Macron Takes The Bully Pulpit

16 December 2021

Emmanuel Macron’s second presidential campaign will be nothing like his first. In 2016-17 he enjoyed the advantage of enigma: no one knew who he was or what he represented (though many guessed accurately enough), and he exploited the ambiguities to the full with his slogans “en même temps, ni droite ni gauche,” etc. He would bring the spirit of Silicon Valley to France, create a “startup society,” infuse moribund state structures with the energies of youth and innovation, etc. What yesterday’s two-hour campaign telethon revealed more than anything else was the shadow that has fallen between the ambition and the realization.

For a good long time it appeared that the prophecy of “ni droite ni gauche” would be realized by default, Macron’s victory having decimated the Socialist Party and reduced Les Républicains to a squabbling rump. But LR has miraculously resurrected itself by nominating the aspirant with the profile most similar to Macron.

Meanwhile, Covid locked down the entrepreneurs who were to have taken up the call to create a startup society, and investment funds remained locked up in the vaults of nervous investors, while the state shifted its priorities from the promotion of innovation to spending “quoi qu’il en coûte” to keep the economy afloat during the pandemic (as well as to keep the Gilets Jaunes off the streets). In summing up his achievements and remaining ambitions, Macron was reduced to sounding like Sarkozy, expressing sympathy for workers whose more physically arduous careers were likely to wear them out earlier than “we three”(referring to himself and the two interviewers who shared the stage) while vowing to rid France of those “special retirement regimes” whose number somehow remains at an incredible 42 despite Sarkozy’s having got rid of them–or so it was claimed–in a previous quinquennat.

One might have commiserated with a president obliged to defend such a morose balance sheet were it not for his gleeful defense of his record. Far be it from me to compare Macron to Trump, but both are essentially salesmen, albeit in different realms. Trump is the shady real estate broker or used car dealer who will say anything to close the deal, no matter how enormous the lie. Macron, by contrast, is the investment banker trying to sell a client on the wisdom of a merger or acquisition, never at a loss for facts and figures or lacking confidence in the outcome, fluent in his well-rehearsed patter, duly contrite when acknowledging past errors, and seemingly mindful only of his client’s profits, never of his own compensation.

For the moment, the president’s unshakeable confidence is matched by his nearly unwavering electoral support: he has claimed the allegiance of 25% of the electorate since early 2017, and through all the trials and tribulations of his presidency, that support has barely wavered. It is a solid base, and as things stand now it is probably enough to ensure him a place in the second round in 2022 and then re-election.

He has only two worries: one is that Valérie Pécresse, whom some would paint as a Macron clone, is his opponent. Some polls show her outstripping the incumbent in round 2. Perhaps, but despite the superficial resemblances, Pécresse is not a Macron clone. She might be closer to one if she were not beholden to the Ciotti faction and the embittered Fillonites of LR, without whom she can’t win. Her program, with its focus on debt reduction and cutting state-sector employment, is a carbon copy of Fillon’s, just as her harsh line on security and immigration is a copy of Ciotti’s. These views are popular in what remains of LR, the more Juppé-friendly elements having decamped to Macron. But Pécresse will have to drag their dead weight through the campaign, and on security and immigration she will easily be outbid by Zemmour and Le Pen.

The president’s other worry is precisely from the latter two candidates. They appeal to very different quarters of the far right. Zemmour has proved to be a siren to bourgeois nationalists, Catholic fundamentalists who had invested their hopes in Fillion, if not in Marion Maréchal Le Pen, latter-day Maurrassiens and nostalgics for Vichy, and young so-called Zouave Hotspurs of the right eager to mix it up with anti-racists and antifa.

The de-demonized Le Pen is ironically left with a base consisting of the anti-EU, anti-globalization element of the working class together with a dwindling hard core of supporters inherited from her father. These two components of the far right–the bourgeois nationalists and the anti-global working class–which used to coalesce uneasily in Le Pen, have been severed by Zemmour’s polemical saber. Le Monde’s article on Zemmour’s lieutenants interestingly revealed how many of them were former RN cadres closer to Marion Maréchal, some even involved with her nascent school of political leadership, than to Marine. Left adrift by Marion’s (temporary?) withdrawal from politics, they have gravitated to Zemmour, whose more “culturalist” line they view as more promising than Le Pen’s mobilization of working-class ressentiment. The old debate about whether nation or class is the more potent organizing principle has thus been revived.

For Macron, the danger is twofold. First, the proponents of nation over class could be proved right. Zemmour could break out as the more potent of the two far-right challengers, surpass both Le Pen and Pécresse, and make it into the second round with an electorate extending beyond the enclaves of the far right. But could he then defeat Macron? I don’t think so, and I’m not sure Zemmour thinks so either. He could at some point therefore decide to drop out of the race, having achieved his goal–or at least one of his goals–of obliging everyone who thinks about politics in France to discuss his views. Etienne Girard’s Le radicalisé makes clear what a complex and enigmatic personality Zemmour is. Were he to drop out, his votes would be up for grabs. A Le Pen resurgence would be possible, and we would be back to the status quo ante of a Macron-Le Pen round 2, which I think Macron would again win, though by a less comfortable margin than last time. But the split might prove more favorable to Pécresse, who in the end is I think more electable than either Zemmour or Le Pen. She would be Macron’s most formidable opponent.

And given all this, and the left’s refusal to consolidate and its utterly inaudible program(s), I have to say I would probably find myself voting for Macron if I had a vote–faute de mieux, mais quand même. Some friends will no doubt ask why I wouldn’t consider Mélenchon in round one. I’ll save that for another post.


Photo Credits: Jacques Paquier (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • bernard says:

    I find the idea of Zemmour dropping out at any point to be completely at odds with his personality. Rarely have I witnessed such a self aggrandizing person in French politics, so completely certain of knowing everything over everything. No, this man will not bow in favor of anyone else, as they are all inferior beings hardly worthy of respect. Besides, Marion needs her employee to kill Marine, she can’t be seen to do it herself.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    “Her program, with its focus on debt reduction and cutting state-sector employment, is a carbon copy of Fillon’s, just as her harsh line on security and immigration is a copy of Ciotti’s.” => Yes, but it is also basically the same agenda RPR / UMP / LR put forward at each general election since at least 1988. And they know by experience that they are not at all expected to fulfill the first commitment (not at all!), and that they can replace the second one by “symbolic gestures”. Valérie Pécresse has also tested and validated that trick at regional scale twice.

    “Pécresse will have to drag their dead weight through the campaign, and on security and immigration she will easily be outbid by Zemmour and Le Pen.” I’m not so sure! What looks like sure is that the nationalists account for more than 25% of the votes, and a strongly “anti-right, anti-Macron” front for maybe 15%. The remaining 60% know for sure they will have either to rule together at national level, or to find good gentlemen’s agreements to rule separately, but in harmony, local, regional and national levels. LR can’t attack to hardly the “macronian center-right” they need afterwards, and Macronists can not at all attack the party and current that provided their Prime Ministers and most of their electorate. So, imho, Pécresse can safely play the “mass effect” of local and regional supports (these are not people in the street but local elected people, but those have some physical supporters they can gather in meetings). And let the various tendencies of the LR conglomerate plead for their own policy priorities. I can’t see any danger for her from there.

    Were I in her campaign and paid to evaluate risks, I would rank:
    1st risk in the very short term: a sudden collapse of either Zemmour or Le Pen campaign, that would place the other nationalist in pole position, and reinstall the incumbent President as the defender of liberal values (I would evaluate the probability around 5%-10% and the severity as medium);
    2st risk, coming in medium term: a sudden collapse of Macron in the polls, that might stimulate the Greens and the left to look for a merger — but they would soon disagree on the issue of the refugees trying to come back from Macronism, I can’t imagine that less than 2 campaigns would go on (so p ~ 20%, but severity : low);
    3rd risk, in a longer term: a stronger and stronger lead in the polls might foster ambitions and quarrels within LR, destroying the image of “ready-to-rule” LR likes to display. Yet, there are so many available seats to conquer back at Assemblée nationale, that I think there is room for everyone. (So p~10% and severity is low).

    Maybe I’m blind, but I really can’t see, at the moment, how Valérie Pécresse could lose this election!

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