Monday, 8 May 2017

In France, the Dragon Is Stayed....For Now

Macron Faces Down Le Front National
The vote outre-mer has been counted, and despite the over-stated fears of many, France's erstwhile Prince Philip (Emmanuel Macron) has ended the threat of the woman selected from central casting to play the role of Malificent (Marine Le Pen).

In the end, the vote was not close by US standards, with Macron pulling 66% of the final tally.

Social media and the news are abuzz with memes of various types - ranging from relief that Good has triumphed over Evil, to a sort of gloating "The French once again show to be smarter than the Americans," ostensibly because they "resisted" the pseudo-nationalism in rebuking Le Pen, where our dim Deplorables put Hitler himself into power.

This interpretation of reality is, of course, facile and reductive, but does contain some interesting fodder.

The first is this: the victory of Emmanuel Macron is a political earthquake in France. Macron, 39 years old, has never held any sort of elective office. He briefly was appointed by former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (who himself tried for the top spot of President in the primaries and embarassingly failed) to be the Minister for Finance and the Economy. In that Role, Macron was the face behind a series of neo-liberal labour reforms that, along with subsequent attempts to revive France's moribund economy, faced extreme opposition, culminating in violent "protests" in the streets of Paris. Valls (who used somewhat undemocratic procedures to push la Loi Macron and its companion, la Loi El Khomri through the French Assembly) took most of the fall.

Macron formed his own political party from whole cloth in November - just six short months ago - and in the end, benefited from some extremely fortunately-timed news leaks managed to reach the second round of election Sunday, facing off against Le Pen.

This is significant less because of his age (at 39, Macron will be the youngest leader of France since Napoleon) or that he lacks any real experience in governing, but because of the damage done to the two leading French political parties.

France has a system of election that is somewhat unique - in order to be elected, one candidate must get 50% of the vote (it's worth noting that, since 1988, only three times - Bush, 2004, and Obama, 2004/2008 - has a candidate been able to pull this off.) There are two rounds (tours in French) in which people go to the polls. In the first, all parties participate, and if no candidate succeeds to get the majority, there is an almost immediate second round two weeks later.

This year, the two leading parties in France - the Parti Socialiste (the traditional centre-left party, who currently control the presidency) and Les Républicains (the traditional centre-right party) each failed to gain the second. The current incumbent, Francois Hollande, was sufficiently unpopular that he did not even stand for re-election, something that had never happened in modern French politics. The opposition leader, Francois Fillon, found himself enmeshed in a corruption scandal, and was unable to survive.

Imagine a situation in the US where neither a Democrat nor a Republican is even on the final ballot; that is what has happened in France. There is discussion in the French press about how either is going to survive the catastrophe. 

The second is this: the fact that the candidate for the Front National managed to get more than one third of the vote in a system peculiar as the French electoral machine is also something of a political earthquake.

The FN are almost existentially radioactive in France - the party has roots that tie back to the Vichy French World War II collaborationist regime, and its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen (father of this year's candidate) has been infamous for his not-even-subtle anti-semitic and racist remarks. While the press and social media describe the "landslide" for Macron, in truth, the result is sufficiently 'positive' for the FN that the French bien pensants are afraid despite the outcome. 

In the end, Le Pen fille was defeated - as predicted - by a wide margin of 2:1. Her party, despite attempts to scrub it up, remains toxic. And in the end, her performance in a live debate during the final days of the campaign was described as a "naufrage" (shipwreck) by most accounts. On too many questions, she came across not as frightening and racist (which was not necessary in this case, as this is the popular view of many), but as ignorant and incompetent.

The French, among other things, demand that their government know and understand the rules and procedures of governing. After all, the word "bureaucracy" has French roots. When Le Pen fumbled and stumbled upon just how she planned to defend the value of the sacred French pension scheme in a world where France moved out of the Euro and back to the Franc (essentially, maintaining two parallel currencies), any doubt about the outcome, and there really wasn't any, was done.

One curious thing about the elections is this: Emmanuel Macron was able to portray himself as a political outsider, which is on its face, true. Again, he has pretty much zero experience, it is only true on its gilded face.

Macron is almost a canonical example of how the French system throws up its candidates. Born to an upper-middle class family, he married a (much older) heiress to a chocolate fortune. He was sent off to Paris from the periphery for his final year of high school at one of the most elite schools in France, took a masters degree from Sciences Po (one of the "right" schools), and ultimately wound up at the École nationale d'administration (ENA), which is often ridiculed as a sort of political finishing school.

Macron was later thrust into a very lucrative position at Rothschilds, the banking titan. Along the way, he made all the 'right' connections (his best man was Henri Hermand, a millionaire many times over, and significant political impressario, who over time was a large donor to the PS). 

Put simply, Macron is an "outsider" the way that the Koch brothers in a sense are "outsiders". He's better at PR, younger, and more handsome.

The question remains, how will he govern? His En Marche! party will likely be a small minority in the French assembly, and thus, he is going to be forced to forge alliances with the PS (many of whom are angry and resentful at his opportunism), the EELV (the Green party), who likely will be quite hostile to his neoliberal economic policies, and the MoDem party - a centrist, "third way" group. 

I wish him a lot of luck.

Macron is telegenic and glib. He looks the right way and says the right things. And he has once again allowed France to hold the Dragon at bay.

But if he is not able to deliver - in France, double-digit unemployment (which was the nadir of the US economy during "the worst recession since the Great Depression") is the new normal - what then? Macron has won kudos from the globalists for embracing the "invade the world, invite the world" policies, pledging "active" involvement in the various wars on terror around the world, and simultaneously welcoming "refugees" en masse that these adventures create. He inherits an extremely divided nation (France breaks along the same fault lines as the US: the vibrant, urban centres like Paris enjoying wealth and amenities that would make the Bourbon kings envious went for Macron by nine to one. Outside in la France périphérique (beyond the glittering, new-economy cities of Paris), the vote was much closer. 

Macron seems to recognise that his challenge is to try to bring France together. The crisis in France is psychological as much as it is actual, as the nation debates what the future looks like, and just what the actual values of the French people are, rather than the slogans that the intellectuals mouth to their intellectual inferiors.

Can he do this? What will happen if he cannot?

In 2022, if Macron and those who rule France have not sorted these questions, the Dragon will likely return.

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