In times of Brexit, a look at why Macron succeeded in imposing his brand of political centrism, where the Liberal Democrats failed.
Emmanuel Macron was elected in 2017 and no-one was surprised. Unlike the labyrinth that was 2016, France turned away from hysterical populism and shock horror election results. Tactically or otherwise (twenty six million individuals either voted Le Pen or didn’t vote at all), the French opened the door to the new face of “neither left nor right” politics.
Ex banker and former economy minister under Hollande, Macron attempts to appeal thinly to the spectrum of the French population by nodding towards a variety of different political approaches, whilst maintaining a solid and safe centre ground. He is vibrantly pro-EU for the young and educated, his economics appeal broadly to the centre right, and his promises to heal societal divisions and attempts to speak to the left, encouraging gently that a stronger economy is a stronger France, meaning more jobs, more money and therefore less suffering. For many standing to the left of Macron and his bourgeois culture, this is to be heavily contested.
In appealing to the components of society that laid in disagreement with the conservative and extreme right, but also at odds with a failed left, En Marche! built success on the ruins of the marginalisation of the Parti socialiste under the Hollande-Valls leadership, and their subsequent deterioration and eventual implosion. Equally, the self-assassination of Les Républicains by the Fillon family’s sleazy expenses scandal allowed En Marche! to regenerate tactics that would appeal to France’s conservative voters, focusing on France’s economic position on the global stage, emphasising growth and trade without stealing public money.
The rise of Macronism has been heralded around the world as a political example to others. Macron shows that moderate centrist and liberal politics can thrive in a globalised world threatened by nationalism. Yet this broad perspective fails to spot the weaknesses in this seemingly perfect politician. It avoids his hunger for dismantling the French social security system, the reduction of the public sector, his commitment to deregulating the French economy, lowering corporation tax and increasing police rights to stop and search and house arrest without warrant under the protection of state of emergency. This means that profit alongside inequality will rise. It also means that the protection of society’s most vulnerable, in a country hit by continual waves of violent terrorism that does not trust nor welcome a large proportion of its own ethnic minority populous, will most certainly go down. Macron could increase the rift between what is already an incredibly troubled and divided country, rather than sticking it together.
Theresa May’s snap election did two things: it woke the British public up to the unreliability and instability of their unelected Prime Minister, but also gave the opposition parties the opportunity to move. Despite intense media scrutiny, unfavourable polls and deep party divisions, Jeremy Corbyn tapped into an anti-élite sentiment that rippled across communities throughout the country, with a surge in membership subscriptions and triumph over historic Conservative holds.
Why is it that whilst the left failed catastrophically in France, paving the way for Macron and his liberal centrist programme, did it unexpectedly surge and succeed in the UK, with the centrist equivalent Liberal Democrats failing to connect with the voting population?
Brexit has dominated the political playground ever since David Cameron promised to hold a referendum to leave the EU, if elected in 2015. He succeeded, and two years on from his legacy to committing to such a historic election, Britain is still reeling from the vote to leave, both socially and politically. Brexit was, is, and will continue to be, the biggest issue of our lifetime. It holds unimaginable power in affecting the entire make up of our political, cultural, economic and demographic DNA. It has caused unbridgeable divisions in both communities and Westminster. For both Labour and Tories, finding the balance in pleasing both sides of the coin was a difficult task. How does one appeal to voters who hold such different world visions?
Theresa May, a known Remainer, took the stance of the graceful accepter of Brexit and thus ticked both boxes. By satisfying the smug Leavers on the right wing spectrum she pledged to be the strongest hand at the negotiating table and promised commitment to finding the best deal for Britain. At the same time, she offered condolences to the Remain camp by saying “I was there with you but we have to move forward, strong and stable.” Corbyn equally found the balance: he reserved personal perspective on the EU to avoid alienating the younger, pro-EU electorate, who feel betrayed by Brexit, but equally installed urgency to achieve the best Brexit possible for the British people.
With the Liberal Democrats being the only openly pro-EU party in the election, why did they fail to connect with the millions of passionate voters who aligned themselves with the very thing that they advocated in their manifesto: staying in Europe and the importance of European identity? As Macron succeeded from the failures of the left and right, seizing the opportunity to offer a new approach middle ground, why didn’t Britain’s centre do the same for the large population who didn’t know where to turn?
The truth is that this wasn’t quite the political battleground available to the Lib Dems as was arguably for Macron. Whilst Brexit has dominated the political agenda consistently for the best part of two years, it is fair to say that the snap election focused on other immediately pressing issues facing the British population. Austerity politics implemented since 2010 by the Conservatives in a bid to reduce debt by cutting essential services and social security has had unprecedented economic and social effects on the British people and their society. Directly responsible for the worst levels of child poverty since the Victorian era, thus follows wage stagnation, privatisation, cuts to lifeline welfare security, student debt, unemployment and the increase of foodbanks. For the British people, pro-EU centrist liberalism wasn’t enough to satisfy the socio-humanitarian problems that run through society. Equally, the focus on the weeping NHS as a symbol of the failure of austerity policy through the cuts to hospital staff and the stagnation of their wages, alongside the insidious privatisation of the health service, meant that even the ardent of Remainers were more concerned about the planned closing of their local hospital or the general wellbeing of the supermarket staff in their local Sainsburys’, than the bickering of Brexit.
On top of this, whilst the Liberal Democrats made an effort to mobilise its pro-EU values in attracting young Remainers, many had not forgotten the betrayal of the coalition and the enormous increase in university fees, and weren’t prepared to forgive either. Faced with a choice between past political game players who gambled the security of their economic future in making a deal with the Conservatives, or alternatively a party who offered to scrap fees entirely and pledged allegiance to supporting young graduates betrayed by previous governments, it is no surprise why the fallout landed on the Lib Dems and not Labour. Clearly, not enough effort was done in confronting this issue, and simply claiming to care about their European identities whilst ignoring the bigger issues was not successful.
Despite geographical proximity, France and the UK are culturally, historically and socially very different. Whilst the revolution of 1789 brought bread and power to the masses, the British were suppressed at such a level that it was never over the tipping point in order to restrain a revolution. It is true that both France and the UK suffer similar social issues that are unacceptable in developed countries with large economies; yet the social inequality that has harmed the British populous can be officially pinpointed to the long term implementation of austerity politics – a phenomenon that has yet to plague France the way it has done its British counterpart.
France’s centre won because a Frexit was not on their agenda. France’s centre won because the objective was to defeat the FN. France’s centre also won because the country has not suffered the constant trembling of austerity politics at the core of their daily lives for almost ten years post 2008.
Macronism and the impact it will have on the real people of France is yet to be defined. In the UK, austerity Britain was not prepared to take that risk, Brexit or otherwise. In order to avoid the same fall out that has collapsed upon the United Kingdom, Mr Macron ought to look over the Channel and see for himself what happens when profit is put above people.
Note. This article by 1989 Genration Initiative’s Sara is part of our series “Europe at the crossroads: Voting season”1989 Generation