So the French primary season is hotting up at last. Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old former economy minister brought in by President François Hollande in 2014 to give his jaded Socialist administration a bit of a lift, has finally confirmed what le tout Paris has known for months: that he will betray his mentor by running against him for the top job as (who would have thought it?) the Tony Blair of France.
Like Blair – the 1997 Blair, that is – Macron promises a “democratic revolution”. Like Blair, he plans to free the energy of the able while protecting the weakest. Like Blair, he sees no Left and Right in politics, but only the way forward – which is why he calls his new party within a party, En Marche.
Finally, like Blair, whom he physically resembles, Macron says he will liberate France from the tyranny of interest groups, including the trade unions – notorious for their outright opposition to anything that challenges their power. No more would necessary reform be blocked by corporatism of all kinds, he announced. “I reject this system”.
Well, he might reject it, and Hollande, if he had any authority, might reject it. But French workers, especially those in the overstuffed public sector, as well as in the key engineering sector, regard union rights as the cornerstone of what remains of their prosperity.
In a national contest, Macron – who says he has witnessed first-hand the vacuity of the executive – would no doubt secure some support from the centre-gound, as well as from what passes for the progressive, or liberal, Left. There are many in France today who feel let down by the political class and like their counterparts in the UK and America are keen to make a statement. How far such resentment might carry Marcon, given that he is neither an extremist nor a nationalist, is impossible to say. The “rage” of the centre is not yet the stuff of legend.
He will, one imagines, impress many sitting at home, watching their TVs, as he talks of the need to take France, belatedly, into the 21st century. For there is no doubt that he looks and sounds the part. Young, smartly dressed, with a background in investment banking and economic theory, he doesn’t appear threatening to the country’s still substantial, but ideologically lost, middle class. If anything, he speaks their language. Like the French generally, those who work hard for a living are tired of hearing about record levels of unemployment while their banks, supermarkets and ubiquitous out-of-town superstores, desperate to avoid the punitive costs of social welfare, refuse to take on extra staff, preferring to let customers shuffle towards the check-out like prisoners in a chain gang queuing for slops.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
But while consumers might empathise with Macron, the same citizens, as workers, are highly protective of their rights and privileges. In particular, they regard the 35-hour week as if it had been included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man instead of as part of a package introduced as recently as the year 2000 – ironically in the hope of creating jobs. Most would have no time either for measures that cut back on the generous benefits to which they are currently entitled and that for many aged 50 or over, provide a lucrative bridge between working and retiring at the age of 55.
In short, though Macron talks sense, and they know it, a majority of French voters would rather hold on to what they have today than hold out for a better tomorrow. Even those, most obviously the professional and executive class, would prefer to give in to the unions than face protracted nationwide strikes with their potential to descend into violence.
No wonder the banker from Amiens declared this week, “The challenge is not for me to bring together either the Left or the Right. The challenge is to bring together France.”
Well, good luck with that.
This weekend sees the first stage of the primaries that will decide who from the conservative right will stand against the Socialist candidate, whoever that turns out to be. Alain Juppé, a former prime minister under Jacques Chirac as well as the long-time mayor of Bordeaux, is the present front-runner, though he is coming under sustained pressure from the irrepressible Nicolas Sarkozy, who regards his ejection from the Elysée by Hollande in 2012 as an aberration and yearns to be returned to his former estate. Whichever of the two secures the nomination (with another former premier, François Fillon, as the third candidate), will be less concerned with the all-purpose representative of the Left than with Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, whom many “experts” (as in Brexit and the recent U.S. election) expect to win the first round of next May’s presidential race.
It could be, therefore, that Macron, who has time on his side, is really just putting down a marker for the 2022 contest. Should Juppé or Sarkozy win the main prize this time round, he will be banking on another five years of more of the same, leading to renewed calls for change. On the other hand, should Le Pen become President, he could expect to be around to pick up the pieces after an administration whose hallmark is likely to be deep-seated racial unrest, political chaos and international opprobrium.
For now, given the strong likelihood that the Socialists will ditch Hollande or that the President will fall on his sword, there is a chance that Macron will go for broke, betting that voters, comparing him for some bizarre reason to Trump, will back his youthful energy and apparent good sense against both the all-too-familiar mantras of the Centre-Right and the siren song of Ms Le Pen.
We will know soon enough. In the meantime, as if the thought of his young protégée stabbing him in the back wasn’t bad enough, Hollande has just learned that Le Pen is to establish her campaign headquarters on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, the same thoroughfare that houses his official residence. No doubt she plans to get to know the local late-night shops and dry-cleaners before moving up the road.