Macron and Le Pen are no outsiders


Picture of Dr David Lees
Dr David Lees

Dr David Lees is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick

The traditional mainstream parties in France are not dead yet, and neither is the French establishment.

Much has been made of the ways in which Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen — the two remaining candidates in the race to become the next French president — have cast themselves as anti-establishment figures.

But the reality is far more nuanced. Le Pen, although the leader of a political party not considered to be mainstream, is a well-established politician who has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009 and is, of course, part of a political dynasty, in the form of the Le Pen family. Macron is a former investment banker and economics minister in the government of the current President, François Hollande.

Although Macron has sought to establish a new movement, En Marche!, around his presidential bid and has never actually held political office, there is no hiding the fact that his economic policy under Hollande was one that sought to reform France’s labour laws in favour of a quick-hire, quick-fire approach.

In many ways, Macron is closer to the centre-right candidate François Fillon in his economic views than he is to some within the Socialist Party, who would prefer to maintain the status quo rather than to challenge the somewhat staid French economic model. Fillon, viewed by many as a French Margaret Thatcher because of his policies of trying to slim down the size of the French state and to challenge the supremacy of the 35-hour working week, was of course more zealous than Macron in this regard.

The traditional mainstream parties in France are not dead yet, and neither is the French establishment

Nevertheless, despite Macron’s persistent denial of responsibility for the actions of Hollande’s government in the head-to-head debate with Le Pen on 3 May, he is essentially a figure of the establishment trying to position himself as a centrist in the hope of winning over voters from the centre-left and centre-right. The endorsements of Macron from Hollande, Fillon and former president Nicolas Sarkozy since the first round result on 23 April reinforce in many ways the sense that Macron is part of the political classes that voters on both the extreme-left and extreme-right so dislike. Having the backing of such political heavyweights may appear to be a positive, but this does not necessarily guarantee Macron the support of their electorate in the second round.

Given that one of Macron’s tactics in the period between the two rounds of voting has been to distance himself from the Hollande presidency, receiving the backing of the vastly unpopular incumbent may well dent Macron’s share of the vote.

Le Pen, by contrast, has sought to distance herself from the brand of her National Front party through her temporary retirement from the presidency of the party. In many ways, this is a cynical move designed to appeal to centrist and extreme-left voters disillusioned with precisely the aspects of Macron’s candidacy that appear to make him much more part of the establishment than he has claimed.

But Le Pen has held political office, as an MEP and member of the regional council for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. She is far from an outsider. The distancing between Le Pen and the party, does rather dampen down comparisons between Le Pen’s candidacy and that of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. While Trump is a multi-billionaire businessman whose lifestyle would, in many ways, associate him with the establishment, he sought to use the framework of the Republican Party to achieve elected office. Le Pen is seeking to avoid the still potentially toxic image of the National Front to gain more support in the second round, even though she remains president of the party in all but name.

A victory for either Le Pen or Macron will result in an established party ruling the roost

Where, then, does this leave the French political landscape? While Macron and Le Pen do not come from the two traditional mainstream parties in France, all is by no means lost for the Socialists and the centre-right Republicans.

In the face of the vast unpopularity of Hollande, it is very likely that the legislative elections in June will sweep the centre-right to a majority in the National Assembly, meaning either Macron or Le Pen will need to work with a potentially hostile ruling party. Despite the damaging image of Hollande and the catastrophic presidential campaign of Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate who came a lowly fifth in the first-round poll, the Socialists will look to reform and to regroup in the same way as the British Labour Party did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Macron’s connections to the Socialists mean that he is unlikely to preside over a complete disintegration of the party on his watch, if elected in Sunday’s vote. In many ways, it is the establishment parties of centre-left and centre-right that still hold the cards in shaping the future of France over the next five years.

Forget talk of the death of the establishment: a victory for either Le Pen or Macron will result in an established party (probably the centre-right) ruling the roost.

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