En Marche! France’s Antidote to Populism

Over the last few years, extremist and populist movements have been on the rise throughout the world. Be it the Brexit referendum or Trump’s election to the US Presidency, seemingly unpredictable political results have become the norm. In May 2017, French citizens will cast their votes to elect a new President, setting the stage for yet another germane battle. Many fear that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right party Front National (FN), could have a real shot at the top job. To form their opposition, the two conventional parties, the Socialists (PS) and the Republicans (LR), have held primaries to select their candidates. However, France’s best chance against Le Pen is an outsider: former Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron, who is running as an independent representing his newly founded movement En Marche! (Macron and his party conveniently share the same initials: EM). Macron has a unique opportunity given his favorable position on the political spectrum, his ambitious, balanced, and well-crafted set of policy proposals, and his ability to inspire people with the promise of political renewal. If the Le Pen threat is indicative of the perilous global trend of extremist populism, political trust and support ought to be placed with Macron.

Macron rose to fame as an investment banker at Banque Rothschild. A protégé of Socialist François Hollande, he was made Deputy Secretary General of the Élysée and a close economic advisor when Hollande became President in 2012. Two years later, when the left-wing policies of the Ayrault Government resulted in the Socialists losing in several local elections, Macron became Minister of the Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs in the more moderate Valls cabinet. He resigned last August to start a new trans-party political movement: EM. In the last few months, he presented his socially and economically liberal platform and announced his bid for the Presidency, causing the dismay of the PS establishment who saw this as a betrayal.

The French presidential election, which occurs every five years, is decided in two rounds of voting. In the first stage, there are usually several candidates, ten in total this year. The winner of this first round is unlikely to get more than 50 percent of the votes, given the fragmented playing field. The two candidates with the most votes will proceed to the next step: a runoff election. Although Macron was initially seen as an outsider who could finish third at best, his chances of making it to the second round now look promising and seem to be growing. This is mainly due to the results of the primaries of the PS and LR. Both have opted for rather extreme candidates. The right chose François Fillon, a former Prime Minister who beat ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy in the party primary. A self-professed “Thatcherite,” Fillon stands for profuse economic liberalization – he has explicitly attacked France’s labor laws and proposes to make considerable cuts to the public sector – and appeals to Catholic conservatives. The left, on the other hand, picked Benoît Hamon, previously Minister of Education, who won the Socialist primary running on a fairly radical left-wing platform and defeating centrist PM Manuel Valls. These polarized results have helped Macron, largely because he positioned himself in the center, allowing him to him pick up moderate votes from both sides.

Polls suggest Hamon’s prospects in the presidential race are bleak due to his hard-left policy proposals. He wants to create a citizens’ basic income scheme and to protect the 35-hour workweek. However, it is important to take into consideration the recent unpopularity of the left and of President Francois Hollande: Hollande’s latest approval ratings were in the single digits, which contributed to making him the first sitting president in France’s history not to seek re-election. Hamon’s policy stances are detrimental to his popularity because they are reminiscent of the early days of the Hollande administration. Given the recent dissatisfaction with left-wing policies and their apparent ineffectiveness (as signified by the stationary unemployment rate and other social and economic indicators), it is unlikely that the electorate will opt for the “French Bernie Sanders.” Macron benefits from this aversion towards the Socialists since many left-wing voters see him as their best option against the right-wing candidates.

Marine Le Pen’s popularity is perhaps the sole certainty of the presidential race thus far. The FN candidate’s poll performance has remained unwaveringly steady over the past months. Indeed, her mix of ultra-nationalistic anti-immigration policies and Euroskeptic proposals appeal to those fearful of the many episodes of terrorism France has suffered recently. Furthermore, her protectionist economic stance is attractive to traditionally left-wing blue-collar voters. Until recently, François Fillon was Le Pen’s most likely opponent in the runoff. Overall, he seemed to be a fairly strong contender, offering a set of policies that are the direct opposite of Hollande’s unpopular leadership philosophy. Yet in the past weeks, the former PM has been engulfed in a scandal regarding his wife, Penelope Fillon. Mrs. Fillon received about €500,000 from public funds over the past years for working as a parliamentary assistant for her husband. However, French newspapers claim there is no proof she was actually performing the job. Although Fillon has dismissed the charges and repeatedly said he would offer proof of his and his wife’s innocence, ‘Penelope-gate’ is nevertheless taking a toll on his poll numbers. Many right-wing moderates are quickly shifting their preference towards the center, occupied freely by EM.

Macron’s ideas are as novel and innovative as the man behind them.

Macron’s success is not due purely to electoral contingency. Indeed, he offers a platform that is appealing to many in its own right. Socially, he is a liberal, essentially adhering to the agenda of the left. Yet economically he does not buy into old-fashioned Socialist policies. In the aftermath of Hollande’s 75 percent wealth tax, he famously described France as a “Cuba without the sun. He now proposes to create more hospitable conditions for businesses, especially given the expected post-Brexit exodus of firms from Britain. To do so, his plan essentially entails cutting taxes and restructuring France’s repressive labor laws, such as the 35-hour workweek limit. This economic stance appeals to many right-wingers and centrists, but also to the moderate left that is fed up with old guard Socialists.

What perhaps sets Macron apart from the rest of the candidates most distinctly is his staunch, almost zealous, support for globalization and France’s membership in the EU. He has repeatedly claimed that France and the rest of the world can only win with modern international interconnectedness. This element of Macronite ideology may be somewhat of a liability: with France’s growing terrorism problem, an immigration-loving attitude coupled with relative inexperience in national security may push some voters away. On the other hand, if one views this set of ideas from a foreign policy perspective, they take an exciting turn. After Brexit, many have realized that the German-led formula that has governed the EU thus far, with Germany essentially setting the rules and pace, is crumbling. Italy’s PM, Matteo Renzi, could have been the new “European leader,” but his defeat in last December’s constitutional referendum and subsequent resignation have shattered that dream. Europe is actively seeking new leadership from one of its strongest nations and EM offers just that: a strong France led by a man who espouses Europeanism fully and wishes to reform a struggling union.

Although Macron’s well-crafted policies are the bedrock of his campaign, there is a subtler element to his popularity and the likelihood of his success. His charisma and personality are certainly important. He draws large crowds and incites their political passion. In addition, his positive attitude and optimism are fetching. Unlike many other politicians nowadays, he would rather play the cards of opportunity and hope than those of finger-pointing and hatred. Populists stir up humanity’s most contemptible sentiments, whereas Macron does just the opposite.

Yet there is something more to his appeal, something that is not of Macron’s own making, but that he nevertheless takes advantage: He stands for political renewal. Macron’s ideas are as novel and innovative as the man behind them. At age 36, he became one of the youngest government ministers in the history of France and may become its youngest ever President. Moreover, he has never been elected to office, having held political positions only by appointment. During his time in office, he regularly defied party politics by openly disagreeing with government action, and more recently by leaving the PS to start his own opposition movement, ultimately snubbing the left’s primary elections. Although his actions have often infuriated his colleagues, voters like a candidate who stands up for his ideas and defies the system. A clear takeaway from Trump’s presidential race and victory is that being anti-establishment in this day and age can be a very successful strategy. Macron does not rant about the ills of current politicians, yet actions speak louder than words, and he most certainly offers a novel way of approaching French politics. He offers the political revival so many crave, yet does so in a constructive manner. It might just be that the man to defeat the populist danger represented by Le Pen will not only be her ideological opposite but someone who beats her at the populists’ own anti-establishment game.

Even if Emmanuel Macron and his movement don’t win this election, they have already shown the world that to challenge and possibly defeat populism, one should not simply condemn it. Instead, one should consider what recent elections have taught us and address the concerns of many voters, understanding the reasons behind the global rise of populism. People all around the world are fed up with the political establishment, but who replaces that establishment has yet to be determined. Despite what recent elections might indicate, it need not be the populist extremists.