79 seats available to France, only eight went to the conservatives and six to the socialists – an unprecedented rout for two parties that have dominated French political life for the last forty years. The biggest surprise was the fact that the French Greens, Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, came in third with 13.5 per cent of the vote, almost double what the polls had predicted. Their list was led by the former campaign director of Greenpeace, Yannick Jadot, and it won a majority of the votes cast by 18 to 24-year-olds.
Unexpectedly, the gilets jaunes mobilisation has served Macron’s purpose. While the protesters were supported for several months by a majority of the French people, the violence in several cities, including Paris, became a media obsession and eventually caused a downturn in public approval. Macron and the minister of the interior, Christophe Castaner, demanded an aggressive response by the police, which intensified the confrontations and – in spite of the fact that hundreds of protesters were badly injured in the streets – slowly drew the public into the president’s camp. Although Macron’s followers ended up representing only a tenth of the electorate and a fifth of the voters in the European elections, that was enough to put En Marche almost neck and neck with Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. In the end, the hostility of the gilets jaunes and the government’s extreme policing polarised the electorate: 44 per cent of those who said they still sympathised with the protesters reported that they had voted for the Rassemblement National list, against only 4 per cent for En Marche (with 20 per cent for La France Insoumise).
This polarisation doubtless contributed to the high turnout; at 48.7 per cent the abstention rate was the lowest in the past 25 years for a European election. But there were regional, professional and generational variations. The abstention rate was 61 per cent in the disadvantaged Seine-Saint-Denis, compared to 42 per cent in gentrified Paris; it rose to 59 per cent among white-collar workers but fell to 49 per cent among management; 60 per cent of under-35s abstained, compared to 38 per cent of those between the ages of 60 and 69. Education and class played a key role. Among school dropouts, the vote for the Rassemblement National was 10 per cent above the national average; among those with a degree it was 11 per cent below. Only 12 per cent of blue-collar workers voted for En Marche, compared to 28 per cent of management. In other words, the ‘president of the rich’ reaped what he had sown during his first two years in office. The electorate was clearly divided along socioeconomic lines.
In a letter issued in March, headed ‘For European Renewal’ and addressed to the ‘Citizens of Europe’, Macron insisted on another division, brought about by a clash of ideologies between ‘progressives’ and ‘nationalists’. There was a fundamental choice, Macron insisted, between those who defend the ‘standards of progress’ which have made Europe a ‘vanguard’ of the world and the ‘anger-mongers, backed by fake news’ who retreat into the ‘trap’ of nationalism, offering only ‘rejection without an affirmative’. On the one hand, he hoped to persuade current members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a heterogeneous group of parties from the right to the centre left united only by the project of a free-market Union, to form a new group of ‘progressives’ with En Marche as the driving force. On the other, he depicted his adversaries as a coalition of ‘nationalists’, belonging to a movement led by Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán. But although Macron’s potential allies agreed to include En Marche as part of their group, they were now wary of the scale of his ambition, and refused to allow one of his representatives to become president of the coalition. In addition, neither Hungary’s Fidesz nor the UK’s Brexit Party was prepared to work with the Rassemblement National. Macron’s imagined political communities had little basis in fact.
Macron’s dualist schema obscured the fact that the two dominant groups in the European Parliament were in reality the conservatives (the European People’s Party) and the social democrats (the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats). The rivalry between Macron’s neoliberals and Salvini’s populists was actually a second-tier confrontation: in the new European assembly these groups are most likely to occupy third and fourth positions. Outdated or not, the right-left division had not disappeared from the European scene. In the event, both the conservatives and the social democrats emerged weakened from the May elections. They remained the largest groups, but lost the joint overall majority that had for decades enabled them to control the European Parliament.
The lessons that Macron drew from his 2017 campaign seemed, as the historian Robert Zaretzky wrote, to be the ‘wrong ones’ for 2019. Part of the reason is technical. Unlike the majority system in national elections in France, the European Parliament is elected by proportional representation, which does not produce a single winner. Tactical voting – in which the prime objective is to eliminate undesirable candidates – is ruled out. But that aside, the key to Macron’s poor performance in May is that two years after his election, many in France – and increasingly in Europe – consider his self-styled progressive identity to be at odds with his actual politics: a mix of neoliberalism and authoritarianism, projected by means of his own distinctive form of populism.
Neoliberal attitudes are what one might expect of a man who had no background in politics but networked his way through a brief career in investment banking. This was evident from the policies he implemented when he came to power: a flat tax on interest from capital and abolition of the wealth tax; a rewriting of the labour code to expand corporate power; taking away protections for railworkers; the end of inflation-indexed pensions; a cut in housing benefit for the poor; a 15-fold rise in college tuition fees for students outside the European Economic Area; the full privatisation of companies in which the state is a majority shareholder, including those that run the Paris airports. Comparisons have been made with Donald Trump’s reforms, but as the French economist Philippe Askenazy sees it, a better analogy is with Thatcher and Blair: as Brexit offers opportunities for Europeans to take over key British assets on the Continent, the implicit slogan is: ‘Make France Greater Britain.’
Macron’s authoritarian style was less visible at the start, but soon showed in the decisions he took and intentions he expressed. The suppression of parliamentary debate on major reforms in favour of passing laws by decree diminished the power of the legislature, which Macron wanted to reduce further by abolishing the Senate. Powers granted to the police at the expense of judges, the expansion of the role of public prosecutors (who are answerable to the minister of justice) and the closure of local courts (to be replaced by online processes) have weakened the judiciary. The abolition of local taxes has reduced the financial resources – and thereby the power – of municipalities. The lack of negotiations over major reforms has marginalised trade unions and strengthened the government’s alliance with employers’ organisations. In consequence, both the principal checks and balances on government power and the role of intermediary bodies are coming under threat. Political parties and independent media are under pressure too. Police raids were ordered on the headquarters of La France Insoumise, Macron’s fiercest critics, and on the offices of Mediapart, a news site that has exposed several scandals in Macron’s circle. After Le Monde revealed various intrigues involving the president’s entourage, its director and one of its investigative journalists were summoned by the intelligence services.
The most striking evidence of the government’s authoritarian turn is the repression of the gilets jaunes protests that began at the end of 2018. Police weapons such as flash-ball guns and dispersal grenades, not used in the rest of Europe, have caused injuries on a scale not seen since the protests at the time of the Algerian War: dozens of peaceful demonstrators, journalists and medics have lost an eye or had a hand ripped off. The show of strength is on the direct orders of the Ministry of the Interior. In March, the head of the Paris police was dismissed when he instructed his officers to avoid using excessive force against the protesters, to be replaced by Bordeaux’s police chief, Didier Lallement, known for his inflexibility and ruthlessness.
Macron’s populist tendencies are not immediately obvious. On the face of it his incessant denunciations of Orbán, Salvini and Le Pen suggest an anti-populist stance – though he has been careful not to criticise Trump or Putin. Populism is typically understood as a discursive strategy opposing the people and the elite, with populists claiming to represent the first against the second. But the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, an advocate of left-wing populism, argues persuasively that it also implies a vertical form of power and requires a charismatic leader. Macron, who makes so much of his rejection of traditional political elites – right and left – and of his wish for a direct relationship with the people, is undoubtedly a populist. On the one hand, he has embraced a form of what the Canadian philosopher Alain Denault calls ‘extreme centrism’: he claims to be above political divisions and beyond political parties (though he is clearly leaning to the right while blurring ideological lines). On the other, having diluted the power of the legislature and the judiciary, he is now installed as a ‘Jupiterian’ (in his coinage) head of state – allowing him at the same time to be distant from the crowd and yet in direct conversation with the people. Although he was said to have been distressed by the gilets jaunes protests, he recovered his usual poise during the dozens of hours of debates organised across the country, which he often turned into didactic monologues in front of impatient audiences.
This is not the populism of Orbán, Salvini or Le Pen, whose conception of the people is brazenly exclusive, ostracising certain groups – usually immigrants and Muslims, sometimes simply political opponents – and proclaiming the superior identity of white Christians (or, euphemistically, ‘patriots’). In Jan-Werner Müller’s analysis, ‘anti-pluralism’ is the defining feature of populism.[*] Macron has never overtly fuelled xenophobia or Islamophobia, but in the ‘great debate’ that was supposed to address the grievances of the gilets jaunes, he was the one to ask them whether they wanted immigration quotas or a reinforced secularism, though such issues had not been central to the protests. And on several occasions he addressed the theme of identity, championing ‘patriotism’, the ‘art of being French’ and the ‘core values’ that must be defended in order to achieve a ‘European renaissance’. His is not the aggressively nationalist populism of his adversaries, but what the French political scientist Marc Lazar describes as ‘centrist populism’: more anti-establishment than anti-pluralist.
Words are one thing, but political leaders must also be judged by their deeds. In October 2017, while Macron was delivering a speech at the European Court of Human Rights urging ‘better conditions for individuals in clear need of international protection’ and respect for their ‘dignity’, the police were harassing, tear-gassing, beating and arresting migrants and refugees in Paris and Calais. In recent years, France has had one of the lowest rates in Europe of successful asylum applications – a statistic that does not include people turned back at the border without filing an application. The experience of refugees and migrants may be no better in Macron’s France than it is in Salvini’s Italy.
But two years into his term in office, Macron is struggling to build support beyond his initial core following, and on the European scene his difficulties are even greater. Where Orbán, Salvini and Le Pen are openly hostile to the EU, holding it responsible for all their countries’ problems even when they are in receipt of European funds, Macron is a conspicuous Europhile, though not in the social democratic fashion of Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission. Macron is interested in the consolidation of the free market, not the expansion of social rights. His vision of deeper integration is one in which Europe will be able to face the challenges of China and the US on the global scene.
Hence his favourable reception in Europe after winning the presidency. His speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, four months after his election, was hailed as a milestone in the rebuilding of an EU shaken by the Greek debt negotiations, the Brexit vote, the inability to agree on the resettlement of migrants and refugees arriving in Southern Europe, and the growing popular disenchantment fuelled by Eurosceptic governments and opposition parties. Against what he called the ‘sad passions of Europe’, he proposed ambitious reforms, including the creation of a ‘European Intelligence Academy’ and a ‘European Agency for Disruptive Innovation’; a common budget for the members of the Eurozone; a carbon tax at the EU’s borders; harmonisation of corporation taxes; revision of copyright law for digital content; and the implementation of an EU-wide asylum policy. Two of Macron’s ideas in particular caused concern. To put the finishing touches on the single market, in his view, the EU would have to move at different speeds, with France and Germany as a vanguard; the European Commission would have to be less bureaucratic; and the number of members would have to be reduced from the current 28 to 15. Smaller member states, unsurprisingly, were not happy, but even Germans were irritated: Die Zeit described Macron as a would-be ‘saviour of Europe’.
The gap between France and Germany widened in the following months when it appeared that instead of expressing support for Angela Merkel, whose coalition was in difficulty, Macron had decided to pursue his European venture on his own, treating her as a lame-duck chancellor two years before the end of her term. This was not the only occasion when the two have expressed their differences in public. At the end of a European climate summit in March, Germany backed Poland’s decision to reject the goal of full EU decarbonisation by 2050 (a policy favoured by France). When Theresa May went to the House of Commons in April to propose a new delay to the Brexit deadline, Merkel appeared conciliatory while Macron grew more adamant about the withdrawal date. He failed to consult Merkel about his letter to the citizens of Europe, let alone suggest they sign it together. Increasingly he has been regarded in Germany as a volatile and arrogant partner; Macron, for his part, saw Merkel as a rival in the European elections: her party, the CDU, is not allied with Renew Europe (the new name of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), as En Marche now is. The weakening of the Franco-German tandem, the engine of the EU for decades, is not a good sign for Europhiles.
Macron thought he could succeed in Europe as he had tried to in France by addressing its citizens while ignoring his counterparts. But, locked in a helpless confrontation with the gilets jaunes, he had already shown his limitations at home and now he has lost out in the European elections. On the plus side, his party has become the backbone of Renew Europe, which looks set to play a significant role now that conservatives and social democrats have lost their grip on the European Parliament. Perhaps Macron’s narrative, insisting on an opposition between ‘progressives’ and ‘nationalists’, will pay off in the long term. But it could also turn out to be dangerous for democracy. By asserting that elections on the old continent have come down to a naked choice between authoritarian neoliberalism and nationalist populism, he has turned the debate into a caricature, polarised the landscape and smothered the conversation about social justice, the absence of which is itself largely responsible for widespread distrust of the political process.