The Irish Times view: A centrist to the rescue in France?

Improbable anti-establishment iconoclast Emmanuel Macron makes inroads against Marine Le Pen

 

The rising tide of populism worldwide, the Brexit vote, the Trump election, and the seemingly inexorable onward march of their French expression, Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN), have given its April presidential elections a significance far beyond the country’s borders. It would seem that the fate of Europe – or more precisely, of the European Union – is at stake. And then there’s German and Dutch elections, and possibly Italian, too.

But, “nowhere,” Barack Obama once wrote, “is it ordained that history moves in a straight line.” And the French race would seem to prove his point. It is by no means a sure thing for the hard right, even though Le Pen leads in the polls (the latest from Le Monde gives her 25-26 per cent), almost certainly guaranteeing her a place in the second round run-off. But, against whom?

The dynamics of the French election are certainly driven by the same forces manifest in the UK and the US – anger at unemployment, reflected in growing anti-immigrant, anti-politics sentiment and voter alienation from what they see as the complacency and arrogance of the establishment. President Francois Hollande has been polling as low as four per cent in approval ratings , ruling him out as a candidate, and would seem to have all but ruined the prospects of any candidate from his party which had its primary first round this weekend.

Into that anti-establishment vacuum – it maybe takes a thief to catch a thief – has stepped not only Le Pen, but the new independent centrist kid on the block, 39-year-old former Socialist minister Emmanuel Macron. Although he was in government until August, Macron, a graduate of the elite ENA and former banker, has never been elected to public office and was never a party member.

This improbable anti-establishment figure has cultivated the image of outsider and iconoclast, not least by attacking socialist sacred cows like the 35-hour week and the wealth tax. The pitch of his new party “En Marche!” is on the economy which he recently ostensibly managed for the Socialists, and the need for heavy investment. And he is strongly pro-European and has been willing to oppose anti-immigrant rhetoric. He has been attracting unprecedented numbers to his rallies and has won endorsement from many public figures, including senior Socialists.

Le Monde’s poll shows Macron’s support rising rapidly in recent weeks – he is now third on 17-20 per cent, behind Le Pen, and the right’s candidate Francois Fillon (on 23-25 per cent) who successfully dispatched former president Nicholas Sarcozy. If Macron’s support continues to rise he could well be the candidate to face Le Pen in the second round, a contest he almost certainly would win. Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Left Party was in fourth place, set to take 14-15 per cent of the vote, between five and seven points ahead of any of the leading three Socialists.

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