A sigh of relief echoed through Vienna. It was the evening of December 4th 2016, and news was emerging that Austrian citizens had rejected far-right nationalist Norbert Hofer in the country’s presidential election. With it later confirmed that the social liberal Alexander Van Bellen had won 53.8 % of the vote, the global left celebrated the beginning of the ‘liberal fightback’.
After a tumultuous year which saw Brexit and the rise of Trump, Austria’s election of Van Bellen was a clear signal that far-right politics is not the only game in town for the West. The next stop is France, as the National Front’s Marine Le Pen looks to capitalise on the nation’s growing divisions and unease. With a strong anti-EU and anti-immigration agenda, far-righter Le Pen is set to make it to the final round of the French elections in May. In what has been a spiral course of an election so far, a rookie from the centre of French politics is on his way to defeating her there. It is 39 year old Emmanuel Macron.
Rise of the Outsider
The rise of Emmanuel Macron has been nothing short of phenomenal. Formerly a member of the socialist party and having previously served as economy minister, Macron eventually figured he could no longer suppress his independent ambitions. It was in April 2016 when he founded his own party ‘En Marche’, followed by the announcement of his presidential candidacy in November 2016. Dismissed as a ‘dark horse’ in the early weeks, Macron’s aspirations took on a palpable note before Christmas, when he overtook centre-right candidate Francois Fillon in election polls. Since then he has continued to rise in popularity. He is currently coming 3 % behind Marine Le Pen, who leads the polls, but Macron is expected to defeat her in the second round of elections and become president.
But what is it about the outsider that has led to his ascendancy? For those dismayed by years of the Hollande presidency, Macron comes across as an anti-establishment populist with new ideas. His boyish and fresh-faced looks have helped form this image, as have his grandiose statements of ‘smashing up the system’ and taking part in ‘a struggle for all of us’. Describing himself as ‘’neither left nor right’’, he has been portrayed as a social liberal who is pro free markets, business, and long working hours, but also believes in extending the welfare state.
Unlike anti-establishment figures in the U.S. and elsewhere, however, Macron takes a liberal stance on globalisation and social issues. He is unequivocally pro-Europe and against a potential ‘Frexit’, believing in the capacity of EU members to work together. He has also taken a pro-immigration stance, while stressing the importance of border reform. Indeed, on the divisive topic of Islam and French society, Macron has been the polar opposite of the nationalist Le Pen and conservative Filion: he has called for greater integration of France’s Muslim population and has advocated freedom of religious expression.
It is these open-ended positions have allowed Macron to consolidate votes from across the political spectrum, which has only been aided by recent developments in the election. Most important here has been the defeat of Manuel Valls by the far-left Benoit Hamon in the socialists primary. The centre-left Valls is close to Macron on many issues, and his defeat paves the way for voters of Valls to now vote for Macron. Crucially, also, has been the decline of Francis Fillon. Currently embroiled in a nepotistic scandal, in which he paid family members for uncompleted work, Fillon has seen his ratings fall as well as there being calls for him to end his campaign. As the French election takes place over two rounds, Macron should now comfortably beat Fillon in the first round. This will lead to a showdown with Le Pen, who, despite believing in a far-right social agenda, has been strongly left wing on economic issues and openly critical of multinationals. Corporate voters with their pro-business stance will more than likely now turn their attention towards Macron. Combine this with the majority of left-wing voters also backing Macron, leaving him in an ideal position.
The Challenges ahead
But is this the peak of the honeymoon period for Macron, and have the hard questions being asked yet? While he continues to build momentum, a number of issues will ultimately determine if the hot prospect takes the throne in May.
Firstly, will voters trust his lack of experience? Despite being former minister of the economy, Macron has never run for elected office. People have noted his vague positions on many issues, most notably in the area of foreign policy and security. While the appeal of fresh and new idea’s has brought Macron this far, it is imperative that he starts detailing his broader plans for the country. His manifesto is due to be released at the end of February, and this presents him with the ideal chance to show he can ‘walk the talk’.
Secondly, how socially conservative is France? With Fillon presumably on an inexorable decline, the French electorate will now have to choose between Le Pen or Macron. Macron’s liberal stance on social issues might not sit well with a majority of voters, leading them to divert to Le Pen.
Thirdly, will his pro-business and market stance dissuade voters on the left? Despite cultivating a ‘centrist’ political image, Macron makes no secret of his capitalist leanings, and was even a former investment banker with Rothschild. Those with hard-left and anti-capitalist views may be tempted to play the ‘no vote’ card. In the likely event though pragmatism will trump pride, and the left will unite to stop Le Pen.
Of course there are numerous other questions and possibilities, and the most crucial days are still to come. For now it is Macron’s duty to form his clear image for France, and how he can serve its broad spectrum of citizens.
15 years ago France had a choice to vote for Jacques Chirec to stop Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen taking power. “Better the thief than the fascist’’ sighed reluctant voters, as they got behind Chirec to stop a right-wing nationalist taking over France. This time the French are faced with an easier choice. While Macron’s inexperience and staunch centrism raises questions, a vote for him will ensure that the politics of divisiveness and racism don’t become the norm for France. A vote for Macron will deal a hammer blow to the EU-scepticism sweeping the continent, and help keep the institution alive. Most importantly, a vote for Macron will show that political upsets don’t have to come from the populist far-right, but that they also can emanate from a more moderate position based on values of tolerance, diversity, and openness.
As the xenophobic seeds of the Trump era begin to take root, the need for this shift is becoming increasingly urgent.