Emmanuel Macron is standing as an independent in the French presidential election unashamedly as a centrist, pro-European candidate – and his rise offers some hope for the centre-left
The French presidential election this year is already shaping up as a fascinating contest, even before the official campaign has begun. The accepted wisdom leading up to the race was that, with the governing Socialist party languishing below 10% in the polls, the final two candidates to progress to May’s run-off would be the centre-right Francois Fillon, and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. Yet the emergence of a third horse in what was meant to be a two-horse race has taken many by surprise.
Emmanuel Macron caused a stir last year when he stepped down from his position in the socialist government to announce his candidacy as an independent, leading a new movement described as being “neither left nor right,” calling itself ‘En Marche!’ or ‘Forward!’ in English. This strategy has proved to be a masterstroke with Macron surging in the polls, only 6 points behind Fillon and Le Pen, the former having just been embroiled in a scandal involving 500,000 euro payments to his wife for work that amounted to, it seems, very little. If Macron gets through to the run-off there is a very good chance that he will become President of France, and if he does, or even if he falls just short in the first round, there are many lessons the British centre-left can learn from his rise.
The first is that centre-left values are not as out-of-fashion as they seem. These are values that will always be more attractive to the public at large, as opposed to the extremes of the hard right and left – they just need the right messenger in order to blossom. Macron’s youthful exuberance and eloquent diction is reminiscent of Tony Blair during his ascendency in the 1990s, as is his ability to present a vision that straddles both perceived radicalism and pragmatism.
Macron, by founding the En Marche movement, has given a fresh radicalism to ideas of the centre-left that many voters have been waiting for an excuse to get behind. His promises to “unblock France” and end politics as a “profession” have a populist edge, and his movement offers not just empty complaints about the system in its current state, but how he intends to change it. Labour under Blair offered a similar vision, and indeed gave the impression of being both radical, but ‘moderate’ at the same time.
The second lesson to learn, is that it is the centre, and centre-left, that will come up with the strategy to defeat the conservative and radical right, not the hard left. Ideas across the whole spectrum of the left certainly have the potential for mass popularity, but they need to be presented by someone who is not constrained by the ideological, and apparent moral weight that comes with belonging to certain parts of the left. They need to be able to present themselves as someone who can appeal to people on both sides of the debate, and not just a narrow group, with a rigid set of principles. Of course, values are important, but a figurehead needs to be flexible.
Yet Macron’s rise should not be taken as a literal example of what Labour should do. A return to ‘Blairism’ (if there is such a thing) is not necessarily the answer in policy terms – and indeed the very label should be banished if there is to be a revival. It is simply about finding a messenger, with the youth, and radicalism to take Labour values to the mass population.
Policies dismissed by many in the past, espoused under current and past Labour leaders, such as rail nationalisation and executive pay curbs have in fact proved relatively popular with the public and should be taken seriously.
It is clear that the centre-left model of Blair and Macron provides the best route to electoral success, and this is fact that even those on the left of the Labour party will surely accept. It just needs a hint of populism, a radical, fresh feel, and most importantly, the right messenger.
Simon Garland Jones