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Emmanuel Macron: why the French find him so hard to vote for


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Emmanuel Macron: why the French find him so hard to vote for

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The hairdresser in the salon in Lyon summed up the feeling of resignation: “Who knows what’ll become of us?” he asked, rhetorically, as his colleague nodded in agreement.

For most on the political left in France it goes without saying that Marine Le Pen is beyond the pale. But here there was also a sense of fatalism: Marinageddon will doubtless happen one day, the feeling went. Might as well bring it on now.

Across France people are pondering their options ahead of the second and final round of a bitter presidential election.

The divisive presence of the ex-Front National leader is not new, but this is the first time she has made it to the run-off. Although she trails in opinion polls, three factors spring to mind: the number of undecided voters, the fact that casting a ballot for the far-right is not the taboo it once was, and the striking reluctance even among some of Le Pen’s staunchest opponents to back her centrist rival Emmanuel Macron.


Fifteen years ago, when Le Pen’s father reached the presidential run-off in France, the reaction was very different.


Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ousting of the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in 2002 brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in shocked protest. “Faire barrage” (stand in the way of) the Front National xenophobe became the rallying cry. Some held their noses as they did so, but across the political spectrum people poured into polling stations a fortnight later, and Jacques Chirac of the centre-right was endorsed massively with 82 percent of the vote.

Against voting “against”

Today there is nothing like the same willingness to unite behind Emmanuel Macron to block Marine Le Pen, and much more resistance to the idea of voting against one candidate when the rival also appears suspect. The most-reported demonstrations in the days following this year’s first round were “ni-ni” rallies: high school students marching to the cry of “neither Le Pen nor Macron”. On Twitter left-wing voters have rallied behind the hashtags #SansMoiLe7Mai and #SansNousLe7Mai (“Without me/us on May 7) in favour of abstention. Many among the traditional May 1 demonstrators castigated Macron as the epitome of evil capitalism as much as they did Le Pen of the far-right.

Although the “En Marche!” (On The Move!) leader topped the first-round poll of 11 candidates with almost a quarter of the vote, not all his backers did so with enthusiasm: there is some evidence of tactical voting in his favour to keep opponents out. The centrist’s subsequent pleas of “j’ai besoin de vous” (“I need your vote”) betray a fear that apathy – or even outright hostility – to his candidacy may benefit his run-off rival, whose faithful support is certain to turn out in force on May 7.


On the left: “non” to the “bankers’ friend”

A clue over the hostility to Macron and his policies among the French left came before the first round, in the abrupt swing in support away from the Socialist Benoît Hamon and towards Jean-Luc Mélenchon, transforming the hard-left veteran into a serious run-off contender. The so-near-yet-so-far outcome left many of his followers bitterly disappointed – and resolute in their determination not to give a man they see as economically “too liberal” a blank cheque.

Refusing explicitly to back Macron while resolutely opposing Le Pen, Mélenchon called on the centrist to make a gesture to left-wing supporters, suggesting that he withdraw plans to alter France’s hefty Labour Code. Macron has rejected the proposal; the reform is a key part of his programme. As well as freeing up the labour market which he says would help bring down France’s chronic unemployment rate, he wants to reduce business taxes and cut public spending by 60 billion euros (partly by losing 120,000 public sector jobs). He is in favour of free trade agreements – although he has now promised to consider changes to the CETA accord between the EU and Canada which is strongly opposed on the left.

His manifesto seeks to reach out to employees and households: via plans to cut national insurance contributions, widen access to unemployment insurance despite a cut in the overall budget, and abolish a council tax for most people. Macron also promises a 50-billion euro investment programme: for the environment, health, agriculture, and to modernise public services.


But many on the left are suspicious, and may remain so despite interventions such as that of Greece’s vehemently anti-austerity ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. He has backed Macron, saying that during the “troika” talks on the Greek debt crisis, the Frenchman was “the only minister of state in Europe that went out of his way to lend (Greece) a helping hand”.

Le Pen has seized on the gap left by Mélenchon, echoing his anti-capitalist message with fierce assaults on the “ultra-liberal” Macron. Two surveys – by Odoxa released last Friday, and a poll by Kanter Sofres-onepoint published on Tuesday – put the proportion of Mélenchon’s supporters who were now ready to vote for Le Pen at 19 percent and 17 percent respectively. Those prepared to back Macron were estimated at 40 and 52 percent. The remainder were split between potential abstentionists and others who may cast a blank vote.


Worse news for Macron was an internal poll of nearly a quarter of a million registered Mélenchon supporters, published on Tuesday. It did not even provide an option for voting Le Pen – and yet still barely a third said they would actually cast a ballot for the centrist candidate.


On the right: “non” to “Emmanuel Hollande”

The mainstream centre-right in France had already been destabilised by the corruption accusations, then charges, against François Fillon. The defeated candidate lost no time in backing Emmanuel Macron for the second round, as have several leading lights in the “Les Républicains” (LR) party. Yet many voters on the right appear reluctant to follow suit.

The newspaper Le Monde reported on the anguish of local LR party members at La Ciotat in the south of France. Their campaign had portrayed Macron as the continuation of President Hollande’s much-derided tenure. “The party made me stick up posters saying ‘Macron = the heir’, and as soon as the first round is over (they)… tell me to vote for him? I’ve the impression of having been betrayed,” complained one young activist.

Macron has tempered his pro-European stance with a promise to tackle unfair competition and seek profound EU reform. His comments this week came after Marine Le Pen secured the support of Nicolas Dupont-Aignan – who won nearly five percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election – promising to make the nationalist her prime minister if she is elected. The move has provoked controversy and several resignations in his party “Debout la France” (“France Stand Up”). But to a significant number on the right, a vote for Le Pen – riding a nationalist as well as an anti-globalist wave – is no longer taboo.


Neither is Fillon’s “vote Macron” recommendation shared by those who helped save the defeated conservative’s candidacy amid the sleaze scandal. Although many ordinary Catholics are thought to back the centrist, the movement “La Manif Pour Tous” (“March for All”) does not. Its large rallies in 2013 failed to stop same-sex marriage from being introduced, but were seen as successful in preventing Hollande’s government from taking gay rights further. Macron’s stance includes an openness in principle to helping women – whether single or in same-sex couples – have children via medically assisted means, but he is not in favour of surrogacy. The “March For All” issued a statement describing Macron on several issues as “openly anti-family” and intent on continuing “the upheaval of civilisation”.


Breaking the mould of French politics

Opinion polls suggest Emmanuel Macron has a commanding lead over Marine Le Pen, days before the vote. But the “En Marche!” leader remains vulnerable to potential abstention and his far-right rival’s attacks. Even if as expected he does win, a less-than-emphatic victory may damage his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections, and thus his chances of forming a majority to govern.

Both presidential candidates have changed the landscape of French politics: for the first time in 60 years neither of the two traditional parties on the mainstream left and right is represented in a presidential run-off. Yet the level of hostility towards the favourite from some quarters shows that among many French voters, traditional left-right divisions remain strong.


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