Monday 18 November 2019

An extraordinary journey by a political novice who defies all the rules

Camille Dos Santos from Rouen votes at the French Embassy in Dublin watched by election president Pierre Mongrue. Pic: Tony Gavin
Camille Dos Santos from Rouen votes at the French Embassy in Dublin watched by election president Pierre Mongrue. Pic: Tony Gavin

Harry de Quetteville

They were looking confident at Macron towers as the seconds ticked down towards 8pm local time, and they had every right to be.

Emmanuel Macron, the exit polls confirmed, has completed one of the most extraordinary political journeys of modern times, a Trumpian exploit, ripping up the rules of contemporary politics to ditch his party and lead a personal movement, a centrist mash-up of right and left, which now seems almost certain to carry him to the presidential Élysée Palace.

Arise President Macron. We can say that with some confidence because he will face Marine Le Pen in the head-to-head second round. Of course, her success should really be the jaw-dropping result of this first round of voting.

But Ms Le Pen has for so long been the frontrunner in surveys that we now almost take for granted the huge popular support for a candidate who, no matter how much she has modified and softened her message, is still the leader of an extremist party.

So as both candidates immediately plot and plan their campaigns for the next fortnight, it is Mr Macron who will be the happier. Happy not just because he came first, but happy because not a single survey shows Ms Le Pen getting within 20pc of him come May 7. And, let us remind ourselves, these are polls that have by and large called it right this time - certainly within the margin of error.

As for Ms Le Pen, well, there was much talk of her support being underestimated - of her being about to top 30pc in the first round, which really would have been a thunderbolt. Instead, she looks likely to scrape the low end of estimations - around 21-22pc. That is not insignificant, but it is not the huge wave which she needed to sweep her to the presidency. Barring calamity, outrage or scandal - and who could absolutely rule that out after an extraordinary campaign to date - this is Mr Macron's presidency to lose.

One can only imagine the relief, therefore, in the corridors of European power. From the European Commission to the German Chancellery, this result will be cause for not-so-tacit delight - for all that foreign leaders are not supposed to intervene in national elections elsewhere.

For Angela Merkel, for Jean-Claude Juncker, it will - for last night at least - have been easy to forget that between Ms Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the former communist leader, more than 41pc of French people voted for not just eurosceptic politicians but for genuine, passionate euro-haters.

Add in other eurosceptic candidates further back and that figure approaches 47pc. That is 47pc of voters backing candidates who, until recently, would have been regarded as unpalatable, irredeemably extreme and thus hopelessly fringe.

So if you thought the Brexit referendum was a stark, unambiguous demonstration of the extent to which the traditional politics of left and right are today being sliced up and reformulated, think again. Yesterday's French election makes Brexit look like a blip. Most interesting is just how explicitly this election is redefining old school politics and how, now that Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron seem sure to progress to the second round, the two wings of this new politics will immediately be forced into a titanic showdown.

Let us just examine the platforms of these two candidates, and how they contrast with the formulas of yore.

Once upon a time, the traditional right mixed the economically liberal with the culturally and socially conservative, say protectionist. Meanwhile, the old left combined these qualities the other way around - promoting the socially liberal and economically protectionist.

Ms Le Pen and Mr Macron, between them, have ripped up these (admittedly broad brush) definitions. Ms Le Pen is both culturally and economically protectionist. This is why she is not far-right and can more properly be described as a national socialist.

Mr Macron, by contrast, is both economically and socially liberal, a global free trader utterly unfazed by, say, gender fluidity.

We will now see these two visions of the future of the West - Mr Macron's economically and culturally liberal, versus Ms Le Pen's economically and culturally protectionist - facing off for the first time. It will certainly not be the last, in France or elsewhere.

Irish Independent

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