Macron's marriage of convenience is already unpopular in France: Why would Britain be any different?

October 2, 2017

Elected at the head of a centrist movement to become the youngest-ever President of France, Emmanuel Macron has attracted gushing praise and column inches since moving into the Elysee Palace in May. His political party, Le Republique En Marche, won a majority in France's lower house while Macron himself won in a landslide over controversial National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Months later, Macron is historically unpopular, with only 42% of voters approving of his performance after just two months in power. Controversial market-friendly reforms to France's welfare and labour systems have divided the coalition of left and right-wing forces that elected him.

Macron's vocal support for European unity and defence of multiculturalism seemed a breath of fresh air, after growing support for right-wing populism across the West saw Britain vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump elected as US President. Two months previously, the incumbent centre-right Dutch government was re-elected only after adopting similar rhetoric to the Eurosceptic Party for Freedom, who made gains in the country's recent elections. Because of the landslide victory for Macron and his centrist "movement", British commentators from differing parts of the political spectrum have questioned why such tactic cannot be employed in an increasingly polarised United Kingdom.

Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, called for his party to emulate the "hope and inspiration" of Macron to attract new voters, while prominent sports pundit Gary Lineker, known for his centre-left politics and defence of refugees and migrants’ rights, amongst other causes, Tweeted "we could use a Macron-a centrist option". There appears an apparent gap in British politics; with the Liberal Democrats no more successful as a dedicated anti-Brexit party than they were during their 2015 electoral wipeout. Furthermore, the two major parties in Britain have been characterised as moving to political extremes, with Labour led by unabashed, iconoclastic socialist Jeremy Corbyn, and Theresa May's Conservatives embracing a so-called "Hard Brexit"; with many other socially conservative strands to their manifesto.

As previously mentioned, Macron has already suffered a precipitious drop in popularity. Having been elected by 65% of voters, he has lost 23% of that support in terms of approval rating. The left, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, have promised protest marches against his plans to cut 100,000 public sector jobs, and liberalise France's labour market. Indeed, Macron's domestic policy is centred very much to the right, as demonstrated by his selection of conservatives to serve as his Prime Minister and Finance Minister.

 

The reality of Macron's success is that he benefitted from a number of factors: the unpopularity of Francois Hollande's Socialists, the ethics controversy of conservative presidential candidate Francois Fillon-the former front-runner, and France's two-round election system, which gave voters a binary choice between Macron and the nationalist Le Pen. France has already experienced such a "Republican Front" in 2002, when conservative President Jacques Chirac won 82% of the vote against Le Pen's father, Jean-Marie.

 

Britain's political system is very different, and 2017's general election delivered the highest two-party vote for Labour and the Conservatives (some 82%) since 1970. Emulating Macron, perhaps by forming a centrist Democrats party as suggested by former Chancellor George Osborne, would require a heavy level of defections from the major parties, who are electorally more popular than ever. Furthermore, whereas Macron was able to unite pro-European forces against Le Pen, both Labour and the Conservatives have accepted Brexit, and contain strong socially conservative elements within their coalitions. Simply put, Britain's politics are not those of France, and its system is not one that will pit moderation against extremism in the same way. Any centrist party or movement must instead do the hard work of convincing voters that it will better represent them than two major parties enjoying an electoral renaissance.


 

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