Macron must unite France or risk emboldening nationalists

Macron must unite France or risk emboldening nationalists

Macron must unite France or risk emboldening nationalists
Emmanuel Macron will need to overhaul his governing style or risk further social upheaval and demonstrations. (Reuters)
Short Url

France is not a racist nation; it is an angry one. Last week’s election was pitted as a struggle between liberalism and the risk of a major Western country falling to the extreme right. Those congratulating Emmanuel Macron for his defeat of Marine Le Pen and thereby saving France from fascism oversimplify the very complicated political context in the country.
The far-right candidate won a staggering 41.5 percent of the vote in the second round, with a great many more abstaining from voting altogether. French Muslims and others from an immigrant background were left ruffled as parties on both sides sought to blame them for the country’s problems. The coming five years will feel very long indeed for Macron should he attempt to govern from above, removed from the day-to-day issues of French citizens. Without a significant shift in how the country is run, his victory as the only plausible candidate this time around will only embolden nationalists next time.
Disgruntled voters, unhappy with the president and unimpressed with Le Pen, surprised many as they voted in significant numbers for socialist veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon in the first round. With Le Pen having successfully lampooned Macron as the “president of the rich,” it was expected that the low-paid and unemployed would vote for her in the second round. This was not the case, however, and many voted for Macron simply to stop Le Pen.
Melenchon has since taunted Macron as only being president “by default,” declaring him “the most poorly elected” modern president who, despite being the first incumbent to win a second term since 2002, was victorious in an election with the lowest turnout since 1969. Many on the left who voted for Macron will now seek to oppose him in June’s legislative elections, perhaps angling for a popular union of the left that could see Melenchon emerge as prime minister.
How far Macron is willing to accommodate differing political interests will be central to how successful his second term will be. At his victory rally, he was keen to state that “to all our compatriots who abstained from voting, their silence and refusal to choose we must respond to,” and that he hoped to be “president for everyone,” while vowing to act upon the anger and disagreement expressed during the election campaign.
Aside from xenophobia, bread and butter issues have dominated the political discourse and Macron will face opposition to his unfinished ambitious reform program. Having yet to rein in France’s spiraling social spending, he now intends to raise the retirement age to 65, whereas during the election both radical-left and far-left candidates were united on reducing the legal retirement age to 60. Forced to scale back his reforms in the face of the “yellow vest” protesters, Macron knows all too well that his Jupiterian imposition of changes to long-standing policies could be met with violence.

How far the president is willing to accommodate differing political interests will be central to how successful his second term will be.

Zaid M. Belbagi

It is the demographic Le Pen appealed to that Macron will need on board if he is to build a consensus for his reforms. Le Pen successfully widened her party’s appeal beyond the south of the country and into the rustbelts of “forgotten France,” where unemployment and crime rates are high. Whereas more than 80 percent of the capital’s voters supported Macron, elsewhere in the country Paris has become a byword for an elitist, globalized system that is seen to put its own interests above that of disaffected France.
In 2002, Le Pen’s father secured a mere 18 percent of the vote. She has more than doubled that figure, reflecting how support for her policies has grown. Macron may be lauded for defeating the far right, but to govern he now will need to be inclusive. However, this inclusion must not come at the cost of targeting France’s minorities. The fact that whether or not the Muslim headscarf would be banned was a feature in this year’s elections is testimony to how worryingly racist everyday political discourse in France has become.
Within hours of Macron’s win, as his supporters returned home, police opened fire on a car crossing a main bridge in Paris that was driving at them at speed, killing two of the occupants. Such incidents provide a fleeting insight into the decades of disenfranchisement and unemployment that characterize the immigrant experience in France, building resentment toward the state and the xenophobia that was so publicly on display during the campaigning for the election.
There is no doubt that the French election carried a clear warning as to the growth of the far right in the political mainstream. Macron, who spent the second half of his first term clashing with French workers and the Muslim community, will now need to overhaul his governing style or risk further social upheaval and demonstrations. Having blocked Le Pen’s National Rally, Macron will now need to simultaneously moderate his imperious governing style and focus less on the Elysee and more on the serious challenges faced by the angry and despondent elements within French society.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view