Emmanuel Macron – a populist elitist?

Posted on 09. May 2017

by Enja Sæthren

Enja Sæthren NEWWe got lucky this time. France said no to xenophobia, closed borders and hatred by electing Emmanuel Macron as the next president of the French Republic with 66 % of the votes. The French refused to follow in the footsteps of the British and the Americans, but how confident can we really be that this was the last battle? Has the fight against right-wing extremism already been won? Marie Le Pen criticised Macron for representing the continuation of failed neoliberal policies and being the embodiment of elitist politics. I think it’s a big mistake to simply ignore that claim. People are indeed tired of the cult of national politicians coming from the École Nationale D’administration (ENA) – caring more about Brussels than about real people. Despite the final success of Macron, this anger against mainstream politics is clearly perceivable in the results of the second French election round, where Marine Le Pen received 34 % of the votes.

People are so weary that approximately 25-27 % of the voters took a risk and abstained, therefore providing Le Pen with better chances of becoming president. The best illustration of the public mood could be seen at the 1 May celebrations, when left-wing supporters were rallying in the streets marching for “neither Le Pen, nor Macron” with posters saying “the 7th of May we shall fight Le Pen, from the 8th of May we shall fight Macron”. I fear that Macron’s successful election will fail to address both Le Pen’s extensive support and the growing demand for a change in politics and policies. And if Macron’s decisions turn out to be more of “business as usual”, Le Pen can further prepare the ground for the next elections and work to strengthen her movement.

Besides Franco-French considerations, another important issue had come to the surface during the campaign. More than anything else, the elections have demonstrated, once again, that the European project is in danger. The TV debate ahead of the first round showed a great number of candidates demanding a Frexit, which is unprecedented in French politics. During the electoral campaign, Macron has been the only candidate forcefully defending the European project. While he has been vocal in his criticism of the French elite, portraying himself as a representative of the French people rather than of any traditional political party, he is still widely seen as a representative of the European elite. Macron’s solo dedication to the EU thus raises the question of whether Europe has indeed become an elitist project.

The EU is seen as formulating policies with a top-down approach, disregarding the national dynamics of the policies and the impact on specific domestic groups. Moreover, those benefiting from the freedom the EU can offer seem to belong to rather privileged groups. Thus, the process of Europeanisation reinforces already established divisions at the national level. This tendency is evident in France, marked by a manifest culture of elitism. The French civil service is in practice governed by classmates from ENA: currently two-thirds of top civil service positions are held by Énarques and the road to political power is short. As a former mayor of Montpellier expressed it: “France is still run by civil servants. There is no difference between a socialist Énarque and a neo-Gaullist Énarque. They are intelligent, in-corrupt and absolutely convinced they are right. The country is run by thousands of little Robespierres” (Thompson, 2016). The French elitist culture and the evident national cleavages thus pave the way for populist politicians to use the elitism of the EU project for political gains at the domestic level.  This is apparent in the French working class’ support for FN, which takes advantage of people’s hostility towards the French elite, seen as the architects behind the European integration.

Le Pen addresses problematic aspects of EU policies that mainstream parties only address superficially. One such issue is the situation of young people who still struggle with the aftermath of the European financial crisis. Young people in France have been especially vulnerable to the largescale youth unemployment sparked by this crisis. In the last quarter of 2016, the youth unemployment rate was 25.6 percent. At the same time, FN promises jobs for young people and opposes the mainstream institutional order by offering political positions to young people. Almost half of all young people voted for Le Pen. Thus, Le Pen seems to capitalise on an emerging generational gap in Europe.

To better understand how politicians like Le Pen are gaining ground, we should not neglect the importance of how the debate on Europe is framed. In the national discourse in France, and even at the EU level, the term “crisis” is frequently used to define EU-related issues – “there’s a migration crisis, a debt crisis, a democracy crisis”. This crisis rhetoric seems to tap into the already present fear of Europeanisation, and legitimises the search for protection at the national level rather than European solutions. In the same vein, we have perhaps lost the sense of a common identity needed to pursue the European project. It is in this context that politicians like Le Pen get support for returning to national politics and strengthening the national identity rather than European shared values and goals.

The policies Macron will choose to implement are going to be crucial for the next French elections in 2022. While seemingly a stable counterweight to Le Pen’s populism, he might be more populist than one might think at first glance. Openly stating that he borrows from both the Left and the Right, it is not clear what political direction France will take under Macron’s command. This is evident in En Marche! standing for election in the French national assembly. Macron portrays it as a people’s movement open to candidates without prior political experience, and as a political party that will transcend political cleavage lines. What does that even mean? What policies does it defend? To me, it sounds alarmingly similar to a populist rhetoric, where the direction the French society is heading to is defined by public sentiment rather than political ideology. Ironically, in his attempt to avoid complaints of elitism, Macron becomes another foot soldier for the populist wave that is currently washing over the Western world.