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ANALYSIS: Will France’s Macron share the fate of Ireland’s Varadkar?

An impressive but arrogant young politician admired by Europhiles has been humbled by a populist tidal wave - despite his country’s successful economy, writes John Lichfield.

ANALYSIS: Will France's Macron share the fate of Ireland's Varadkar?
Emmanuel Macron and Leo Varadkar shared many similarities. Photo: AFP

That was the fate of Leo Varadkar in the general election in Ireland at the weekend. Could it also be the fate of Emmanuel Macron in France in the presidential election in 2022?

France and Ireland are radically different countries with radically different political systems. 

But consider for a moment the similarities.

Both Macron and Varadkar are youngish men with unusual backgrounds who seemed to represent a new, more modern kind of politics when they leapfrogged into office within a month of each other three years ago.

Both have presided over considerable, but uneven, economic success. Both are accused, unfairly, of being champions of the rich.

Both have become hate figures to Brexiteers because they stood up for the European Union – and their own country – against the bullying mistruths of successive British governments.

Both have been accused of speaking down to less well-off citizens. Both have created jobs and attracted investment but failed to spread the success to parts of their countries which have long felt abandoned.

Both are accused of neglecting or dismantling the country’s health and other social services.

Both face opposition from populist movements which have have sought to shake off wicked pasts with plausible, attractive female leaders.

Marine Le Pen took over as leader of her father Jean-Marie's far right party. Photo: AFP

Marine Le Pen is the supposedly moderate face of her father’s far-right movement, which was once openly racist and anti-semitic but now operates through filters of anti-Islamism, anti-globalism and watered-down Euroscepticism.

Mary-Lou McDonald is the smiling, eloquent face of the political wing of the IRA, which has adopted a kind of Mélenchonist or beyond-Corbynbist hard-left  populism.

The Sinn Fein surge in Ireland has disproved the political truism of Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville in 1992. “It’s the economy, stupid” has turned into: “No, it’s not just the economy stupid”.

Over 750,000 jobs have been created in France since Emmanuel Macron came to power three years ago. Foreign investment is the highest in the EU. Start-ups are booming. French exports are resisting the global down-turn in trade.

Some, not all, of this good news can be attributed to Macron’s reforms – and the Macron-inspired reforms pushed through by his predecessor, François Hollande.

All the same, Macron’s mid-term approval rate is an average of 32 percent and sliding – not much different from those of his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy (who was defeated two years later) and Hollande (who chose not to run).

Macron’s unpopularity comes not from breaking his word but from keeping it. With the sprawling and badly-sold rebuilding of the state pensions system, he will have almost completed the programme of domestic reform on which he campaigned in 2017.

Macron has presided over a period of job creation since his election in 2017. Photo: AFP

His unpopularity can be explained in several ways. Parts of the country have not shared in the relative economic boom of the last two to three years. His tone and manner are sometimes deeply irritating.

Macron has failed to turn his centrist start-up La République en Marche into a proper grass-roots political party – something for which he will pay in the municipal elections next month.

Almost everyone detests a centrist – especially in the country which gave the world the terms “left” and “right”. In a post-truth world, the bombastic, simplistic and mendacious always seem to trump (pun-intended) the managerial, the accurate and the complex.

But there are also purely French and longer-term political patterns which should worry Macron and his supporters.

Consider this extraordinary fact. Since 1979, every French government has been rejected by the electorate at the first possible opportunity.

President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s government won a parliamentary election that year. He was ousted by François Mitterrand in 1981. 

Mitterrand lost the parliamentary election in 1986. His rival Jacques Chirac became his Prime Minister. He was defeated by Mitterrand in the Presidential election in 1988.

Mitterrand lost the parliamentary election in 1995. His and Chirac’s rival, Edouard Balladur, became Prime Minister. Balladur was defeated by Chirac in the presidential election in 1995.

In 1997, Chirac lost a snap parliamentary election. Lionel Jospin became prime minister. He was knocked out in the first round of the presidential election in 2002. Chirac was elected president again by a landslide against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round.

Chirac’s preferred successors were outmanoeuvred by Nicolas Sarkozy who won the presideency in 2007 but lost to François Hollande in 2012. Hollande was so unpopular that he chose not to run in 2017…

Macron's reforms have not been felt evenly across France and many – like those original 'yellow vest' protesters – feel left behind. Photo: AFP

Some of the blame for this 40 year period of rejection and failure must obviously go to the politicians who were rejected or failed. But no other electorate in a large, industrial country, other than Italy, is so fickle as that of France.

For Macron to win again in 2022 would be an exploit – a kind of earthquake of stability. His present ratings and travails suggest that he is more likely to extend the above pattern of failure.

Does that mean that Marine Le Pen is likely to be President next time? I don’t think so. A re-run of the Macron v Le Pen second round in 2022 would be Emmanuel Macron’s best hope of victory.

If Macron is rejected, it will be in the first round – what one senior Macron supporter calls the “Jospin trap”.

Look again at the first preference, popular vote in Ireland on Saturday. Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, came third.

If Macron was to repeat that performance in April 2022, he would fail to make the two-round run-off the following month. As things stand, there is no obvious centre-right or centre-left candidate who looks capable of edging Macron out of the second round in two years’ time.

That could change – especially on the centre-right.

Talk of a President Le Pen is, in my opinion, foolish. Talk of a single term for Macron may be premature but it is, recent history suggests, plausible.

Member comments

  1. Not a well-informed article. Leo Varadkar is not arrogant and is performing well in tis crisis, with the support of all parties.

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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.