By Dalton Fischer-Linnett
Five years ago I sat chewing dressed olives in a café behind the Boulevard Saint- Germain in Paris’ ritzy-bohemian sixth arrondissement. As the sun sank into balmy spring air, casting a long shadow from my glass of mint water, a great clatter erupted in the thoroughfare around the corner. Television screens facing out to the street from inside the many cafés began to bounce and flicker to news broadcasts. A hologram of a short man with a cactus of retreating hair and thin, frameless glasses stood, smiling faintly, in buzzing television studios among real-life presenters. Below him the announcement: François Hollande elected president of the Republic.
Paris’ sixth district, and its nearby Latin Quarter, are thick with students. Although today the Rive Gauche boasts some of the priciest property in Europe, its traditional association with artists and thinkers has preserved a leftist heritage. Revelers, mostly young, emerged seemingly from nowhere to stuff the famous boulevard. Banners unfurled and rose over the crowd, bearing the Socialist Party’s pink rose. Cries of “Vive la Republique!” ricocheted off limestone walls and set café parasols trembling.
I stood and joined the thickening throng, undulating slowly but with growing purpose eastward. As the sun set, we marched to the Bastille, where many a leftist demonstration has reached its head in the centuries since the French Revolution was born there in 1789. Late into the night, celebrating cries – many increasingly slurred as the hour dwindled – riddled the streets of the city. The warm spring air seemed to bubble.
Five years later, that same air seems to have frozen stiff. France’s political conversation has been pulled so taut that a word might bring the whole atmosphere shattering down. The jubilation I joined that day in 2012 has evaporated; the man in whose name it had mobilized is now the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, and the most unpopular head of state in the whole of Europe.
What did Mr Hollande do to fall so spectacularly from public approval? How could a man who inspired such excitement become the object of such bitter disdain? The truth is, for all his flaws, Mr Hollande was not the author of his own demise. Something changed forever in the years that passed between my evening on Saint-Germain and my return to France in the summer of 2015. We all know, by now, of the tide of populism swelling in Europe – indeed, it is stronger in France than almost anywhere else. But something has been broken besides. France is not merely a victim of the “Brexit-Trump” phenomenon. If she were, Marine Le Pen and her National Front might have hoped to garner more than 21 per cent of the vote in the first round on April 23.
More than simply succumb to the siren call of populism, France has grown ill of its stale combat between the centre-left and the centre-right; between two conglomerate parties that seem to condescend, to serve themselves, and far too often, to break their promises. Mr Hollande’s early reforms did not go as far as his voters had been led to believe; in 2014, with the appointment of the liberal Emmanuel Macron to the Ministry of the
Economy, the president showed himself ready to U-turn on the economy, pleasing his prime minister’s centre-liberal wing of the party at the expense of the traditionalist cohort. Mr Hollande would never be the socialist Messiah as he had billed himself in 2012. His unprecedented decision not to run for reelection, and the trouncing of former prime minister Manuel Valls in the party’s presidential primary, spelled a dark electoral future for France’s traditional left-wing power constituency. In the event, the traditionalist Benoit Hamon would be roundly rejected by his party’s voters and his country, winning less than seven percent. The party of Francois Mitterrand could face a rout in the legislative elections in June.
The same Mr Macron, branded a “traitor” by the Hamonite wing of the Socialist Party, will contest the runoff on May 7 against Ms Le Pen. The battle lines will be two diametrically opposed visions of the French and European future – Mr Macron’s an urban, intellectual, and integrationist France; Ms Le Pen’s an agro-industrial one with stiff borders, closer to its traditional roots.
But how did that Mr Macron – the “traitor”, the “opportunist”, the “banker”, “elitist”, “novice”, “boy” – rise so high so quickly? His only experience with government is a two- year shift as the unelected Minister of the Economy – a job where his liberalizing reforms made him a hero to many but a villain to millions of others, particularly to left- wing socialists who felt duped by their president, who had nominated him. Until the opening of investigations into Republican François Fillon’s parliamentary payment scandal, most pundits gave Mr Macron, at best, an outside chance at the second round, let alone at the Élysée Palace.
But it is clear that Mr Macron is something of a remarkable individual. Comparisons have been drawn with Barack Obama in 2008, and the Nick Clegg phenomenon in Britain in 2010. When he speaks, he maintains a piercing gaze with the camera and his audience. His eyebrows often lifted, he looks always to be thinking, calculating, and considering. His youth in a field populated mostly with quinqua- and sexagenarians endows him with an appearance of energy and optimism that Mr Fillon and Mr Mélenchon can do nothing to imitate. His movement, En Marche! capitalizes on this gender of personality cult – its logo is written in handwriting and its initials, conveniently, are his.
I have believed since last April, when Mr Macron launched his movement, that he would succeed Mr Hollande as president. This view was held by very few until very recently. Centrists often do not fare well in European elections – especially when unaffiliated with any major centre-left or centre-right party. But the direct mandate of France’s presidential election permits Mr Macron to do something Mr Clegg never could in Britain. The presidency is an individual office, occupied by a person, not by a party. Like Mr Obama, France’s own centrist has built his campaign around an almost-celebrity image. His decision to remain unaffiliated enables him uniquely to attract voters from other parties who would balk at the idea of voting for a rival party, but are less afraid of voting for the man himself if his ideas seem promising. The Macron campaign operates a high-definition, flattering Instagram profile, which often portrays its candidate with his face raised slightly to the sky, his arms outstretched – an invocation, a vindication, a blessing. It is the image of a man with the dynamism and the optimism to bring real change to a country begging for a revised future.
Whether this is true of Mr Macron is anyone’s guess. If he wins on May 7, as he is expected to, his presidency will be a merciless test from its very first day. The voters, who will have coalesced around him – many reluctantly, after the elimination of their preferred candidate – will scrutinize the every move of an inexperienced, thirty-nine- year-old president promising to redefine French politics – “neither right nor left”, a “France for everyone”. What is certain is that the French will not tolerate another president who fails to bring the change he promised. For better or for worse, President Macron – if indeed that is who he is to become – will survive his first term only if his “revolution” bears tangible results, like new jobs, a faster-growing economy, and national security in the wake of repeated terrorist strikes.
If it does not, the consequences for French politics could be grave. Even if defeated this year, the National Front is not going away. Beating populists will not eliminate them. The defeat of both of France’s major parties in the first round of these elections, which is unprecedented, has given numerical proof to the sentiment that French voters will stand no longer for deception and disappointment. Mr Macron must recognize this. He may be liberal France’s last chance.