Sunday, 28 May 2017

Election marketing

Saturday is a market day in the town just outside of Paris where I live and at election time, activists are out in force, handing out leaflets, fielding questions and drumming up support for their respective candidates. Despite the absence of many voters over the long Ascension Day weekend, this Saturday marked the real opening of the campaign for the parliamentary elections on June 11 and 18. Candidates and activists were testing their arguments and voters were weighing them up.  There is clearly everything to fight for. The situation in this constituency, as in many others, is by no means clear-cut and the outcome very uncertain.

Our MP for the past 24 years is over 70 and not standing for re-election, like 216 other MPs in the outgoing Assemblée Nationale. The man selected to succeed him is a 45 year-old career politician called Gilles Boyer. He is a former political advisor to Alain Juppé and a close ally of the current Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. He might therefore be expected to support the current government and campaign in its favour. But the local situation is a little more complicated: our sitting MP is on the right wing of the Les Républicains and has long been a close ally of Nicholas Sarkozy. He even romped home in the first round of voting in the parliamentary elections following Sarkozy’s accession to the presidency in 2007. His supporters would undoubtedly be put off by any successor moving significantly towards the centre and declaring his support for Emmanuel Macron.

Such considerations must have been uppermost in the minds of Macron’s party, Les Républicains en Marche (REM), who have, at the last minute, selected their own candidate, Jacques Maire, the son of a moderate trade-union leader in the 1970s and 80s. He has the advantage of living locally and ticks all the right boxes in terms of his background and experience, partly as a diplomat, partly in the private sector and with some experience of local politics, albeit in Brittany, another part of France altogether.  The activists handing out leaflets for Gilles Boyer were adamant that their candidate was in the opposition. Those canvassing for Jacques Maire were insistent that their candidate would help implement the new President’s programme.

Similar scenarios must be playing out in many other constituencies throughout France, as candidates and their parties continue to navigate the shock waves to the political establishment unleashed by Emmanuel Macron’s election. As I wrote in a previous post, les Républicains seem unsure of what voters are expecting them to do: support or oppose, oppose or support? And now that the Parti Socialiste has openly split into warring factions, candidates of the centre-left will face a similar dilemma.  They will probably all be spinning slightly different messages to voters according to the constituency they are standing in and whether they are incumbents or new faces. Only the extremes of both left and right will know exactly where they stand but, curiously, in this constituency at least, their posters are conspicuously absent from the hoardings and none of their representatives were anywhere to be seen on the market yesterday. Macron’s candidates from REM, mostly political novices, are hoping to ride on the new President’s bandwagon and present themselves as the surest supporters of his mould-breaking programme. As will undoubtedly be the case in most constituencies, the outcome of the first round of voting will depend largely on how voters react to the candidates they talk to or listen to in public meetings. The second round is totally unpredictable at this stage, as political strategies will be cobbled together on the hoof, depending on the outcome of the first round.

In this constituency, given existing political affiliations but also the triumph of Macron on May 7, Boyer and Maire will probably face each other in the run-off on June 18. Judging by the number of hoardings outside each polling station, there will be a total of ten candidates, all but two of them being also-rans. A worthy looking local lady is standing for the Parti Socialiste, but you have to look very carefully to spot its endorsement in the form of a very small logo in the bottom corner of her election poster. No left-wing candidate has been returned to parliament from this well-off constituency since 1958. Apart from that, we do have the attraction of a candidate from the Alliance Royale, a distinguished looking elderly gentleman photographed wearing a royal blue blazer and a neatly trimmed handlebar moustache and beard. He has clearly been encouraged to stand again by the grand total of 67 votes that he polled at the last election in 2012. Will he endorse the right-wing candidate, Boyer, in the run-off or go for the next best thing to a king, the representative of the republican monarch? Voters will no doubt hang on his every word on the evening of June 11.

As I left the market yesterday, a young woman activist with République en Marche emblazoned across her t-shirt was taking a photograph of a small trestle table on which an activist from Les Républicains had set out his wares. “You’re not supposed to have a table”, she called out as she stowed away her smartphone, “it’s against the rules!”

The campaign has only just started and it already promises to be a blistering affair!

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The sideshow of pay-as-you-go

Only about 50% of French households pay income tax and 80% of them, like myself, pay in ten monthly instalments that are calculated on the basis of the previous year’s tax liability. These monthly payments can be adjusted once a year by taxpayers themselves, if they calculate that their tax bill will be higher or lower than that of the previous year. The tax administration’s website is a little forbidding at first, but once you have got used to it, works well and doesn’t crash. Last year, more than 40% of income tax payers used it to file their tax returns.

If all that sounds fairly straightforward, by French standards it is! I have therefore never understood why the previous government decided to shift to a pay-as-you-go system for income tax from 2018 onwards. After all, the simplest way of generating tax revenue from income, more or less as it is earned, would be to make monthly instalments compulsory, a change that would be simple to legislate, fairly painless to introduce and unlikely to trigger massive protests.

The new government has clearly been thinking along these lines as one of the first announcements by the new budget minister, Gérald Darmanin, was that the scheme would be postponed. Many consider that it will be abandoned altogether. There appear to be a number of reasons, both economic and political, for this change of heart.

Many businesses and their representative organisations have complained that they have better things to do than to act as the government’s tax collector. While it is true that pay-as-you-go income tax is standard practice in many other countries, businesses in France are clearly afraid that the finance ministry, faced with a simple or a complicated way of doing things, will go for a complicated one. In a country where the Labour Code and its appendices is a weighty tome that could knock a man unconscious at 20 paces, their fears are not unfounded. And it would not simplify matters for the taxpayer either, who would still have to fill in a tax form every year, both to report income that cannot be taxed at source and as a justification for a possible rebate.

But there are also some more overtly political reasons that go to the very heart of the French “social model”, as it is generally described. Broadly speaking, a system based on aspirations to equality and inter-generational solidarity, managed by the state. As health care and pension contributions are both compulsory and tied to employment, they have always been deducted at source, as well as unemployment and work-related accident insurance premiums and so on. There is therefore a fairly big difference between gross salary and take-home pay. Most people, not unnaturally, look only at the amount credited to their bank account every month, oblivious to the true cost of their health care and pension provision, of which their employers pay a far larger proportion. The self-employed are treated differently of course, and they know only too well how much their health care and pension provision costs them, especially as they are also required to chip in a portion of the “employers” contribution. And all this in a country, it should be noted in passing, which, according to Eurostat’s figures for 2014, is one of only two countries in the EU that spends more than 11% of its GDP on health care and where the amounts that patients have to pay out of their own pockets are extremely low. So much so in fact that it is now rare for patients to have to open their wallets at all when they consult a doctor, undergo surgery or pick up €100 worth of prescription drugs at a pharmacy.

This is where the obvious political challenge arises. Governments in general, and French governments in particular, prefer to give people the impression that the money they earn is “theirs” and that “the state” will take care of them in sickness or old age, rather than launch into complicated and politically loaded explanations about the funding of their heath care and pensions, always designed to appear as painless as possible. Emmanuel Macron has so far been no exception. In his presidential programme, he promised that employees’payroll contributions would be substantially reduced, entailing an automatic increase in purchasing power without a concomitant increase in salary. If however the pay-as-you-go income tax levy were to be introduced in January 2018, the beneficial effect of payroll tax reductions would be cancelled out by the perception of an overall loss of purchasing power, as the difference between gross and net salary would become bigger rather than smaller. Opposition politicians, particularly of the populist variety, would be quick to exploit the situation by claiming that working people were worse off than before and that the President had not delivered on the promises of his campaign.

But even that is not the whole story. The pay-as-you-go project is, in reality, little more than a sideshow, especially as revenue from personal income tax represents only about 20% of the total tax revenue raised by the French state. Behind it, there are clearly some fairly radical ideas, as yet not fully fleshed out by the new President and his government, about the future funding of an increasingly costly health care and pension system, as people live longer and require proportionally more health and social care as they get older. For France’s social model to remain viable, more money will have to be raised from somewhere. Despite recent reductions in their contributions, businesses have been claiming for years that they pay too much and must contribute less if they are to remain competitive.  The speed with which the new President and his government are trying to reform France’s rigid labour market is dictated, among other considerations, by the desperate need to raise employment levels and therefore the overall level of payroll contributions, as well as generate more consumer spending and, by extension, more VAT, by far the biggest contributor to overall tax revenue. Discussion of a promised increase in the CSG, a broad-based tax on all income that also finances the health care system, has so far been muted but will undoubtedly re-appear. Macron has promised radical pension reform but has also gone on record as saying that it will take the whole of his five-year term to put in place. Judging by previous, and less ambitious, attempts to reform France’s pension system, that may be optimistic. All these issues and their massive financial impact will only emerge more clearly as the future government comes to terms, as all its predecessors have had to, with greater or lesser degrees of success, with the competing requirements of reducing unemployment, cutting public spending, reducing a mountain of debt that is close to 100% of GDP while allowing working people to keep more of the money they earn.

Whatever spin a skilful President and government try to put on future developments, it will be a fiendishly difficult circle to square. My monthly income tax payments may vary slightly, upwards or downwards, in the years ahead, but I am a lot less sure about the prospects for a quick fall in the overall tax burden. And preparing to pay more from my own pocket!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Putting his best foot forward

President Macron must have carefully studied the video of his predecessor’s first visit to Berlin in May 2012. Many remember how the newly elected President Hollande looked awkward and flat-footed as he was firmly pulled to the right side of the red carpet by Angela Merkel during the welcoming ceremony and then tapped on the arm after the review of the troops to turn around and take the salute from the commanding officer. By all accounts, the rest of his trip did not go well either and he came away, as The Financial Times put it, “with a flea in his ear” for apparently being too pushy with Merkel about French ideas for reform of the European Union.

Just five years later, the newly elected President Macron seems to have learnt a lot from these mistakes and it was instructive to watch the TV footage of his visit to Berlin at the beginning of last week. He knew exactly on which side of the red carpet to walk, turned at exactly the right moment to take the salute and, according to reports, pledged that France would do its bit to restore its economic and financial credibility before asking Germany to loosen up its rigid positions on the Euro. To the pleasant surprise of the French press, Chancellor Merkel did not rule out future amendments to the European treaties in the press conference that followed their meeting.

Back in Paris, Macron’s first week in office has gone very much his way as well. The appointment of Edouard Philippe, a moderate member of les Républicains and an ally of Alain Juppé, as Prime Minister on Monday and the composition of his government, announced on Wednesday, have fulfilled a campaign promise: to form a government from both sides of the left/right divide. The resulting team has 22 ministers, eleven men and eleven women, a mix of fresh faces from civil society and a patina of experienced politicians that make it look both new and experienced. The key finance ministry has been entrusted to two men from Les Républicains, in a clever and apparently successful move to reassure the French business community: Bruno Le Maire, who was a candidate in last November’s primary and a 34-year old rising star from the same party, Gérald Darmanin, a former close ally of Nicholas Sarkozy. Le Maire speaks passable German, a rare quality among French politicians, and immediately announced that he would be seeking an early meeting with the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as if to underscore the President’s commitment to reform in France. Darmanin, who will be in charge of the budget, announced, to the relief of many business leaders, that a new pay-as-you-go income tax scheme, due to be introduced at the beginning of next year, would be postponed. Many consider that it will be dropped altogether. 

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the highly respected defence minister under Hollande has, somewhat surprisingly, been moved to the Quai d’Orsay, his place taken by Sylvie Goulard, an MEP and an early Macron supporter. With her network of European contacts and knowledge of German, English and Italian, she strengthens Macron’s European credentials and will be a definite asset in the forthcoming discussions about a European defence initiative. Reports suggest that Macron was keen to establish his own authority over French defence policy after a period in which Le Drian and his powerful chief of staff had reputedly made the ministry a state within a state. A further sign, after his inaugural drive up the Champs Elysées in a military vehicle, that the young and relatively inexperienced Macron intends to stamp his own authority on this vital area of national policy.

Another much commented appointment is that of a popular environmental activist and former TV star, Nicolas Hulot, to be minister of “ecological transition”. Hulot had been approached by former presidents to play a role in government but had always pointedly refused. It is unclear why he has changed his mind this time, apart from the fact that, at the age of 62, it is probably the last opportunity he will get. Given his outspoken views, there are mutterings that he will fall at the first political hurdle the President asks him to jump. That being said, in his first media interviews he has made all the right noises, repeating the official commitment to reduce the share of nuclear power in electricity generation from 75% to 50% over the next fifteen years or so, confirming the closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant at Fessenheim in Alsace, after a period of “consultation”, and announcing the early appointment of a mediator in the politically explosive issue of the building of a new airport on a greenfield site at Notre Dame des Landes in Western France.

In preparation for the parliamentary elections in June, Macron’s party La République en Marche (REM) is fielding its own candidates, many of them political novices, in 526 of the 577 constituencies represented in the Assemblée Nationale. In the remaining 51 constituencies, candidates from other parties, like Bruno le Maire or Manuel Valls will be unopposed by REM. Another clever touch clearly designed to further boost the chances of a presidential majority after the elections. As one could have expected, Les Républicans have been thrown into disarray, with the more radical elements in the party calling for the exclusion of the Prime Minister, Le Maire and Darmanin, and the more moderate seeming to want to give the new President the chance he seeks to forge a new-look majority. Les Républicains will find it hard to fight the election campaign with a united voice and are pretty much in the dark as to whether they will end up supporting Macron’s government or opposing it.

Macron himself has clearly been pulling most of the strings behind these developments. His strategy has become clearer as he has moved to stamp his authority not only on events but also on fellow travellers, like François Bayrou, whose party has been deprived of the numerous constituencies he had apparently been promised. Bayrou has been given a consolation prize by being appointed Minister of State, Minister of Justice, where probably the most than can be hoped for is that he will do no harm.

Pollsters are suggesting that a majority of French voters are prepared to give the new President the parliamentary majority he is seeking. Whether Macron himself will remain equally sure-footed in the months to come as he was on the red carpet in Berlin remains to be seen. But the first omens are definitely favourable.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Answering back

Now that this blog has been going for a couple of months, a number of questions and comments, particularly on “Breaking the mould” and “Birds of a feather” have been posted, either directly or on Facebook. I am most grateful for all of them and will try to answer them here.

Two friends on FB have commented that my prediction of a possible split within the Les Républicains (LR), with one faction supporting Macron’s presidential majority and the other possibly forming some kind of alliance with the Front National or elements thereof, is largely speculative. It is indeed, but for the time being, before the results of the parliamentary elections become clear, we are all reduced to speculation, bloggers no less than journalists and other commentators. My excuse is that by thinking about what might happen, we shall perhaps have a better understanding of what actually does happen.

My point was simply that in the two rounds of the presidential election, many Fillon voters were sympathetic to some of the ideas of Marine Le Pen and some surely voted for her in the run-off. One Fillon activist who handed me a leaflet at a street market back in March was particularly insistent on the need to curb immigration. Whether we like it or not, it’s an issue that resonates more strongly with many French voters than the future of the Euro on which Marine le Pen based much of her election programme. It was interesting  - but somewhat chilling - to watch a TV portrait of a Front National leader in Brittany a few days ago, haranguing his troops after the first round of voting and referring, with a barely repressed snarl in his voice, to what he described as “the islamist cancer”. The fear that French identity is being eroded by the presence of 4 to 5 million Muslims in France is powerful among many voters and paradoxically, it is in areas like Brittany, where Muslims are thinner on the ground, in which this kind feeling, and support for the Front National, has been steadily growing. I fear it will be far more difficult to change peoples’ attitudes on this issue than it has been to counter Marine Le Pen’s arguments about the Euro.

Another reader commented that Fillon and Le Pen are on different sides of the argument on globalisation and its impacts. I agree, but am not sure how relevant this is. As I have written before (“France and globalisation”, March 20) there has never been a proper public debate about the impact of globalisation in France. No mainstream political leader has ever uttered the simple truths that globalisation is here to stay and that it contains both opportunities and threats. Many French businesses have successfully seized the opportunities but the French state has so far done far too little to ward off the threats. Marine Le Pen’s much rehearsed solutions during the campaign, pulling up drawbridges and giving preference to French nationals, are simply unworkable in an open Europe and I suspect that most French people know it in their heart of hearts, however dimly they understand the phenomenon and however much they dislike its negative consequences.  But if the Front National were to shift its emphasis away from economic and financial globalisation and towards immigration and identity issues one again, it would probably strike a greater chord with voters and find more affinities with people like Fillon on the right wing of LR.  There may well then be room for an alignment of like–minded politicians, driven by the same voter concerns. They will not necessarily be Fillon or Le Pen in person, but there are enough of them on both sides of the current divide who still hanker after French “independence” and decry what they see as the dilution of French identity in a social and cultural meting pot or a wider Europe, to be tempted to make a move towards each other if and when the time is ripe - and be assured of the support of many voters if they were to do so.

This ties in with another issue raised by a regular reader about the parliamentary majority that President Macron might be able to count on in parliament. Can he govern the country with a broad alliance of the centre-right and centre-left parties, with the extremes being marginalised, as in Germany? He clearly wants to try, as the appointment of his first Prime Minister from the ranks of LR shows. But will the extremes wither away in the face of this coalition of the willing? If history is any guide, they will not – or at least not for very long. The French fourth republic that lasted from 1946 to 1958 is perhaps a helpful historical yardstick. During those years, power lay almost exclusively with political parties who formed numerous centrist coalitions in parliament under different leaders in an attempt to keep the communists and the Gaullists from power. None of them lasted long and all of them eventually came to grief on specific issues, particularly the wars in Indochina and Algeria. General de Gaulle was given power in 1958 in a last-ditch attempt to stop the rot and make the country governable. He formed the fifth republic in which a president, elected by universal suffrage since 1962, holds real power inasmuch as he appoints and dismisses the Prime Minister and the government. The result has been a fairly stable regime, although when the president has had to share power with a parliamentary majority of a different political persuasion, like François Mitterand from 1993 to 1995 and Jacques Chirac from 1997 to 2002, it has deviated a little from that imagined by de Gaulle. Even the fifth republic however has not always been able to hold the extremes at bay. Revolution is never far below the surface in France and in 1968, during “the events of May” as they are still called euphemistically, it almost swept away the regime. After 1981, with great political skill and all the power of the republican monarchy, François Mitterand was able to marginalise the communist party. But the revolutionary tradition is quick to revive if the people are not satisfied and Mélenchon has revived it masterfully in another guise during the most recent campaign. With the Gaullists holding most of the levers of power from 1958 to 1981, right-wing extremism was contained but since the 1980s it too has grown in appeal and importance. 

President Macron will be trying something entirely new - a powerful president governing with what will probably be a centrist coalition in parliament around a party that he founded only a year ago. How will it work, if at all? Will it be strong enough to put into practice the noble ambitions that the new President outlined in Sunday’s inauguration speech, referring to the need to restore self-confidence to the French people and give them a “taste for the future”? We shall only have a semblance of an answer after the elections in June. But at least if it doesn’t work initially, the President will have the power to appoint a new prime minister or dissolve the Assemblée Nationale. But he won’t be able to do it more than once during his five-year term of office without losing credibility.

How long Macron’s experiment lasts therefore will depend crucially on how convincing and successful he and his government can be in making the French economy less hidebound and more dynamic, reducing unemployment and diminishing the widespread feelings of anger and frustration that led to his election in the first place. No easy task in just five years!

Friday, 12 May 2017

Birds of a feather

About ten years ago, after asking a question at a political meeting organised by our local MP, a very orthodox right-wing member of the party that was called the UMP at the time, now Les Républicains, I was mistaken for a member of the Front National. Why the person who came up to after the meeting thought I was a member, or at least a supporter, of the Front National remains a mystery to this day, but what he said to me was, on reflection, very interesting. “It would be good if our two parties could work together” he said, meaning unmistakably that the mainstream and republican right wing should publicly recognise its affinities with the Front National and form a common majority. At the time Nicholas Sarkozy was the leader of the UMP before standing for, and winning, the presidency in 2007.

That brief conversation came back to me yesterday as news comes thick and fast of the preparations being made by all of France’s political parties for the parliamentary elections in June.  As I wrote previously (“Seen on a train” - April 23) the shock waves from the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency have fanned out to all parts of the political spectrum. Yesterday, Macron’s new party, renamed La République en Marche published a list of 428 (out of 577) candidates. As always seemed likely, it is France’s left wing parties that have taken the hardest knock so far, with a three or four way split of the Socialist party in the offing, a clear attempt by Mélenchon to establish his own parliamentary party and the breakdown of talks on an electoral alliance with the communists. There will certainly be opportunities to focus on these events as they unfold in the weeks ahead.

But the right wing parties have felt the fallout as well. Marine Le Pen’s extraordinarily aggressive attitude during the televised presidential debate last week is not only felt by many to be responsible for her poor performance of just under 34% in the run-off last Sunday but, more importantly for her, has clearly not gone down well with party activists either, as multiple radio and TV interviews have shown.  The plot thickened further yesterday when Marine le Pen’s niece and one of only two Front National MPs, 27 year old Marion Maréchal Le Pen, announced that she would not be seeking re-election in June and was leaving politics, citing a desire to spend more time with her two-year old daughter and work in the private sector.

Behind such boilerplate explanations lie real differences of opinion between what can be described as the “southern” wing of the party, focusing more on issues of immigration and identity and represented by Marion Maréchal Le Pen, and the “northern” wing represented by Marine and her right hand man, Florian Philippot, a graduate of ENA and the man largely responsible for the party’s presidential programme, focusing more on the negative effects of the Euro and globalisation.

Jean Marie le Pen, now 82, the party’s founder and patriarch has fallen out with his daughter, Marine, and is known to have a difficult relationship with Philippot. He blames both, sometimes publicly, for shifting policy away from the party’s traditional platform in an attempt to make it more electable. There are mutterings that it hasn’t worked. Marion’s withdrawl has turned these mutterings into a split and brought it into the open.

Marion Maréchal le Pen is Marine’s niece and Jean-Marie’s granddaughter. Like Obelix in the adventures of Asterix, she fell into the magic potion very early in life when she was pictured on an election poster in the arms of her grandfather at the age of two. After a straight-laced, catholic education in a well-heeled suburb of Paris, at the age of 22 she became the youngest MP of the Fifth Republic when she was elected to represent the town of Carpentras in the South of France in 2012. By all accounts she has worked hard, learnt fast and held her own in an Assembly largely populated by middle-aged men not renowned for their benevolent attitudes and impeccable behaviour towards attractive young women colleagues. Beyond her work as a constituency MP, Marion Maréchal Le Pen has become a standard bearer for the Front National’s traditional policies just as the party has officially shifted away from them. She is apparently very popular with activists and her withdrawl has been widely lamented in party circles. It is difficult to believe that having been inoculated with the virus of politics at such an early age, Marion Maréchal Le Pen will not return to politics in the future. After all, she will still be under 40 at the next presidential election but one in 2027.

Who knows what will have happened to the Front National by then? The founding father’s towering figure of Jean Marie le Pen may well have gone to meet his maker, leading to more serious attempts to shed the party’s fascist and xenophobic image and opening the way for alliances that go beyond the hastily concluded electoral pact with Nicolas Dupont-Aignan for this year’s run-off. If that were to happen, would there really be such a big difference in spirit between the traditional conservative values of a more respectable Front National, and the pretty radical right-wing programme that François Fillon proposed to his electorate in the primary from which he emerged victorious last November? Might not such a political platform appeal once again if President Macron is unable to curb France’s public expenditure, has little success in bringing down employment and restoring a sense of unity to the French people?

For the time being though, Fillon has been quietly forgotten and the new leaders of his party have proposed a much lighter version of his programme for the parliamentary elections.  Their hope is clearly to emerge from them as part of a centrist presidential majority.  Rumours are swirling that Alain Juppé, the most centrist member of Les Républicans and Fillons’s rival in the primaries, is trying to convince like-minded colleagues to support Emmanuel Macron by agreeing to become a minister or even Prime Minister in his government.

It is surely not too far fetched to imagine that the harder right wing of the party, of which Fillon and Sarkozy are fairly typical representatives, could eventually split from the centrist wing and form an alliance with a newly respectable and probably renamed Front National, representing a socially and fiscally conservative and Eurosceptic electorate in the Bonapartist and Gaullist traditions. The pace and the timing of that shift would depend, among other factors, on what come out of the elections in June, how many Républicain MPs are returned to the Assemblée Nationale and whether they form a part of the presidential majority or not. Sooner or later though, politicians with similar outlooks will want to come together to oppose a socially and economically liberal and Europe-oriented President. Birds of a feather may eventually flock together and the wish of my interlocutor of ten years ago could be fulfilled.

If and when it happens, I would not be at all surprised if Marion Maréchal Le Pen chose that moment to make a return to politics.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Breaking the mould

Now that Emmanuel Macron has been elected President of France, it would be tempting to write only that the easy part is over and that the hard part is about to start. Tempting, but incomplete. Although the task of governing France is as daunting as it gets, Macron’s remarkable achievement in winning this election at the age of 39 should not be underestimated, not only for what it says about him as a person but also for the way he is likely to approach the presidency.

After all, wouldn’t it have been easier for this highly ambitious young man to do what many other young and ambitious French politicians have done in the past? Learn the ropes among the ruling classes by graduating from ENA and become senior advisor or chief of staff to a minister, the Prime Minister or the President. Be appointed a minister or Prime Minister oneself. Become the mayor of a large city or lay down roots in a parliamentary constituency and be elected as its MP. Conquer the leadership of a well-established political party. Or even all three at the same time. Observe closely, from such vantage points, the country’s political scene, build up a network of useful and preferably rich and powerful contacts while keeping a safe job within the civil service in case of a political setback. And then, when the time is judged ripe, stand for the presidency once, or twice, before winning the treasured prize.  That is, more or less, the route that the last three Presidents of the Fifth Republic have followed.

Macron clearly does not fit this description. Although he has graduated from ENA, he was only briefly an advisor and then minister to François Hollande. He has never, before last night, been elected to political office. He created his own party only a year ago and has resigned from his safe position in the civil service. The scenography of his first appearance as President last night and the two fairly sober and low-key speeches he delivered, the absence of any histrionics, seem to indicate that he sees the presidency not as the crowning glory of a long political career but as his destiny.

The last President to have broken the default mould of French politics in a similar way was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974. He too graduated from ENA and created his own party but, unlike Macron, he had previously pursued a high-profile ministerial career, which would undoubtedly have been longer if the untimely death of President Pompidou in April 1974 had not led to an election in May. Giscard, now 91 and still going strong, comes from an aristocratic and wealthy family and definitely lacks the common touch, however desperately he has always tried to conceal it. Right from the grandiloquent “a new era dawns today” in his inaugural speech, Giscard let himself too easily be characterised as an upper class toff.  In spite of his forward-looking policies on European integration and bold social reforms like the legalisation of abortion, he was felled in the 1981 presidential elections by a relatively minor corruption affair to which he reacted badly and with characteristic contempt and pomposity, before meeting  - and losing - his match with François Mitterand. Le Monde formulated the following damning judgement when he left power: Giscard, it wrote, was a man of  “false modesty and real pretentiousness”.

Macron is a very different person and will probably be a very different leader.

And it is surely too easy, as many of his opponents have tried to do, to ascribe the Macron phenomenon solely to the support of a coterie of influential sponsors who hold the levers of finance and the media. Macron certainly has some powerful allies, but he is definitely not a puppet in their hands, as François Hollande, for one, has found to his cost. He has bold and innovative ideas and has shown, during this campaign, that he will not shirk from defending them with conviction, even in the face of a hostile crowd. He has clearly been able to inspire and lead from the front. He has shown that he learns fast, that he can use the support he has been given to good effect, and that he has the vision and the energy to create the conditions for success.

All that is well and good, but as I have written before, people and institutions that have no interest in change will undoubtedly put up great resistance. We shall have few indications about how Macron intends to go about putting his bold ideas into practice until he takes over officially from François Hollande next Sunday and appoints his first, probably interim, Prime Minister. The parliamentary elections in June will be a whole new ball game. The confused and contradictory debate on TV last night between the main protagonists of these elections shows that nobody has much of a clue as to what majority will emerge nor whether it will be favourable to the President or not.

I have often thought in the past that France needed a Margaret Thatcher to shake it up and put it back on track. I’m not at all sure today. France is not the United Kingdom and sets much more store by its model of a cohesive society. It will give short shrift to a leader who only supports its most dynamic elements but leaves its more vulnerable members behind. The eleven million votes for Le Pen in yesterday’s run-off, not to speak of the long standing revolutionary tradition in French politics, that was strongly and successfully embodied by Mélenchon in this election, are ample proof. Macron’s record so far and his first speeches as President indicate that he is fully aware of this reality. Thatcher was a great leader but she was also a divisive one and it can be argued that the U.K is still suffering today from the negative effects of her stewardship. Macron may have taken a leaf out of her book in his single-minded determination to win power. Now he must turn that single-minded determination not only to breaking the mould of French politics but also to changing the mindset and the culture of much of French society while restoring its cohesion and upholding the values it professes to live by.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A parasite on the system

It was only towards the end of the scrappy and sometimes verbally violent televised debate between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday evening that Macron came up with what was for me the punch line. Addressing his opponent directly across the table, Macron said accusingly: “You are a co-production of the system you denounce. You feed on it. You are its parasite.”  The TV producer refrained, perhaps deliberately, from showing Le Pen’s reaction. Viewers and listeners heard only one word, “classe”  (“classy”) that was nevertheless enough to prove that the punch had hurt and that she was reeling from the attack.

It is important to realise why. For the first time that I can remember, a candidate for the presidency, or any mainstream politician in France for that matter, was making a clear distinction between Marine le Pen’s party, the Front National, and her voters. Macron drove home the point by making it clear that he has the greatest respect for those who vote for her and reserved his contempt only for her party. A big change in tone at the very least, because what has happened in every election since 2002 is that mainstream political leaders, from the left and the right, have consistently called for a “republican front” to “stop the Front National from winning power”. In doing so, they have unwittingly conveyed the message to the voters concerned that they were behaving like naughty children who didn’t deserve to be given a hearing. The naughty children have reacted accordingly. The combined 40% of votes polled by Le Pen and Mélenchon, at the two extremes of the political spectrum, on April 23, has at last made it clear that their feelings can no longer be ignored. A politician from the U.K Labour party, quoted on the BBC this morning after her party’s defeat in Thursday’s local elections, encapsulated the idea nicely when she said:  “it’s about time we stopped telling people what they ought to think and start listening to what they really care about.”

Contrary to mainstream politicians, Marine Le Pen, like her father before her, as well as Jean-Luc Mélenchon in this campaign, have been listening intently to what people really care about for many years. The only problem is that their solutions, like closing borders or relaxing the constraints of the Euro, are either half-baked or unrealistic or both. It is nevertheless interesting to look back to Wednesday’s debate to identify some of the issues that Emmanuel Macron, if he is elected this Sunday, which looks increasingly likely, will have to start tackling in the next five years.

The only point at which Le Pen really scored points in the debate was when she denounced successive governments’ inability to reduce crime, weed out Islamic radicals and stop terrorism. However tenuous the link between immigration, crime and terrorism, as any serious observer knows, it is nevertheless very real in the minds of an increasing number of voters.  The regular and widely reported outbreaks of violence around large French cities fan the flames, as do the numerous no-go areas in the dingy “banlieues”, rife with petty crime, drug dealing and fertile ground for attempts to radicalise angry young men. Too many of them (young women have generally made a greater success at integration) often, but not exclusively, second and third generation immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan African families, feel alienated and excluded from society. Bringing such youngsters into society’s mainstream has been for many years a huge, urgent but neglected task. Macron will have his work cut out to take on entrenched interests like teachers’ unions, too quick to bleat only about resource constraints, as well as labour unions that feed on the rich pickings of France’s convoluted and opaque vocational training system. The many dedicated and effective teachers, counsellors and other community leaders desperately need political leaders to give them encouragement and not have their innovations and experiments stifled in red tape or their voices drowned under a flood of ideological rhetoric from unions supposed to represent them.

On the euro, I wrote in previous posts of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s unworkable solutions. Macron referred to them as “smoke and mirrors” (un bidouillage) in the debate. That being said, he must not only start sorting out France’s home-grown economic problems but also take the fight to Brussels and negotiate painstakingly with other member states, starting with Germany, on ways to make the Euro system work better for every member of the Euro area.

Finally, as has been said over and over again, the new President will have to find more effective ways of regulating France’s labour market than through a gargantuan and abstruse Labour Code that hampers initiative at every turn and is a powerful disincentive for potential employers to take on new workers, particularly less qualified ones.

In these areas, Macron’s ideas, as expressed in his programme and, with some difficulty, in Wednesday’s debate, are sound and unusually innovative. Tellingly, he refused to yield on his ideas for labour reform when challenged to do so this week by Mélenchon and his party, in exchange for their endorsement in the run-off. If elected President on Sunday, he will have many more such pressures to resist and many deeply entrenched taboos to break.

In biological terms, a parasite can only continue to prosper if it finds enough nourishment to feed on. If Macron can remove the nourishment, he will kill the parasite feeding on the French body politic. It is as simple  - and as hard  - as that. He will have five years from Sunday to make a start.

Wiping the slate clean

You would have had to listen to BBC radio this morning or consult the websites of The Guardian or Le Monde to learn that after repeated attempts to hack the Macron campaign’s email during the past few weeks, a number of documents, some of them apparently compromising for the candidate himself, have been circulating on the social media in the past few hours via Wikileaks. As the campaign officially closed at midnight on Friday, the French mainstream radio and TV stations, we are told by Le Monde, have been advised not to report on these events as they could influence Sunday’s vote. The Macron camp is saying that the leaked documents are both real and fake in a deliberate attempt to confuse and mislead.

In the detailed report on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, Russian hackers were said to be responsible and a parallel was drawn with the similar hacking of the email of Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager a few days before the U.S presidential election last November.

We shall no doubt find out more on Monday. For the moment, on the two remaining elections hoardings outside the primary school where I shall be voting tomorrow, the posters of the two candidates have been torn to the ground and rain has reduced them to a mushy pulp.

It is almost as if the slate has been wiped clean for the new departure in France’s political life that will be revealed on Sunday evening at 8pm.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Turning the tide ?

If my post of May 1st sounded a little pessimistic about a Macron victory on May 7 (see: “An election to lose”) I am feeling reassured today. Contrary to last week, when Macron made a faltering start and was caught off guard by Le Pen stealing the show at the Whirlpool plant in Amiens, Le Pen has herself faltered this week and was made to look very silly today.

It is only natural that just a few days before voters go to the polls to choose their President for the next five years, one of her major election pledges, to abandon the Euro and restore the Franc, would come under closer scrutiny. And Le Pen has clearly buckled under the pressure. Asked last night on TV how her latest wheeze of keeping the Euro “for large companies” and restoring the Franc for the man and woman in the street (thus making the Euro a common currency but no longer the single currency) would work in practice, she dodged and weaved and blustered but was incapable of giving a clear answer. It’s not difficult to understand why. Le Pen’s aim is devaluation to give French companies a competitive advantage. But devaluation is a dirty word and she has stopped short of actually using it.  Reputable economists have no such qualms and the airwaves have been buzzing today with dire predictions of huge uncertainty on financial markets, French Euro-denominated debt being dumped and the devalued Franc in peoples’ pockets buying less, especially of imported products that French consumers are so keen on. She has no clear answer to these points because there isn’t one that would not make people nervous. Macron will no doubt try to drive her into a corner on this issue in the debate on Wednesday night.

It has also become clear today that a few paragraphs of her speech to a large hall of supporters two days ago were quite simply lifted from a speech made by François Fillon a few weeks ago. The TV news this evening ran a split screen of Fillon and Le Pen speaking exactly the same words almost in synch. Embarrassed spin-doctors could think of nothing better to say than she had done this deliberately as a kind of subliminal ploy to attract Fillon’s voters. Nobody was convinced.

Macron seems to have been in better form in the last day or two, with a good speech last night to a large crowd of supporters. Today he has also received multiple endorsements from celebrities of all sorts including the highly respected former French soccer star, Zinedine Zidane.

To cap it all, the latest polls, also aired on TV this evening, predict a Macron victory by 60% to 40 %.

All this being said it would be unwise to jump to conclusions and consider the battle already won. The 7 million Mélenchon voters, a representative sample of whom has been consulted over the last few days, are evenly split three ways between abstention, spoiling their ballot papers or voting Macron. There is still no clear picture of what Fillon’s 7.3 million voters will do. Some, nobody knows how many, will undoubtedly vote le Pen and some will abstain. In a speech to his parliamentary party this evening, apart from appealing to voters not to cast France into the unknown, Fillon did not repeat his endorsement of Macron and seemed to be less concerned about next Sunday’s vote and more about his party’s showing it the parliamentary elections in June. That can be no doubt that 7.3 million votes looking for a home can make a big impact one way or another.

I still tend to think pollsters do not have all the answers and that the result will be closer than 60% to 40%. I would love to be wrong. All the signs seem to be pointing to a Macron victory, but we won’t know until Sunday evening if the tide has really started to turn or not.

Monday, 1 May 2017

An election to lose

 Back home after two weeks out of the country, the first thing that strikes me is that the vote on May 7 may be a lot closer than people have thought so far. The burning question is what will the 20% who voted Fillon and the 19.6 % who voted Mélenchon do next Sunday? It seems fairly safe to assume that Le Pen and Macron voters, if they vote next Sunday, will vote the same way they did on April 23.

Will the latest twist to the plot, the widely commented “alliance” between Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a self-styled Gaullist, and Marine le Pen make a big difference? Dupont-Aignan polled 4.7 % in the first round but his endorsement of le Pen, in exchange for the post of Prime Minister if she wins, smacks more of opportunism than of conviction. Many of his erstwhile supporters are angry and will not follow him into Marine’s welcoming embrace.  Opportunism does not play well in France and when all is said and done, only a proportion of the 1.7 million votes he polled will be added to Le Pen’s first round score. Which will probably put her on a par with Macron at about 24%.

The 6% who voted Hamon will presumably vote Macron, even if they have to hold their noses to do so. Advantage Macron then.

The crucial question still remains. What will the Fillon and Mélenchon voters do? Over 14 million votes are up for grabs, not to speak of the 10.5 million voters who abstained on April 23.

Most of the people I have talked to this past week seem undecided. A neighbour who voted Fillon is tempted to go for Le Pen with the argument that “she won’t do everything she says she will.” Many social and fiscal conservatives may well do likewise, some considering that Macron is no more than a reincarnation of Hollande, others disliking his embrace of social and cultural diversity, others still hostile to his promises of a large public investment programme, a boost to low pensions and an extension of unemployment benefits. Another neighbour who voted Mélenchon seems likely to vote Macron in the run-off. Many voters, interviewed on radio and TV, are clearly unhappy with the prospect of either candidate as their future President. Will they be persuaded to join the “republican front” on the day, give Le Pen a try or go fishing?  As Monday, May 8 is a public holiday, many might want to take the excuse of a long weekend to do just that.

Despite the precise sounding arithmetic touted by experts, pollsters and journalists, the truth is that with such an unprecedented line-up for a presidential election run-off, nobody really knows who will do what on the day. The only thing that does seem clear is that a high rate of abstention will favour Le Pen. How high will it have to go to hand her victory? Again, pretty impossible to tell.

From her campaigning last week though, it is clear that Le Pen has the outsider’s energy and motivation to pull off a surprise. She has chosen her campaign trail carefully, preaching her familiar homespun messages of restoring France’s sovereignty and putting French people first in the hope that more will be converted. Macron was widely criticised at the start of last week for holding a premature and unnecessarily ostentatious victory celebration in “La Rotonde” a well-known Parisian Brasserie in Montparnasse. On Thursday, while he tried bravely to reason with workers threatened with the closure of a Whirlpool plant in his hometown of Amiens, he let himself be ambushed by Le Pen who turned up unannounced and told the workers only what they wanted to hear.

The second week of campaigning will therefore be crucial for both candidates and the televised debate on Wednesday even more so.

While the polls are predicting a Macron victory, he still has everything to play for. It is definitely his election to lose.