Macron Emmanuel Macron. Photo: Jacques Paquier

Three years on from Macron’s election, Susan Ram looks back at the rise of the ‘extreme centre’ in France

It’s close to three years now since Emmanuel Macron’s eruption onto the global stage. The context was the 2017 presidential election campaign, for which the millionaire former banker had been preparing over many months. Nurtured by his experiences in the topmost reaches of French academia, the Inspection Générale des Finances (a corps of experts reaching back to Napoleonic times) and investment banking, Candidate Macron was ready to make savvy use of his political debutant status. 

Appointed deputy secretary-general of the Elysée in 2012, Macron had been elevated to the post of economy minister by President François Hollande in 2014; as such, he served as a member of the Parti Socialist (PS), then under Hollande’s stewardship. While in office, the rookie minister proved industrious, lending his name to a package of legislation (Macron’s law) which, under the guise of cutting ‘red tape’, targeted key protection for workers, including lay-off procedures, labour tribunals and rules governing severance packages.   

Then, in April 2016 and while still a member of Hollande’s government, Macron launched En Marche! (‘Forward!’ or ‘On the move!’): an action-driven political formation, modestly emblazoned with his own monogram, aimed at transcending the left-right divide by delivering a Macron presidency and embedding the ‘extreme centre’ as the dominant force in French politics. 

After finally quitting Hollande’s administration in August 2016, the Young Pretender set about this task in earnest. By the spring of 2017, he’d assembled an army of enthusiastic, tech-savvy foot soldiers and was pushing a strategy whose content and overtones were eerily reminiscent of Blair’s New Labour. “What France needs is more young people who want to become billionaires” figured among the empty phrases du jour. “Who cares about programmes? What counts is vision.” 

In the second round of the presidential poll, held on May 7, 2017, Macron trounced his opponent, Marine Le Pen of the fascist Front National, gaining 66.1% of the valid votes against 33.9% for Le Pen. Macron’s elevation to the presidency received a rapturous welcome – from broad sections of the French political Establishment, across much of the mainstream media, and in the boardrooms and financial markets of international capital. The scale of his victory in the second round was greeted with relief; in many quarters it was presented as some sort of revalidation of France’s credentials as a liberal democracy committed to core republican values (among them liberty, equality and fraternity). This perspective received further affirmation from national parliamentary elections held in June, from which Macron’s movement, now rebranded La République En Marche! (LREM), emerged with a blockbuster majority (350 out of 577 seats) in the National Assembly. 

In fact, the results, and the manner in which they were interpreted, disguised a far less comforting reality. After four exhausting rounds of voting, beginning with the first stage of the presidential poll back in April, France now found itself ruled by a president voted in by just 16 per cent of the electorate, his dominion shored up by an overwhelming parliamentary majority gained from elections in which nearly 6 out of 10 voters had not participated. 

During its course, the election process had lifted the lid on deep divisions within French society, ruptures resulting from a thorough-going economic and political crisis. At the most visible level, the political and constitutional arrangements in place in France since 1958 (the founding of the Fifth Republic) had been revealed to be under unprecedented pressure, with the two-party system dominated by mainstream parties of the centre left and centre right in visible meltdown. 

Decay was particularly advanced on the centre left. During the campaign it became evident that the Parti Socialist was succumbing to the hollowing-out process it had suffered over recent decades, most brutally under François Hollande. Elected to the presidency by an overwhelming mandate in 2012, Hollande squandered this advantage, throwing the country to the wolves of intractable unemployment, major assaults on working people’s rights, ill-conceived foreign adventures and protracted periods of state emergency. His dismal approval ratings made it impossible for him to stand for a second term, making him the first president of the Fifth Republic to relinquish this right.

Dissatisfaction within the PS erupted in the party primary at the start of 2017, when party members and supporters rejected Manuel Valls, prime minister under Hollande and the architect of core elements of his agenda, in favour of a candidate from the party’s left wing, Benoît Hamon. This was the cue for key operators on the party’s right, Valls among them, to jump ship and join forces with Macron.  

The upshot of all this was abject electoral failure: ignominy in the first round of the presidential poll (relegated to fifth position, Hamon managed to muster just 6.2 per cent of the vote), followed by the cataclysmic outcome of the parliamentary elections, in which the PS presence in the National Assembly plunged from 280 seats to just 30. 

Over on the centre right, things were also unravelling, if to a less extreme degree. Here, the decision of Les Républicains (LR, formerly the UMP or Union for a Popular Movement) to hold a US-style primary to determine their choice of presidential candidate had yielded unintended results: Alain Juppé, the ‘moderate’ favoured by the party establishment (which saw him as offering the strongest challenge to Marine le Pen in a second round run-off) was outflanked by François Fillon, a champion of austerity burnished by what was thought at the time to be a squeaky-clean reputation for rectitude. Everything came unstuck following some exemplary investigative journalism by the Satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné, following which Fillon found himself placed under formal investigation for epic-scale diddling (the charges he faced ranged from misuse of public funds to fraud, forgery and falsification of records). Rather than withdraw his candidacy, Fillon mounted a Trump-style offensive, hitting out at what he presented as judicial and media machinations, defiant even as support for him within the party haemorrhaged away. It perhaps says something about the way the French political system operates that, despite the reeking ordure encasing him, Fillon could still take third place in the first round of the presidential poll, with 20.01 per cent of the vote. In the subsequent parliamentary elections, LR experienced a sizeable drop in their seats, from 194 to 112.    

Back in 2017, then, the turmoil and hollowing-out evident within both of France’s mainstream parties had created a vacuum, an opening which enabled other forces to seize the initiative and join battle. At the risk of oversimplification, I would identify three such forces.

The first, represented by Macron, is what Tariq Ali has described as the “extreme centre”: a “dictatorship of capital that has reduced political parties to the status of the living dead”, with centre left and centre right colluding to preserve the status quo. While seeking to style himself as ‘above’ or ‘outside’ traditional politics, Macron in fact constitutes its newest incarnation. 

The second force, vicious and deadly, is the Front National, now rebranded under the name Rassemblement National (RN – National Rally). This is adroitly led by Marine Le Pen, whose efforts to detoxify the party have included carefully calculated courtship of those taking the brunt of austerity, in particular working-class communities in the northeast, France’s old industrial heartland, and young people confronting years of unemployment. In tandem with this “I feel your pain” theme, Le Pen is given to emitting copious quantities of ultra-nationalism, racism, Islamophobia, militarism and allusions to what she calls “French values”. It was on this basis that she made it through to the run-off of the 2017 presidential poll, albeit with a lower measure of support (21 per cent of first round votes) than had been projected.

That Le Pen in 2017 performed significantly below expectations (both her own and those of media pundits) has everything to do with the third force at play: the anti-capitalist left. Back then, the potential of the radical left became embodied in the feisty presidential bid by Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed). From a starting point close to his 2012 tally of 11 per cent, Mélenchon achieved an upward trajectory of apparently unstoppable momentum, coming within 650,000 votes of entering the second round of the presidential poll and establishing a record for France’s anti-capitalist left by winning 19.6 per cent of the first round ballot and the support of more than seven million voters.

Much has changed in France over the course of the past three years. Even so, the conceptualisation of French politics in terms of three forces in contention (with the caveat of the strong symbiotic links that exist between, and sustain, the centre and the far right) provides a useful framework and an apt starting-point for what will be a monthly bulletin of news and analysis from me in southwest France. There’s a very great deal happening on the French frontline, and I’ll be doing my best to give you a flavour of it.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.