14 April 2022
Macron v Le Pen
Reformer v reactionary.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Election results last week were good news for Hungary’s nationalist, populist Viktor Orban and his reactionary, far right, anti-Nato, anti-EU, pro-Putin and Kremlin-friendly Fidesz party.
Election results this week were good news for France’s nationalist, populist Marine Le Pen and her reactionary, far right, anti-Nato, anti-EU, pro-Putin and Kremlin-friendly National Rally party.
Last week, this column was somewhat desperately grasping at straws with suggestions of how the West could and perhaps should accommodate Hungary’s unapologetically intolerant and defiantly illiberal Fidesz. This week, this column is frankly alarmed, even frightened, by the possibility of a National Rally victory in France, one of Nato’s most powerful members and certainly mainland Europe’s biggest military power, one half of the Franco-German partnership which drives the EU, and one of the most important – possibly even the most important – of the UK’s allies.
The first round of voting in the French presidential election gave President Macron 27% and Marine Le Pen 24%. Macron remains the favourite to win the second and final round a week on Sunday when the two of them will go head-to-head – the projected result is 51% for Macron and 49% for Le Pen – but that is very close indeed and Macron’s lead has been shrinking day by day throughout this campaign while Le Pen’s share has been increasing. Zemmour’s 7% will almost certainly be picked up by the National Rally, and Pécresse’s 5% for the Republicans will probably be picked up by En Marche, which means that the 22% who voted for Mélenchon and his left-wing France Unbound will hold the key to the second round and will be the chocolate-egg carrying Easter bunny to be pursued hard and fast by the hungry hounds of both En Marche and Nationally Rally over the next ten days.
National Rally’s impressive first-round result has been credited to Le Pen’s efforts to remove (or hide) her party’s more toxic policies and her concentration on the economic hardships of the ordinary French citizen. En Marche’s stuttering first-round result has been blamed on Macron’s late declaration as a candidate and his absence from the hustings in all but the last stages of the campaign (was he hoping that a diplomatic triumph in Moscow might trump his rivals’ petty efforts?), and on the apparently widespread antipathy to his aloof personality – his alleged intellectual arrogance and social hauture.
But there’s another explanation for the closeness of this race. A fundamental, deep-reaching and long-running explanation. The French, in spite of the glib and lazy cliché, are not a revolutionary people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Recent history suggests that they are reactionary and conservative, that they hate change and will resist it, kicking and screaming, even if economic reality dictates that it is absolutely necessary. For decades now, French presidents have come and gone, exhausted by their attempts to reform the country and bring it into the twenty-first century, attempts resisted tooth and nail, every inch of the way, by an intransigent citizenry determined that nothing will change. All those popular uprisings and movements, the Nuit Debout and the Gilets Jaunes etc, which plagued Sarkozy and Hollande and Macron and others; there’s nothing revolutionary about them – they are purely reactionary and conservative.
Macron has had rather more success as a reformer than his predecessors. In fact his record, compared to that of Hollande or Sarkozy, is impressive. He has done much to liberalise the labour market and make the French economy more entrepreneurial and dynamic. He has cut red tape and taxes. Unemployment was scandalously high at the beginning of his term but is now lower than it has been for more than ten years. France’s notoriously expensive and unsustainable pensions system is his next target.
But that is where Le Pen has seen her chance. Macron’s proposed pension reforms are hugely unpopular. Le Pen has listened sympathetically to complaints about the requirement to work another three years (from the age of 62 to 65) and has promised that the retirement age will not change if she is elected president. What little change she promises for the economy, such as cutting VAT on energy (including petrol) from 20% to 5.5%, is equally unrealistic, merely short-term crowd-pleasers with potentially catastrophic long-term consequences, according to more expert critics. Her promises to put non-French outsiders to the back of the social queue are as reassuring to voters as the Academie Francaise’s efforts to stop the French language from being changed by outside influences.
A National Rally victory in the run-off would be economically and socially disastrous for France. It would disastrous for Nato, the EU and the liberal West, including the United Kingdom. A French journalist writing in The Times in the immediate aftermath of Brexit thanked Britain for its “nationalist, populist” triumph because Brexit, she reasoned, was such a horrible warning to the rest of Europe that it had effectively inoculated the EU against nationalist populism forever. Well, six years on, nobody knows or cares what Nigel Farage is doing (and the forces of the nationalist/populist icon Vladimir Putin now find themselves under fire from British munitions); whereas 80% of Hungary’s population has just voted for Viktor Orban, 50% or thereabouts of France’s population is projected to vote for Le Pen in ten day’s time, and in Spain this week the extreme right-wing populist Vox party has just taken office for the first time. But schadenfreude is not a French word, fortunately, and it doesn’t translate well into English.