Jonathan Fenby

What’s the matter with Macron?

Emmanuel Macron looks certain to be president of France, but this young pretender is marching towards disaster

What’s the matter with Macron?
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Coming out of a celebratory dinner at a Montparnasse brasserie after topping the poll in the first round of the French presidential election on Sunday, Emmanuel Macron had a brief brush with the press. A reporter asked: ‘Is this your Fouquet moment? This referred to a notoriously showy celebration by Nicolas Sarkozy at Fouquet’s restaurant after his own victory in 2007. The 39-year-old centrist was visibly cross. He simply wanted to thank his secretaries, security officers, politicians and writers, he said. Then came the dig. ‘If you don’t understand that,’ he said, ‘you understand nothing about life. I have no lessons to learn from the petit milieu Parisien.’

This dismissive reference to the chattering classes is par for the course for a man who shows no hesitation in demonstrating his superiority; a man who claims he’ll create a new sort of politics to replace the discredited and cliquey system which reached its nadir under Hollande. But behind Macron on the red velvet banquettes of the brasserie was as fine a collection of a particular kind of Parisian in-crowd as one could wish for.

Jonathan Fenby and Anne-Elisabeth Moutet discuss Macron's coronation:

Alongside secretaries and security guards sat the perennial presidential adviser Jacques Attali, who was whispering in François Mitterrand’s ear as he steered France into a downward course in the early 1980s. There was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, survivor of the 1968 student riots turned Green politician and all-purpose pundit. There was a radio host, a well-known actor, a veteran senator and big city boss and the 88-year-old singer Line Renaud. Very much business as usual.

The man who set up his own party to challenge the system, En Marche! (his own initials), is in fact a perfect insider-outsider. A graduate of the top administrative college, l’ENA, he made a fortune organising mergers and acquisitions for the Rothschild bank, earning €2.9 million in one takeover and getting the nickname of ‘the Mozart of finance’. In the seamless way of the French elite, he gravitated to the Elysée Palace as a Hollande adviser and became economics minister in 2014, lasting two years before resigning and setting his sights on returning as president of the republic. Macron, immaculately groomed, exudes confidence and seems to have an answer for everything, including the need not to make concessions to the UK over Brexit. He has determination and ambition, but he’d be wise to remember how lucky he’s been too. Given the Socialist Hollande’s abject unpopularity, this looked like the year when the centre-right Republicans were bound to regain the presidency. But their candidate, François Fillon, ran into fatal allegations that he arranged big payments from state funds to his wife and family for work they did not do.

The Socialists split, choosing the left-winger Benoît Hamon and prompting a walk-out by social democrats like former premier Manuel Valls, who backed Macron despite bad blood between them when they were in government together. Two of the party’s important provincial figures, Lyons mayor Gérard Collombe and Jean-Yves Le Drian, president of the Regional Council of Brittany, swung behind the pretender. The rise of the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round campaign, addressing huge crowds and using a hologram to appear at two rallies at time, provided an alternative pole to Marine Le Pen for angry voters. As her polls ratings declined, she focused on her core electorate and thus limited her ability to broaden her appeal. Macron had only to ensure that the swelling ranks of En Marche! supporters remained pumped up. Laurent Joffrin, editor of the left-wing Libération, conjured up a new political substance, Macronite, as a 21st-century version of Teflon — or the Gallic equivalent of Blairite. Macron deftly deflected accusations that his policies were like a box of chocolates: neatly arranged but with soft centres. He promised to cut the budget deficit while reducing taxation, but avoided Fillon’s Thatcherite rigour. When claims surfaced of a gay relationship, he smiled and, referring to Mélenchon’s doppelgänger, said: ‘If you’re told I lead a double life, it’s because my hologram has escaped.’

Macron has the backing of Angela Merkel and can be expected to unite with Germany in making sure that soft terms for Brexit do not encourage the Le Pen-Mélechon Eurosceptics. The main threat on 7 May is likely to be from left-wingers unable to bring themselves to vote for a banker in a country with a deep distrust of the financial sector, and from those who find him too representative of the elite they want to overturn. His real challenges will start then, and he will no longer be able to count on Macronite good fortune.

The immediate problem is the June legislative elections. En Marche! has no members of parliament — it plans to run candidates in all 577 constituencies, but when voters choose their National Assembly representatives they often stick to candidates they know. And Macron’s movement lacks a national organisation. Last Sunday he scored well in big cities and western France but his opponents did better in swaths of the north and south. Even Charles de Gaulle could not muster a parliamentary majority of his own when he founded the Fifth Republic in 1958.

So President Macron will need backing from others in the National Assembly. That will mean a lot of old-fashioned horse-trading. The outlines of such an alliance are: social democrats and centrists plus the liberal wing of the Republicans under former prime minister Alain Juppé. But apart from requiring a lot of minding, coalitions tend not to be resolute in offering the kind of radical changes in economic and social policy Macron has offered, and which he needs to keep En Marche! mobilised.

The Republican leadership will want to avoid being sucked into the new president’s orbit. The Socialists, who had a disastrous first round with only 6 per cent of the vote, will struggle for survival and will resist a Macron takeover. In short, building a new reformist, liberal, pro-Europe Jerusalem looks like being more a matter of forging alliances with skittish, self-protective partners. It is a great mistake to imagine that the anti-Le Pen line-up on 7 May will endure. The single aim of stopping the Front will be replaced by a myriad of party, regional and personal interests. The idealists of En Marche! may find that hard to stomach. A movement that came from nowhere could all too easily dissolve like snowflakes in the sun.

Macron’s task is made all the more tricky by the legacy of another element in the voting last Sunday. Almost half the voters supported anti-establishment parties. Their parliamentary representation will be well short of their popular backing. That is likely to fuel street action encouraged by Mélenchon and Le Pen, whose Front is the principal political vehicle for industrial workers and has made inroads into depressed rural areas. The big CGT union federation will try to make up for declining membership by increased militancy. Vested interests, from farmers to pharmacists, will be up in arms. A rentrée chaude is on the cards for the autumn.

The first-round vote showed a sharply divided nation. Le Pen took nine departments among those with the highest jobless rates. They are not likely to fall for the Macron charm or his liberal ‘open to the world’ policies. So France will come out of one election and approach another split between the haves and have-nots with two articulate rabble-rousers confronting the political start-up of the decade.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of The History of Modern France