2017 is really turning out to be the year of European elections. Germany, France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and now Britain has joined the fray with Prime Minister Theresa May calling a surprise general election for June. Ahead of that, however, will be the first round of the French presidential elections, which takes place on Sunday 23 April.
The campaign so far has been astonishing. What began as a shoe-in for the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, has turned into a surprisingly close four-way race between Fillon, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the current front-runner: Emmanuel Macron.
We had a comment from Keith arguing that all four candidates represent “real change” for France. In particular, however, he is hoping for a Macron win. But is he right that the “political outsider” Macron genuinely represents change? And, if so, what sort of change does he stand for?
To get a reply, we spoke to Philippe Marlière, Professor of French and European Politics at University College London. You can read more of his thinking on the upcoming French elections on his blog (in French) or in The Guardian (in English). What would he say?
Well, Emmanuel Macron is indeed a new political proposition in this campaign. Why? I think essentially because he stands allegedly above left and right, which is in France a very important, enduring dichotomy… Is he a centrist? That’s a bit difficult to answer, because a lot of political commentators in France argue that there is no political centre – you either lean a little to the left or the right. Macron is certainly a very untested politician, because let’s remember that only five years ago he wasn’t in politics. So, he’s a newcomer to politics – first as a political adviser to François Hollande, then for about two years in a senior role as Minister of the Economy. So, he was part of a Socialist-led government which, as you know, is not finishing its term very well. Hollande has not been able to run again because he’s so unpopular, and Macron is closely associated with his government. So, that’s the first point to nuance things slightly…
Would he do something radically different? I think he seems to be setting the bar very high. However, his programme seems to be a mix of things done by the current government, of which he was a member, and also his own policies which seem to be very liberal. He seems to be working on the two legs of liberalism: economic and social. He is economically liberal, which means he is not a statist; he’s not a person who talks very much about state intervention. On the contrary, his whole programme is about making the economy more flexible; it’s about really ditching a number of the social protections which exist… But he’s also politically and culturally liberal, and in France it’s quite unusual for one candidate to embrace both economic and social liberalism…
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Paul Smith, Associate Professor in French and Francophone Studies at the University of Nottingham. What would he say in response to Keith’s comment?
I would say to Keith that, under Macron’s leadership there will be a refocusing on Europe. I think that’s quite clear with Macron, who sees Europe as a vehicle for taking France forward. I think he has a critique of Hollande’s performance in Europe, which is that there hasn’t been enough positive emphasis on what the EU does and what France’s place is in Europe.
Nevertheless, Macron is principally focusing on a social democratic / social centrist message which is in some ways a continuation of Hollande’s position. He is also looking at, for example, tackling unemployment by taking the whole unemployment system back under control of the state; things like unemployment benefits and job centres in France are controlled by a combination of employers and trade unions, and Macron feels that this system hasn’t succeeded and so the state needs to take back control. He’s also talking about simplifying legislation; there’s a very complicated tax system, for example, and he’s focusing on trying to simplify that. Also making regulations more flexible to encourage business, and particularly small businesses. So, in some ways it would be a continuation of what he did when he was Minister of the Economy. Also I think he’s keen to emphasise the role of Europe in that equation.
Is Emmanuel Macron the right person to lead France? Will he bring radical change to France, or will it be more of the same? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!