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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Macron can blame himself if Le Pen triumphs in EU elections

As the crucial European elections approach, French president Emmanuel Macron is worried – and angry, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Why Macron can blame himself if Le Pen triumphs in EU elections
President Emmanuel Macron is worried. Photo: AFP

He is counting on a good result in the European elections on 26 May to reboot his presidency. In the last week, the opinion polls for his La République en Marche (LREM) party and allies have taken a turn for the worse. Just after the Notre Dame fire and his marathon press conference to end his Great National Debate, the Macroniste “Renaissance” list of candidates was attracting 24 per cent of the vote, two to three points ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN).

In recent days, some tracking polls have showed RN leading by 0.5 or 1.5 points. Others now show the two lists neck and neck at around 22.5 per cent.

In other words, with just over two weeks to go before the elections, Macron’s list is becalmed. There has been no Notre Dame boost and no electoral round of applause for Macron’s promised tax cuts and his other responses to the six months’ old Gilets Jaunes rebellion.

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Former Europe Minister Natalie Louiseau heads up the list for Macron's party. Photo: AFP

Macron, we learn, blames everyone but himself. He blames the accident-prone Nathalie Loiseau, the former Europe Minister who is the head of his Renaissance list (combining LREM and two right and centre parties). He blames ministers in his government for failing to sell his new tax-cutting and spending plans enthusiastically enough.

Above all, he blames his own centrist, pro-EU, metropolitan electorate for being too complacent to grasp that this is not just another, “meaningless” European election. In his “letter” to the peoples of Europe in March, Macron declared the 26th May poll to be a vital battle in a struggle between resurgent nationalism and his plans for a more “protective” and coherent European Union.

Some of his ideas – a European “climate” bank, an EU tax on high tech companies – were recycled in the Macron’s Renaissance list manifesto this week.

On the complacency point, Macron may be right. The fall in LREM/Macronist support coincides with a dip in the number of voters who say that they will definitely cast a ballot on 26 May.

As things stand only 40 per cent of French voters plan to turn out, compared to 44 per cent in the last European elections in 2014 and 74.5 per cent in the presidential elections two years ago.  

Macron started banging the drum for this election as an important referendum on the future of Europe last November, just before the Gilets Jaunes protests exploded. This was always a hostage to fortune.

After 40 years of European elections, it remains impossible to convince large numbers of voters in most EU countries that a) The European Parliament has become an important force and b) the five yearly elections should be decided on European issues.

Bizarrely, the only EU country in which the EU will be the main focus of the European elections this month will be Britain.

The European Parliament building in Strasbourg. Photo: AFP

Macron’s failure to fire up pro-European, centrist voters is partly his own fault. He came to power two years ago promising to bring fresh ideas and renewed energy to the EU project.

He failed to persuade Germany to back his ideas for post-Brexit relaunch of the EU. He failed to create a coalition of other EU countries to back his plans for a Eurozone government or a more protective – some say protectionist – approach to trade, investment and strategic European industries.

In any case, Macron is guilty of sending out mixed messages. He says that the issues are European. Marine Le Pen says the election is a “referendum” on Macron Act II.  She is right. Macron has also “nationalised” the European vote. He desperately needs a good result after six months of Gilets Jaunes protests.

Macron has ordered his ministers to become more active on the campaign trail in the next couple of weeks. There is talk of the President himself addressing a campaign rally, defying the convention that a President of the Republic should be above mid-term electoral politics.

What would it mean if Marine Le Pen’s party topped the poll at the end of the month? Theoretically, not very much. She also “won” the 2014 European elections but was comprehensively rejected by the French electorate in the second round of the presidential elections three years later.

Given the anti-Macron mood of much of the country, her own party’s performance in this European campaign has been limp and unthreatening. She has failed to make electoral gains from the Gilets Jaunes movement.

The Rassemblement National has not surged in the polls. Macron’s LREM and its allies have fallen. All the other lists – 33 of them in all, centre-right, centre-left, hard-left, very hard left, hard-right, far-right, greens, yellow vests – are at various stages of nowhere.

But this year is not a normal year. A defeat for the President on 26 May, however narrow, would bolster claims by Gilets Jaunes and others that Macron is somehow an accidental and illegitimate president. It might reignite what appears to be a fading Yellow Vest rebellion.

Even a narrow victory on May 26th will be presented as a Macron triumph after six months of street protests.

Even a narrow defeat will turn the last three years of his mandate into un combat difficile (an uphill battle).

Member comments

  1. Very interesting article, as usual, from John. But I do wonder from where he draws his conclusions. Gilets Jaunes support has dribbled away as extremists have used it for other purposes. NF/RN support has stalled (in this, previously strong NF area, posters are being defaced and torn down, with little local outcry). Macron will struggle to win a popularity contest for all sorts of reasons – much of it “groupthink”. On the other hand, I work in a foodbank, and the number of claimants has halved, since last year. I thought this must be due to a lowering of eligibility levels, but I have approached several previous “clients” and they have all said that they are “ok” now financially, either due to extra pensions, extra benefits, or in most cases, they have found a job. Their “political anger” has evaporated, and Macron is just a funny man on TV, that they like to take the rise out of, because that is what they have always done. The local pallet-towns on roundabouts have disappeared and the number of people showing a vest on their dashboard has declined markedly.The EU elections will be as irrelevant to most people as they always have been, even the many who think Brexit is completely bonkers (the vast majority).

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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