Macron: the French conformist anti-establishment candidate
On Wednesday, November 16th, Emmanuel Macron stood in an industrial site north of Paris and announced he would run for president in France’s 2017 election. It is with a speech building upon the country’s glorious history that the former minister of economy defined his hope to restore France as the beacon of humanistic, progressive and liberal values. Macron will run as an independent, refusing to be associated with any existing party.
His choice of using his “En Marche!” movement as the political base for the campaign, as well as his repeated criticism of France’s heavy bureaucratic institutions, make Macron a potential anti-establishment candidate. However, apart from his young age and independent stance, Macron is the pure product of the French elitist and conformist education and political system. He graduated from the prestigious Sciences Po and Ecole Nationale de l’Administration (ENA) and served at the Ministry of Economy prior to working at the Rothschild bank. While not a member of the Socialist Party (PS), Macron served within President Hollande’s government prior to resigning in August 2016.
The emergence of a modern and liberal discourse
Since 2015, France has been exposed to growing tensions that have led to a highly polarised society. The elevated terrorist threat and heightened labour tensions resulted in an enhanced space given to security issues in the political debate. This has led to a somewhat sterile conversation in terms of economic reforms much needed to spark a period of growth to counter the currently high unemployed rates.
Emmanuel Macron’s choice to run for president will almost certainly force his other competitors to come to terms with key questions. The independent candidate has stressed the necessity of tackling issues aimed at modernising the French business landscape. For Macron, key points for the upcoming campaign are the ‘uberisation’ of the economy, the liberalisation of specific job sectors, the reform of the school system and the opening of a wider debate concerning the integration of new technologies in the national economy.
While the centre-right Les Republicains (LR) party is vying to define itself as the one representing France’s economic liberals, front runners in the party primaries continue to struggle with the issues pertaining to the recent developments of the modern economy. Alain Juppe, Francois Fillon and Nicolas Sarkozy are seen as a segment of the established old guard pushing for policies that have failed to deliver strategic successes in the last two decades.
As such, Macron is carving his political space in a relatively untapped terrain. The key question is whether in a country that faces close to a 10 percent unemployment rate as well as a major terrorist threat Macron will find sufficient support to carry his presidential ambitions.
Macron: a victim of the French political system?
While candidate Macron may bring forward a modernist and liberal outlook to politics, his chances of success remain relatively slim. The French two-round voting system structurally favours a traditional bi-party democracy in which power sharing is generally defined by switches between centre-left and centre-right parties. Running as an independent is likely to weaken Macron’s bid, as he will have to face the LR and PS support structures, as well as the country’s major political force, the right-wing Front National (FN).
The 2017 presidential elections will undoubtedly lead to a novel political contest. As President Holland’s approval ratings have fallen to historically low levels, the PS will chose in January its candidate, who may very well not be the current president. On the other side, the centre-right LR party is about to conduct its primaries. With a highly unpopular PS and a divided LR, there is a relative possibility that could see Macron gaining support from a centrist electorate disillusioned with both parties.
Current projections show that the presidential race will likely see the FN reach the second round while potentially facing either the PS or the LR candidate. Within this disposition, there is little room left for the independent runner or for his potential centrist rival, Francois Bayrou of the Mouvement Democrate (MODEM). Macron’s best bet, and his likely planned strategy, is that by facing a divided PS and a LR lacking policy clarity, he may garner sufficient support to reach the second round. In that event, he would be probably be facing the FN, thus opening up a clear contest between two rival visions of the country.
Three rival visions of France
Macron’s decision to run for president does serve to highlight three competing visions for the country. On the one hand, the ‘traditional’ PS and LR parties represent the French political establishment that has been ruling France with more or less similar policies since 1991. Regardless of the candidate chosen via their respective primary elections, these parties will continue to support tendencies and institutions that have been in place for the last 20 years. On the other hand, the FN challenges this centre-left/centre-right establishment by calling for a nationalist overhaul of the country’s policy agenda and a rethinking of France’s regional and global partnerships. Macron’s movement provides a counterpart to the FN by challenging the two-party system yet defending the ideas of globalisation and free market. However, at this juncture, his ability to garner a level of support similar to the one the FN has spent the last 30 years to build up seems limited.
Given 2016’s previous electoral surprises, it is necessary to not dismiss any candidate from the French presidential elections. If anything, Macron’s decision to run in 2017 underscores the growing feeling by politicians that the current system has been weakened and that the two-party seesaw may at some point leave space for a new power sharing configuration.
Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.