Macron’s grand experiment faces defining test

Runoff will reveal whether he broke the mould or facilitated far-right’s rise

Emmanuel Macron's grand experiment faces its defining test in the runoff for the French presidency next weekend. If he wins, he will have performed one of the most remarkable feats in modern French politics. If he loses, he will be remembered as the man who cleared the extreme right's way to the Élysée Palace. For him, the stakes are high. For France, they are far higher.

Until Macron broke with the centre-left and set up a new outfit, En Marche, as a vehicle for his presidential ambitions, the idea of a smashing the left-right duopoly and winning an election from the centre seemed like fantasy. Many before him had tried and failed. What the first round of the election last Sunday confirmed was that Macron has not merely eclipsed the two blocs, centre-right and centre-left, that have run France since the war, but has killed them off as political forces. Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains, the neo-Gaullist centre-right party, did not even reach the 5 per cent threshold required to recoup her election expenses, forcing her to make a humiliating public appeal for donations to keep the organisation afloat. Anne Hidalgo of the Socialist Party, which held the presidency and dominated the National Assembly as recently as five years ago, fared even worse, finishing amongst the fringe candidates on a disastrous 1.7 per cent. The electoral earthquake that made Macron president in 2017 was not an aberration, in other words. French politics has undergone a total realignment.

The far-right's 30 per cent vote last Sunday did not come out of nowhere; its support has been rising steadily for three decades

Macron and Le Pen have emerged on top because they realised before others did that the political terrain was shifting underfoot. Traditional party allegiances had been weakening for decades. Public preoccupations were shifting in tandem with changes in French society and its globalising economy. And there was a yearning for something new. French politics since the revolution had been a straight contest between left and right. Increasingly, however, the dominant faultline pitted those who wanted openness, tolerance and progressive social change against those who favoured closed borders, protectionist economic policy and a return to an old (and often imaginary) idea of France.

Macron and Le Pen are on opposing sides of this fracture, but as the journalist Sophie Pedder notes in her biography of Macron, "they shared an understanding that the issues dividing them were the ones that would frame future politics". Long before Macron made his pitch to voters from the traditional right and left, Le Pen was working to broaden the appeal of a party that, under her father, the overtly racist Jean-Marie Le Pen, had drawn its support largely from the right-wing middle classes and military belt in the Mediterranean southeast. Under Marine Le Pen, the National Front became the more mainstream-sounding National Rally. She retained its core anti-immigrant positions but spoke far more about the cost of living, unemployment and economic precarity. Jean-Marie Le Pen's base was the Cote d'Azur; his daughter's was postindustrial northern France, where she took votes from the communists and the socialists before eventually supplanting them both.

Of all the criticisms of Macron (and there are many; just ask the 72 per cent of voters who wanted someone else as president last week), perhaps the least persuasive is that he is to blame for putting Le Pen within touching distance of the presidency. The far-right’s 30 per cent vote last Sunday did not come out of nowhere; its support has been rising steadily for three decades. The main centre-right and centre-left blocs realised only belatedly that this was occurring at their long-term expense, and they failed – they fail still – to come up with an effective response.

The far-right’s challenge paralysed the Socialist Party, whose internal divisions meant it was incapable of reacting. A party so ill-defined that it could, until well into the 2000s, accommodate both Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was riven by tensions between its left-wingers and its social democratic faction. At the same time, it was bleeding support to a rising ecological movement.

Regardless of the outcome in the runoff ... Macron will be remembered as the man who blew up the structures of the political establishment and remade French politics

For its part, the centre-right made a strategic choice 20 years ago to refuse to ally itself with the National Front but simultaneously began to embrace its talking points on immigration and national identity. That had the effect, as it did elsewhere in Europe, of simply legitimising the extreme right. And by opting not to challenge the far-right on ideological grounds, the centre-right's offer to voters, since Nicolas Sarkozy in particular, was merely that it would do a better job of running the government. That incoherence was embodied by Pécresse, a centrist technocrat fighting a hardline right-wing campaign under the slogan "Dare to do".

Regardless of the outcome in the runoff – regardless, perhaps, of anything he achieves in power – Macron will be remembered as the man who blew up the structures of the political establishment and remade French politics. But only when the smoke clears next Sunday will we know whether what we are to remember is a cautionary tale of political hubris or a template that lit the path for other European leaders to follow.

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