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.