Did the French Election Mark a Victory of Centrist Populism?

Posted on May 24th, 2017 by Delia Dumitrescu

The French election has been seen as a fightback of centrist liberalism against right wing populism. But was the winner, Emmanuel Macron, also a populist himself? Will he create real change in French politics? Delia Dumitrescu, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Politics at the University of East Anglia, investigates.

Over many years until this past April, the passage of time seemed to have stopped in France. The vital reforms necessary to deal with increasing globalization and economic and social crises seemed to be like Godot in Beckett’s play.

But with Emanuel Macron, time is no longer lingering. In fact, it is accelerating at a pace few could have predicted a short while ago. In March 2017, the rise in popularity of the extreme left movement Les Insoumis and the strong support for the extreme right party Front National could have led some (including myself) to fear a battle for the two ideological extremes for the French president election. Now these ideological extremes seem to have lost their momentum. Instead, we see a new type of politics, new in France, and new in the world, emerging from the ashes of the former established practice of the French Fifth Republic.

Emanuel Macron has redefined not just French politics, but centrist politics in general. After delivering a crushing defeat to Marine Le Pen in the second round of presidential elections, he has delivered what few centrist politicians ever dared: a strong populist discourse, centered on the greatness of France and on the hope of it retaking its rightful place as an international leader, an example for the other EU countries and beyond.

Rather than pointing to the divisions, he has chosen to govern by highlighting unity. Few scholars of French politics will argue that French politics has shown unity in the past 20 years. In fact, only a month ago, divisions could not have been sharper. Taken together, the support for the extreme left and for the extreme right in the first round of presidential elections amounted to a whopping 48.8% of the valid votes. But Macron’s political vision seems unaffected by almost half of the active voting population placing itself at the extremes of the ideological spectrum. Instead, he has focused everybody’s attention and energy in a different direction: on the shared love of France and on what everyone can do to see it succeed in a changing world.

Over the course of only a few weeks, Macron has publicly acknowledged the unhappiness with the current system that many voters of the extreme right and extreme left have. He has, in fact, directly or indirectly acknowledged the legitimate grievances almost everybody has with how things are going in France – employees’ unhappiness for living in too precarious conditions, employers’ frustration for having less control than desired over their businesses, unions’ discontent for not being able to secure workers’ welfare as they would like to, the police forces’ frustration for not being well funded and well respected by the population, the people’s general annoyance for having an overblown administrative system with too many public employees, – and, other EU countries’, notably Germany’s concerns for the current French economic state. He has given the impression to listen to everybody, and to propose solutions for all these problems.

Gouvernement français [CC BY-SA 3.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

Macron’s strategy has worked wonders so far. First, it has helped him score two major victories in his recently appointed government. One is the Minister of the Environment, Nicolas Hulot, who had refused ministerial positions under three previous presidents, including under Hollande who, ideologically-speaking, was closer to him than Macron is. Another victory is the very positive reaction he got from two important unions, CFTD and FO, to his appointment of Muriel Pénicaud as a Minister of Labour. Securing the support of these political and social players (be it even temporary) allows him to reduce the number of veto players who might oppose his agenda.

Second, the public is more and more willing to embark on his project as well. Whereas immediately after his victory, polls showed that only 34% of voters wanted him to have a majority, about 10 days after his election, this percentage has increased to 49%. These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, given that it is not the same company who run both studies, and they are only based on one-time surveys, without a longitudinal component; nonetheless, there is clearly some movement in Macron’s direction.

Third, Macron’s message has been as inclusive as possible, but his vision of fixing what works wrong in France is nowhere as inclusive as his discourse is on the surface. Nor could his plan please everyone, since that would be in the realm of the ideal, not reality. He aims to implement tough economic reforms, that some on the right believe do not go far enough, and some on the left believe they will dismantle the cherished “avantages aquis.” But, thanks to his masterful populist discourse, the voices of the opposition to his program are more and more erratic.

In fact, his message has resonated with many in the traditional parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. Many of their key members have voiced their desire to support La République en Marche (with or without Macron’s consent), prompting their immediate exclusion from these parties. In the aftermath of a disastrous election both the PS and the LR, these internal conflicts only add to the strain and will certainly lead to their reorganization in the near future. In the meantime, these internal conflicts silence any credible opposition to Macron’s program, as party leaders have their hands full struggling to maintain their party unity prior to the legislative elections.

In short, few could have predicted such a turn of events not just a year ago – even only a few weeks ago. And will Macron get to implement his program? We will see what kind of support he has in Parliament. But I predict that yes, he will get to reform France, to a much larger extent than his predecessors. He might not get everything, but given how well he has dealt with the challenges so far, there is no reason to doubt that time in France will keep accelerating.


Delia Dumitrescu is a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Politics at the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia. After obtaining her PhD from Ohio State University, she held research positions at University of Montreal and University of Gothenburg. Her work deals with political communication and public opinion, focusing on the content and the impact of visuals in politics. She is currently an associated editor of the interdisciplinary journal Politics and the Life Sciences.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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