Following Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential elections, Josh Eyre talked to Théo Bourgery and Felix Keser about where France is heading.
Joshua Eyre: Emmanuel Macron, a candidate considered by many to be a political outsider, won the French presidential election yesterday. Could you tell me a little bit about his background and how he came to win?
Felix Keser: It’s interesting that you put it like that. In some respects, he is an outsider. He started his ‘En Marche’ party a year ago, nobody really believed he would win the election to begin with, so in that sense he was an outsider. But at the same time, he came out of the National School of Administration (L’ENA), which produces the majority of French politicians, as much on the left as on the right; was incubated in the socialist party and started his career with the Rothschild bank, which in a sense all make him an insider. So who really is Macron? It’s this dichotomy that makes him so broadly appealing. His ‘centrism’ was key in attracting voters on the left – particularly as the socialist party’s support was hollowed out after Hollande’s presidency – and the right and has definitely been key to helping him get into power. Now, that might have served him rather well on the path to being elected. Once in power, this lack of strong positioning might work against him.
JE: How far did his being up against Le Pen gave him an advantage in the second round?
Théo Bourgery: Clearly the stars were aligned. He benefitted from a political scandal on the right of the spectrum, with François Fillon embroiled in controversy, and at the same time the candidate who was selected in the left-wing primaries, Benoit Hamon, was particularly left-wing, so the whole centre-right / centre-left spectrum was Macron’s for the taking. The election race opened up in a way that was heavily influenced by Macron’s good fortune, which, combined with a well organised platform and campaign, put him in a great position to take advantage of this luck. One reason Macron’s election is spectacular in terms of French history is that the republic that we live in, the fifth republic, is built on the idea that France should have one strong leader, a president who represents the whole of the French people, who is known by the people, who we can trust, and who institutions can trust. Macron is showing the limits of this idea. He doesn’t come out of nowhere exactly, he was minister for two years under Hollande and prior to that one of his closest advisors. But while he doesn’t come out of nowhere, there’s this feeling that a history of strong statesmanship has given way to a rather new, young, progressive approach to ‘presidentiality’, and I think this is quite a new thing for France.
FK: At the same time, even though the idea of the 5th republic suggests France should have a strong head of state, since Chirac and Sarkozy, and certainly with Hollande, presidents have been commanding less respect and less support in recent times. Macron is coming in at a time that could be considered a crisis for the presidential identity.
JE: In terms of the policies he’s proposing, his positioning is quite innovative for France. Could you tell me a little about that?
TB: The main thing he stands out for in the foreign media is that he’s pro-European at a time when the European project is getting a lot of stick. He believes in strong reform of the EU, but supports its ideals in principle. He’s not for the status quo but he respects what’s been done and he wants to build on that. He’d like a European Commission that’s more democratic and representative of the people of Europe. This isn’t a position we’re seeing elsewhere with the populist wave Europe is experiencing. Macron also recognises the forces of the market and of globalisation, and his answer to this is different to what we’re used to in France. Usually politicians give us a binary answer, either the state is interventionist and shelters people from market forces, or it’s liberal, allowing corporate companies to do almost as they please. Macron’s position is that there are forces of globalisation and trade that France benefits from, but that there are times when the state must intervene, especially when it comes to unemployment, when it comes to social security. In some ways he’s inspired by the Scandinavian model of flexi-security, where the process of going in and out of employment is smoother, and the state supports people through training to get them into work. This is something that he is going to be focusing on, to help people move from one job to another, etc. This is revolutionary in France.
FK: Macron’s economic policies are appealing to the centre-right. He argues that he will reduce corporate tax and make it easier for small and medium sized companies to get access to financial capital, a ‘market friendliness’ that will induce growth and support from the centre-right. How the traditional socialists will react to this is still not clear, but they will most likely not have any of this. It’s interesting that he has a mix of enthusiasm and positivity for the future, but also respects the fact that there is a lot of work to be done. Winning was easy: now the difficult part is going to be shaping a majority in the National Assembly and whether he can move ahead with implementing the policies he’s been talking about.
JE: So where does he go from here?
FK: A lot of people have been comparing him to Italy’s Matteo Renzi. Some have called him the Renzi 2.0 in terms of his domestic and European policies. The thing is, Renzi quickly faced off against the Italian establishment and the party system and found it difficult to implement his reformist agenda. In France, we’ve had a well established two party system in the Duvergean tradition for a very long time, so the question is whether he’s going to be able to get enough support in the legislative elections, and whether he’ll be able to tap into enough support on the left and right to enable him to live up to his campaign promises.
TB: He needs an absolute majority in the parliament because of the institutional structure of France and because of our constitution. This will be tough because his is a new party without the local support that other parties have been building up over generations. En Marche will have candidates in every constituency but getting 50% of the vote is going to be a challenge. French parties have never been good at coalitions, they have never been good at consensus, these second round elections are the next big thing we need to consider before we can start to talk seriously about how effective a president Macron will be. Nothing is certain right now. After the second round of the parliamentary elections, we’ll know more whether it looks like Macron’s presidency will be remembered for its reforms or whether it will be remembered for bickering, instability and policy gridlock.
FK: The biggest question that looms now is whether Macron will be able to deliver on his promises. The overpromise/under-deliver cocktail is – even though an inherent symptom of our democratic societies – a dangerous one, certainly in our times of rising populism. If he fails to achieve some symbolic wins fast, Macron’s goals will probably backfire and this will mean an even stronger Le Pen in the country’s next elections. It’s going to be an interesting few months and years for France!
Felix Keser is a first year MPA student at LSE, originally from France. He received a Joint Honours BA in Political Science and Developmental Economics from McGill University. Prior to LSE, Felix spent time working as a public affairs consultant for a lobbying boutique in Brussels and in New York, where he worked for the Clinton Global Initiative.
Théo Bourgery is a first-year MPA student at LSE, originally from France. He received an Honours BA in Sociology and Economics from McGill University. Prior to LSE, Théo was a political appointee to a French MP, in charge of parliamentary affairs. He also interned for the French ministries of Justice and Defence.
Joshua Eyre is a 1st year MPA candidate at LSE. Prior to LSE, Josh completed a Bachelors degree in history at University College London and worked at salt communications, where he developed campaigns around public health and responsible business for NGOs, IGOs and private sector organisations.