This article is part of a series I wrote between the presidential and legislative elections in France.
- The hole in the centre ground: how France’s north-east coalfields turned to the populists
- Can Macron bring back the extremes?
- The Louvre-Lens museum: elitist imposition or economic catalyst?
It was the defining moment of the campaign. Marine Le Pen had set up Emmanuel Macron, but the soon-to-be president got his own back. Macron was talking to union representatives from a tumble-dryer factory threatened with closure in Amiens, in the north-east of France. Le Pen visited workers on the picket line and told them Macron was showing “contempt” by failing to visit them.
Macron then did visit. He was met by whistling and calls of “Marine for President”. Yet he spoke to the crowd for over an hour, trying to persuade them that Le Pen’s protectionism would lead to a dead-end. He left shaking hands with the workers.
The episode got to the heart of the difference between the two presidential candidates. Macron represents the France which is optimistic about open trade and open borders; Le Pen the opposite.
Macron is now in power, but those sceptical about globalisation will remain unconvinced. He believes his programme can reduce unemployment and grow the economy. However, while he has colonised the centre ground, he will struggle to bring those who voted for the far-right and the far-left back to mainstream politics.
The first obstacle to enacting his proposals are the legislative elections this month to decide the composition of parliament. Macron’s La République En Marche is on track to get a big majority, beating the right–wing Les Républicains, the severely depleted Parti Socialiste, and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. Le Pen’s far-right Front National (FN) is hoping to pick up more seats than it did at the last legislative elections five years ago.
When I visited Lens in the Pas-de-Calais department – close to Amiens – before the election, I discovered how Macron’s supporters thought he could help the area, and how he has filled a centrist hole in French politics [see photo above: Josette Dautriche, second from right, and Marie-Christine Playe, third from right, with other Macron supporters].
Traditionally on the centre-right, Josette Dautriche became disillusioned after Nicolas Sarkozy tacked to the hard right in his failed bid to get re-elected as president in 2012 as he tried to attract supporters of Le Pen by talking tough on immigration.
“I didn’t recognise myself at all anymore in any politician,” she told me. When Macron came to prominence, she realised she shared his ideas. Another volunteer was previously on the centre-right as well, but others used to back the Socialists or the Greens.
Caterina Froio, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford who specialises in ring-wing extremism and radicalism, believes that Macron is trying to “reconstruct a political core” around the centre and cordon off the extremes.
However, with many politicians and voters on the centre-left and centre-right rallying around Macron, Le Pen has an opportunity to present herself as the true opposition. This is particularly the case in Pas-de-Calais, one of only two departments to have opted for the far-right leader in the second round of the presidential election.
Andrew Hussey, historian of France and professor at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, believes that the fact that Macron has “evaporated the stable monoliths of left and right” gives Le Pen an opportunity. A new generation will be politically homeless, and Hussey thinks the FN’s long-term strategy is “to convert those politically homeless people into a politically potent group, by saying ‘we will look after you, this will be your home, we will be your political family.’”
Froio tells me the party is at a time in its life where it “really wants to get into power”. The FN currently holds none of the 12 seats in parliament for the Pas-de-Calais region. Hugues Sion, standing as a FN-supporting candidate in Lens, told me in May he believed there were seven or eight possibilities for the party to gain deputies in the area.
The strongest motivation among supporters I met was the idea that Macron would offer a renewal of political life, breaking through a system seen as inaccessible, corrupt and inefficient.
François Fillon, the defeated candidate for Les Républicains, was elected in that party’s primaries after talking about the need to be clean in politics. This was a way to differentiate himself from Sarkozy, who has been dogged by corruption allegations. Yet Fillon was subsequently himself put under investigation in a ‘fake jobs’ scandal and saw his campaign flounder.
Dautriche thinks that just as police officers are expected to have a blank criminal record, politicians who are convicted of a crime should not return to politics.
She believes citizens have been locked out of politics, but “Macron, he wants to blow up the barriers”. She liked his intention to stand candidates from a non-political background in the legislative elections. This intention was realised. Of the candidates standing, over half have never been elected before. They also have an equal gender balance.
“It’s the first time you have someone who says ‘I want people who are new to everything,’” said Marie-Christine Playe, another volunteer.
Dautriche told me tradesmen and shopkeepers find it difficult to employ people because rules are too rigid and expensive. Macron wants to give companies more freedom to negotiate working hours and pay, and to cap severance pay, making it easier to hire and fire workers. If this does boost employment, it could tempt people away from the extremes.
Froio says research shows education helps in combatting the far-right: spending more on education could mean fewer people vote for the FN. Macron pledged to reduce class sizes and pay teachers more in 12,000 low-income zones, and to give all 18 year olds a €500 culture pass.
Anne Roquet, candidate for En Marche in Lens, told me she thinks FN voters are ill-equipped for the modern job market. She worries “they do not have knowledge of how social networks work,” pointing to a lack of education in a broader sense.
However, Mélenchon supporters already tend to be well-educated. Froio suggests a factor in people turning to the far-left is a lack of good quality work.
Hussey is doubtful about how Macron can appeal to the anti-establishment mood in rural France. He thinks the new president looks like an “IT manager who’d come in and restructure your company and put you out of work”.
Another question is whether Macron will want to bring in the extremes; Froio says it is not in his interests to do so. His strategy so far has been to unite the centre against the far-right and far-left, and up to now it has succeeded.
In the wake of the presidential elections Le Pen and Mélenchon also face challenges. Froio says Le Pen’s ability to present herself as the true opposition to Macron will depend on the internal dynamics of a divided party. One side, particularly represented by Le Pen’s advisor Florian Philippot, wants the party to pitch itself as neither left nor right. This side supports the welfare state, wants France to leave the Euro, and is relatively liberal on women’s rights and homosexuality.
The other side wants the party to position itself explicitly on the right, and is less bothered about Europe but more socially conservative. This strand was best represented by Marine’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, but in the wake of the FN’s presidential defeat she has taken a break from politics. Marine Le Pen is trying to satisfy both sides, according to Froio. Whether she can continue to do so after the presidential election and a possible poor performance in the legislative elections is a different matter.
Hussey thinks the FN can hold it together, however: “You can have ideological tensions within a party but it doesn’t mean it’s going to self-destruct.”
As for Mélenchon, Froio believes his role in French politics has been weakened, because the French Communist Party and La France Insoumise have decided to run separately in the legislative elections.
Macron has inspired many who are fed up with traditional party politics, but many more remain outside of the mainstream. For Hussey today there are four different political classes, corresponding to the four main candidates for the presidency: Mélenchon, Le Pen, Macron and Fillon. These groups “don’t speak to each other,” which is what makes French democracy “so precarious now”.
Macron is successfully monopolising the centre ground. However, there is a large bulk of voters on the extremes who remain unimpressed. Unless he can follow through on policies to placate their anger, they will still be there for the next presidential elections in five years’ time.