In France Elections Centrist Macron Gains Ground and is seen winner

 When Emmanuel Macron detailed in Paris his program earlier this month, and after the first presidential debate last Thursday, one point became clear: no matter who of the leading candidates wins in the upcoming French election, the political scene in the Héxagone is about to be upset for good. A win of the 39-year-old newcomer would not disarray the EU as would a victory of Marine Le Pen of the Front National, but it would mark in any case a departure from the traditional French political spectrum dynamics.

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a news conference to unveil his fully budgeted manifesto, named a "contract with the nation", in Paris, France, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, attends a news conference to unveil his fully budgeted manifesto, named a "contract with the nation", in Paris, France, March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

This not just because Mr. Macron is an outsider, whose party En Marche! came to life only last November, and not just because he is a former investment banker, whose only experience in government is limited to serving  under François Hollande first as Deputy Secretary-General of the Presidency and then as Minister of the Economy. 

While clamor keeps growing for Republican candidate François Fillon to step aside following a scandal that cost him only last week a 2 point setback in the polls to 17% from 19%, Mr. Macron's moderate stance secured him the support of centrist François Bayrou, an event seen by many as a turning point. Mr. Macron is now one point away from leading candidate Marine Le Pen. His strategy proved successful, but what is his strategy?

A “nor leftist nor right-wing” candidate for the highest office in France

Like elsewhere in the Western world, also in France a dwindling trust in career politicians, seen as the face of the elites and hidden interests and believed responsible  of leaving behind many social groups when bringing back the economy to its feet, is exacting a toll from traditional parties. Like Ms. Le Pen, Mr. Macron is “an outsider to the system”, but unlike her, he did not start his career in the rank and file of any party. He is having a hard time convincing the press that his career does not amount to “only four years”, but he is spared from the ideology fatigue weighing on traditional parties and notably on the Socialist Party. Its candidate, Benoit Hamon, is seen as a “radical” by moderate socialists and as a “fearful” socialist by the far-left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, himself an ex-PS, who founded his movement La France insoumise in February last year.

Emmanuel  Macron's “contract with the nation”

Under pressure for not having a detailed program, last week, in a hall just half a block away form the Elysée,  the official residence of the President, and before 400 journalists,  Mr. Macron over-delivered. With the French and the European flags behind him, he presented his six priority fields — labor, education, culture, security, modernization of the economy, democratic and international renewal — and other 36 topics and dozens of other measures. En Marche! is printing out 8 million booklets of an abridged version of the program that was developed by around 400 experts, many of which were present at the event. 

His program has something for everyone

A €60bn cut in public spending by 2022, a cut of up to 120,000 state jobs (by not replacing retiring civil servants), lowering the corporate tax from 33% to 25%, exempting 80% of households from the housing tax and excluding financial investment from the wealth tax will likely resonate with currently disheartened conservatives.

Bringing down the deficit below 3% of GDP to abide to EU requirements; negotiating a euro zone budget and a EU-wide investment program; extending unemployment benefits to entrepreneurs, farmers, self-employed and those who quit jobs voluntarily; and keeping retirement age and pensions intact are a  nod to the centrist constituencies.

Keeping Holland's  tax breaks on salaries, launching a €50bn stimulus over five years to foster a transition to a green economy, and “a revolution of flex-security” with training for the unemployed and markedly for the young, giving financial support to the unemployed to relocate to other areas, raising disability and old-age allowances, penalizing employers who abuse short-term contracts, and giving bonuses to companies who hire people from poor neighborhoods are measures that seem designed to appeal to left-wing and socially disadvantaged voters. 

To reform the unemployment benefits system towards “one where everyone has responsibilities, people receiving benefits will be allowed to refuse jobs proposed only twice. After that he or she will be out of the system and cut off from any benefits”. These are Mr. Macron's own words. 

Make no mistake, however. Mr. Macron will have also the members of the government undergo a yearly performance assessment.

Socialism, social democracy, third-way or thatcherism?

Some commentators view a universal social security and unemployment system as unfeasible and almost impossible to fund. Others, like the economic paper Les Echos likened his program to Margaret Thatcher's reforms in the 80s, so triggering a debate whether his program matches more Thatcher's or Schröder's. Some economists like Benjamin Coriat, believe his  liberalism is harder than that of conservative liberals.

“We propose a complete and radical transformation, a change of the rational on a number of issues,” Mr. Macron said at the event. “We are not proposing to our fellow voters a reform, because that is not what they expect. (…) I want a new social and economic model."  Unlike François Fillon, he  had told Les Echos the week before, "I don't believe in purging or repairing the country against its will." 

Emmanuel Macron does  not have a slogan because, as he said: “Faced with the current social, economic and political tensions, the French people just don't want a campaign based on slogans, but proposals that will not change in the process of being implemented.”

Whose are the values of the République?

Benjamin Griveaux, Mr. Macron's spokesperson,  elaborated on this. “[Mr. Macron's] intuition was that the two main traditional parties that played the game of alternance for the last 30 years did not address the deep ideological issues that created structural splits within them: on Europe, on the economic and social model, on the rule of law and other issues of society. He is not betting on the collapse of the traditional parties. Let's put it this way: paying labor higher wages is a leftist or a right-wing  policy? Making police more effective against petty crime is a leftist or a right-wing policy? Being both leftist and conservative is a way of uniting progressives.”

“The left and the right confiscated republican values in the last 30 years. If you lean to the right you are for freedom, productivity and individual accountability. If you lean to the left you stand for equality and redistribution. But, frankly, is there anyone out there who believes that you can redistribute if [the nation] is not productive? Or  that when you talk about individual liberties you'll also take the jungle without protection for everyone? It's from this balance, from this vision of our republican values that you can reconcile the nation." 

Mr. Macron is telling the French that there is no need to break everything to succeed. To a degree, his private life confirms this. His wife, Brigitte Macron, is his best ally, many say, and a bright and joyous person. They both show to be a  solid and loving couple engaged in an ambitious endeavor. There is a 24-years age difference between the two, like between Donald and Melania Trump, but the older one here is Brigitte. “Well, isn't that encouraging!” a middle-aged woman said, “after so many years and episodes of capricious French male politicians leaving their wives for much younger companions?”

Update: Emmanuel Macron surpassed for the first time Marine Le Pen by one point on Thursday 9 March in one survey (Harris). On Friday 10,  the  Opinionway-Orpi survey showed Mr. Macron and Ms. Le Pen levelled in the first round, and Mr. Macron ahead and increasing in the second to 65%.


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