Sunday, 24 September 2017

The centre holds

It is now almost four months since Emmanuel Macron was elected President of France. On Friday of last week he signed the executive orders reforming the French labour code that he promised during his campaign and that his government has been preparing all summer. The opposition parties are still struggling to find their feet after their defeat at the presidential and parliamentary elections and events of the past week have only made their divisions more visible.

This Sunday, September 24th, as Germany goes to the polls to elect its new parliament, it is worth noting that the French government under Edouard Philippe, unusually for France, looks a lot like Angela Merkel’s grand coalition that has governed Germany for the past four years.  After splitting both the traditional left and right-wing parties and bringing together the moderates of both, Emmanuel Macron is governing from the centre in much the same way.

For the moment, the forces opposed to him are still reeling from their defeat in the elections. The Parti Socialiste, after failing miserably to make the run-off in the presidential election and losing a considerable number of MPs in the parliamentary elections, has been reduced to putting its now oversized headquarters up for sale and is ruled by a 16-person committee. It has said nothing of note about labour market reform. On the radical left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has styled himself as the only real opposition to Macron and has been attracting media attention by gimmicky tactics in parliament and outlandish statements to the party faithful. Just four months after a hotly contested set of democratic elections, he rallied supporters in a street demonstration in Paris on Saturday and claimed, in all seriousness, that true democracy was only expressed in the street because it was protestors in the streets who had toppled the Kings of France and the Nazis! Until he can find something more credible to say, he is unlikely to mobilise many voters beyond his hard core of unquestioning supporters.

The Front National, that could have been expected to form an opposition from the far right, is also in disarray, unsure of if its future path and leadership and riven by ideological divisions. Florian Philippot, its number 2 until the end of last week and the architect of the party’s newly won respectability, but also its ill fated “ditch the Euro” platform at the presidential election, announced his departure from the party on Friday after being stripped of his powers as vice-president. A lot of the party’s rank and file was never happy with the ideological shift that he persuaded Marine le Pen to adopt and wants to revert to its former focus on identity and immigration. The fact that Philippot is gay never endeared him to many party activists either, whose xenophobic, homophobic and anti-elitist leanings were naturally antagonistic to a gay, ENA-educated and media-savvy vice-president.  Many activists and voters would like nothing more than for Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal le Pen, to lead the party into the next elections. However, having announced just three months ago that she is leaving politics altogether, it is doubtful she will oblige, at least not yet. This being said, Marine Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the run-off presidential debate in May still rankles and has surely compromised her chances of contesting the next presidential election in 2022, especially if Emmanuel Macron stands for a second term.

Which leaves the rest of the right-wing opposition of “Les Républicains”. Now that three of its leading members are pillars of the government, the party is in the throes of redefining itself and seems to have split three ways.  Some members have formed what they call a “constructive” wing, offering qualified support for the government’s reform programme. Others have formed up behind Valérie Pécresse, current President of the Ile-de-France regional council and call themselves “Free” (Libres). It is not yet clear how they wish to differentiate themselves from the other parts of their party. The more hard-line members consider that only a resolutely right-wing opposition party can be a credible alternative to government.  Their standard bearer is Laurent Wauquiez, who passes for a disciple of Nicolas Sarkozy and who is likely to be elected to lead the party at their forthcoming congress in December. It will be interesting to see what the party’s attitude will be to those of its members who are now government ministers.

Whether this clarification, when it comes, will lead to greater permeability between Les Républicains and the Front National remains to be seen, and ultimately of course, it is voters who will decide. But as the next national elections are not until 2019 and 2020, there will be a lot of manoeuvring between now and then, starting with the parliamentary debates on next year’s budget in October.  

For the moment though, it looks as if Macron and Philippe have a firm hold on the centre ground, both in government and in parliament, with opposition from all sides either muted or lacking credibility.  Notwithstanding Mélenchon’s more outrageous statements, there will surely be challenges in the streets to the forthcoming announced reforms of unemployment insurance and vocational training, not to speak of the highly contentious issue of pensions. All three could be explosive. As often happens in France, a spark from an unexpected quarter could ignite huge popular protests. The government is said to fear more than anything demonstrations by university and high-school students or protesting lorry drivers blocking the country's roads and motorways. Macron’s future - and the future path of France - will depend crucially on whether he can exploit the window of opportunity that has opened up before him and demonstrate the necessary political skills to coax through the reforms on which he has staked his reputation.

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