Half the world seems to want a Macron of its own

The French leader will need help from Germany and a favourable economic climate if he is to prevent the outbreak of an extra-parliamentary insurgency in France.

French president Emmanuel Macron. Francois Mori / AP Photo
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The trend of voting in novice politicians, which began with the triumph of Barack Obama in 2009, is now going into overdrive. Take, for instance, French president Emmanuel Macron, who has only two years’ experience in cabinet and who formed his party only a year ago. Mr Macron is expected to win a landslide in the second round of the parliamentary election on Sunday.

The French National Assembly will be filled with Macron supporters – among them a world-class mathematician and sports and TV personalities. This will be seen as a triumph of popular democracy, where the traditional parties of centre-left and centre-right are humiliated and the extremes are all but driven out of parliament. Ordinary people will replace the professional class of politicians.

That said, it will be a bizarre triumph of democracy.

At 39, Mr Macron will wield almost untrammelled power, combining a strong executive presidency and a docile parliament without the muscles to exert opposition. More than half of the 577 members of the new legislature are likely to be new to the National Assembly, the greatest number in the 58-year history of the Fifth Republic.

This is the latest episode in what former Hillary Clinton aide Anne Marie Slaughter calls “the longing for a viable alternative” to established political parties.

It was seen in Mr Obama’s election as a one-term senator to the US presidency at the age of 46. This spawned the Trump phenomenon, where a businessman and TV personality who had never sought elected office or even had to deal with shareholders won the White House.

In Britain, there is a variation of this trend, where Theresa May, the sitting Conservative prime minister whom the right-wing press had tried to build up as a new Margaret Thatcher, was almost unseated by a supposedly unelectable outsider at the other end of the Obama-Macron age range. At 68, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has spent 30 years in parliament, defying the party whip and supporting far-left causes, putting ideological rigour above any attempt to exercise power.

But in these confused times, even Mr Corbyn was seen as a viable alternative for 40 per cent of the voters, just two percentage points below Mrs May. There are special circumstances here, notably the confusion of the Conservative party as it struggles with the crisis it created by calling last year’s referendum on leaving the European Union. But it shows that no outcome is unthinkable today, even Mr Corbyn as prime minister after the next election.

Now, half the world seems to want a Macron of their own, someone who can inspire hope with a plan to revive the country for the benefit of all. In the US, the anti-Trump electorate are swooning for someone who can break the Republican/Democrat stranglehold on power and ride to the White House as a third-party candidate.

In Germany – where exceptionally, politics as usual still rules – there is relief that the Mr Macron is putting his ambition for the revival of France in the context of a re-launched European Union, running against the tide of nationalism and Euroscepticism. It seems as if the malaise of France – the high unemployment, especially among youth, poor integration of North African immigrants – has been driven out by a magic wand.

What could possible go wrong for Mr Macron? Actually, quite a lot. He is determined to embark on German-style belt-tightening, reducing the number of civil servants and making it easier for firms to hire and fire. With the National Assembly probably not capable of curbing him, opposition is likely to come in the form of street protests. Some trade unions are already promising to become an extra-parliamentary opposition.

Mr Macron’s stunning success in the first round of the legislative elections was due, in part, to the far left and far right staying at home. It was the lowest turnout since the foundation of the Fifth Republic. The mass of abstainers are not closet Macron supporters.

Senior politicians of left and right who have been driven out of national politics by the Macron bulldozer are likely to retreat to their provincial fiefdoms. It is common for French politicians to serve as mayor of a town or city, which provides a haven in rough times and a springboard to return to the national stage.

French politicians have long careers. One of the candidates for the presidency from the Republicans, former prime minister Alain Juppe, has had a 40-year career in politics and served as mayor of the city of Bordeaux from 1995 to the present day, barring a two-year hiatus when he was barred from public office for misuse of public funds.

The new prime minister, Edouard Philippe, wrote before his appointment that Mr Macron should be under no illusion that his plan to remake French politics would be straightforward. ‘His path will be narrow and risky. It is hard to imagine the system letting it happen easily.’

One does not have to be a cynic to see some parallels between Mr Macron and Mr Obama, also an outsider and inexperienced in the real business of politics but a leader who was elected on a wave of hope but could not find the tools to deliver.

Mr Obama’s two terms set off a popular insurgency against the political class, and especially those who displayed their learning from an elite university. This insurgency, aided by the poor performance of Mrs Clinton as Democratic contender, paved the way for the election of president Trump. The “international” president was replaced by the “America first” candidate.

There are lessons for Mr Macron. He will need a lot of help from Germany and a favourable economic climate if he is to prevent the outbreak of an extra-parliamentary insurgency in France. If he fails, the populists and the old guard politicians are ready to pounce.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps