French elections: deja vu again

The French have done it again. Despite being utterly shocked by the outcome of their own vote in the 2017 presidential election, they have led the nasty Emmanuel Macron and the deplorable Marine Le Pen to another runoff.

But such is the state of French politics: chaotic and changing. Now, the power of the traditional center-left and center-right parties has waned, and the Fifth Republic is changing beyond recognition, with dramatic consequences for Europe.

After five years in power, the incumbent won just 28 per cent of the vote compared to Le Pen’s 23 per cent, and the outcome of the second round, which is due to take place in two weeks, looks even less certain. than ever, considering Macron’s controversial decision. history of domestic and foreign policy.

In 2017, Marcon beat Le Pen by 30 points, but today they are too close for comfort, with some polls putting them almost level, given the 3 per cent margin of error.

Unsurprisingly, most of the other candidates have thrown their support behind Macron as he hastened to emphasize Le Pen’s “extremism” and present an ultimatum: it’s either me or the extreme right (read neo-fascists), or in the words often attributed to King Louis. XV, “After me, the deluge”.

But the trick may not work as well as last time, because this time it smacks of desperation and duplicity.

The president will seem desperate if he chooses to focus on Le Pen’s record rather than his own, especially now that he has a record to go on. And he will seem desperate if he engages in the politics of fear instead of presenting a hopeful agenda for the next five crucial years.

In terms of numbers, and considering Brexit, the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Macron has actually done better than expected for the French economy as a whole; better than most other Western economies.

Yet neither the pain nor the gain has been spread evenly during his tenure.

Despite lower unemployment and higher growth, Macron is widely seen as a “president of the rich”, focused on improving corporate performance as the engine of growth, investing more in white-collar jobs than blue-collar jobs, and showing no sympathy for families in distress.

Macron has proven to be a good speaker but a poor communicator; better lecturing than listening, patronizing people instead of talking to them.

Some now fear that, free from electoral pressures in his second and final term, Macron could become even more indifferent, raising the retirement age, undermining labor rights and shrinking the welfare state to suit his neoliberal economic agenda.

Either way, Macron should work up the courage in the next two weeks and beyond to set the record straight on where he is taking the country. This is especially important because Macron also needs to clear up his history of double standards.

He, who had appealed to “hope over fear,” was quick to spread panic over so-called “Islamic separatism” during his presidency, in an opportunistic move to divert attention from his failures and save his dwindling popularity among the right. .

He accused Muslims living on the fringes of French society of offending democratic and secular values, instead of fulfilling his promise to end social marginalization in France.

In the process, he paved the way for the likes of populist candidate Eric Zemmour to claim that Islamists and Muslims are the same; demonizing Islam as an imminent danger to the French republic.

Paradoxically, just as Macron embraced such a xenophobic image, Le Pen shed hers to appeal to conservative mainstream voters.

Although she has not changed her fanatical views or chauvinist agenda, the far-right candidate has replaced her image as an angry extremist, obsessed with immigration, Islam and French identity, with a more moderate one as a caring and caring leader, who talk to the people. financial and personal concerns.

Instead of her usual tirades against EU authoritarianism, Le Pen lashed out at high prices and high taxes to rally her base.

Le Pen’s clever but misleading repositioning has allowed her to venture into the political center without losing the radical right and propelled her to the top of the voting lists along with Macron, despite her dark past and her admiration for Vladimir. Putin and Donald Trump. both very unpopular in France.

He has long shared Putin’s and Trump’s vision of nativist white Christian nationalism, but understood that today’s French voters are obsessed with domestic problems, not foreign concerns, and thus only spoke in slogans about making France be strong, authentic and great again.

But Macron has been an activist president on the European and world stage, believing that France must lead on both fronts. What he lacked in experience, he made up for in youthful energy, bouncing around world forums, hosting top leaders and expressing an opinion on every issue.

However, despite his energy and ambition, Macron has fared worse on foreign policy than on the domestic front. Not only did he fail to make any headway on any major issues, but much of what he touched also seemed to blow up in his face.

In Europe, it failed to make any headway at its so-called “Normandy format” summit in 2019 and then failed to anticipate, prevent or reverse a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the process, his vision of European defense autonomy at the expense of a “brain-dead” NATO dissipated with no return.

In Africa and the Middle East, Macron failed to preserve or expand French influence, especially in the Sahel and North Africa. He too fared miserably in Libya, Lebanon and Palestine despite PR stunts on the streets of Beirut and Jerusalem. His hastily arranged photo shoot of him with warring Libyan leaders early in his presidency underscored his amateurish approach to foreign policy, as the conflict hardened and France’s role diminished. Macron’s appeasement of authoritarian Arab regimes while he preaches human rights has been completely hypocritical.

Macron has lost huge multibillion-dollar arms deals with the United States, including those with the Australian Navy and the European Air Force. Unable to make up his mind about Beijing, or set a strategy, he failed to create any form of partnership or make inroads economically with China.

And once again, it’s the immediate bread-and-butter (and, ahem, cheese) issues that count most for the French in this election, not far-flung conflicts and conspiracies.

Until now, President Macron has used France’s turn at the European Union presidency and the threat posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to European security to avoid debating with other candidates or defending his record.

But now he will have to face and debate Marine Le Pen, who is much better prepared, more polished and experienced than last time. And any big misstep in the next two weeks could cost him the presidency.

But taking back the Elysées is not the only challenge he faces. He will also have to regain a majority in the National Assembly for legislative elections in June, in order to pass important laws or programs.

It should come as no consolation to the incumbent that his victory was fueled, not once but twice, by the electorate’s fear of his far-right opponent.

But Macron could still turn a second term into a second chance and show the French he can ensure the gain, as well as the pain, is shared fairly.

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