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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Why a Macron election walk-over could lead to trouble on the streets in France

A second term for French president Emmanuel Macron now seems highly likely, but John Lichfield argues that a proper campaign is vital if Macron is to avoid spending much of his second term dealing with a new version of the often violent 'yellow vest' protests.

OPINION: Why a Macron election walk-over could lead to trouble on the streets in France
Emmanuel Macron at his first campaign event in Poissy, greater Paris, complete with new slogan Avec vous (with you). Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

President Emmanuel Macron gave an accomplished but odd performance at his first event of the 2022 presidential campaign on Monday.

He switched hats constantly during a supposedly unscripted town hall debate at Poissy in the outer western suburbs of Paris. “Now, I’m replying as the President,” Macron would say. “Now it’s the candidate who’s speaking.”

Later it emerged that the debate had not been so completely unscripted as all that. After the meeting, a reporter from France Info found discarded notes for what seemed to be pre-arranged questions by pre-arranged questioners.

Macron’s people denied that the meeting had been choreographed. They pointed to the fact that the President (and candidate) had taken several awkward questions on migration and the cost of living. Hmm.

This is scarcely Putinesque levels of disinformation.  It raises awkward questions, all the same, about how President Macron plans to approach what his team promises will be a “lightning campaign…close to the people.”

More to the point, how do you fight an election campaign that have already won?

Macron is now at over 30 percent in first round polls for the first time in this campaign. All his rivals are static or falling. Since the start of the Ukraine war (given the Putin fellow-travelling of three of his principal opponents), the result of the second round on April 24th is not in doubt.

And yet it matters how Macron wins and it matters how he campaigns.

If he is widely seen to have won by default – by hiding from one battle because of his legitimate preoccupation with another, far grimmer one – he could face a difficult second presidential term.

Let’s be honest. Macron would have faced a difficult second presidential term in any case. There is a large chunk of France, on the hard left and on the hard and far right, which will always regard him as an accidental or imposed President.

That was one of the arguments against him made by the Gilets Jaunes in 2018, even though Macron had won the second round the previous year with 66 percent of the vote. Events did favour him in 2017, leaving him with the easy task of beating a fumbling Marine Le Pen. But he was also rewarded by his own foresight and audacity.

It is my belief that Macron would have won again this year even if Vladimir Putin had not invaded the 21st Century. The usual suspects will claim nonetheless – some of them are already claiming – that they were “robbed” of victory by events in Ukraine.

Nothing will change the minds of the diehard Zemmouristes, Lépennists and Mélenchonistes or perhaps, more accurately, prevent them from cynically advancing such arguments. It does matter, however, how widely and plausibly such a case can be made.

It matters that Macron is seen in the next month to expose himself to something like the usual rough-and-tumble of democracy. It matters how big the turnout is in both rounds of the election on April 10th and 24th. It matters how well Macron and his allies do in the parliamentary elections on June 12th and 19th (a complex issue to which I will return in another column).

Whatever happens in the Ukraine war, the world is likely to face a recession and crippling shortage of energy and some kinds of food in the next year or more. Since France is a country where anger goes rapidly to the street, some kind of possibly violent French backlash – by unions, by farmers, by resurgent Gilets Jaunes – is probable by the end of this year.

Macron’s ability to control such events will depend partly on how well he is seen to have been elected next month and how energetically he is seen to have campaigned.

The signs so far are worrying.

The President let it be known yesterday that he would refuse to take part in televised debates with all the other 11 candidates. He would probably have refused even if there had been no war in Ukraine.

Such an event would, admittedly, be an absurd spectacle, like the teacher taking on the whole class at football. In the circumstance, however (ie Macron’s almost certain victory on April 24th), I think that the President would have more to gain from taking part than from refusing.

It also seems likely that Macron will hold very few large public rallies. One that had been planned in Marseilles last Saturday was cancelled.  Big rallies of the faithful may seem pointless in the TV and social media age but they fulfil an important function in energising the candidate’s base support (ask Donald Trump).

The main Macron plan seems to be to hold a series of town hall meetings like the one in Poissy yesterday, where the President strolls around with a microphone demonstrating his detailed knowledge of all issues from nuclear war to dairy farming.  

This approach was very successful for him in the Great Debate which he organised nationwide to sap the anger of the Gilets Jaunes movement in early 2019. It will only work, however, if the meetings are seen to be open to (non-violent) critics as well as supporters.

Macron cannot lose this election. He must, despite his entanglement in terrible events elsewhere, be seen to contest it.

He must run for re-election, not walk.

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POLITICS

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.

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