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!