‘Brenda from Bristol’ probably summed up the mood to this year’s general election when stopped in the street by a TV reporter.
‘Oh no, not another one!’ [i]
In Northern Ireland we are used to annual or even bi-annual elections but even our electoral activity pales in comparison to the poor people of France who have been called to the polls four times in three months.
The French system despite its demands on the electorate has its merits. For a start, votes take place on a Sunday, which means most people don’t have to arrange their day around voting. Secondly, the first round of voting in the presidential election narrows the field down to two candidates giving the French public a straight forward choice between Marine le Pen Emmanuel Macron. Tactical voting came into play as supporters of the eliminated candidates, decided which of the two they despised the least and that was Macron, who emerged from relative obscurity to become l’homme du destin, the most powerful man in Europe who has bucked the recent trend of the Right winning major elections in the West. He dismissed his far-Right opponent by winning an impressive 66.1% of the vote.[ii]
Young, handsome and dynamic, Macron has joined Justin Trudeau, another Francophone, to be the heartthrob of liberal women (and some men I suppose) everywhere. He became an instant hero by refusing to let President Trump haul him around when they shook hands. According to some sources, his vice like grip hurt not only the US president’s hand, but his ego, so much so he subsequently pulled the US out of the Paris climate accords. Perhaps, perhaps not, but Macron has other pressing problems. France has suffered from long-term structural unemployment for decades, particularly among the young. The country’s employment laws make it difficult for bosses to sack the idle and incompetent and some unions, notably the air traffic controllers strike as regularly as Big Ben, usually at Easter and the height of the tourist season. The high cost of employing people has forced businesses to improve productivity but left many businesses understaffed – roaming around deserted stores looking for a member of staff is a common experience in France.
At the top of Macron’s list comes terrorism. Paris and Nice stand out from the ever-growing crowd of terrorist massacres for their body counts and sheer savagery. In response, the streets of Paris bear an odd similarity to 1970s Belfast with near omnipresent military patrols. The French police are getting better at catching and killing Jihadis but a young, disaffected Muslim population indicates no imminent shortage of ‘kamikazes’ as suicide bombers are called in France.
Macron’s En March party, loosely translated as ‘Forwards’ has been in existence for barely a year but won a majority in June’s parliamentary elections, capturing 308 seats out of 577. He was helped once again by France’s electoral system that weeds out the no-hopers in the first round, introducing a measure of tactical voting to the second. In all, 350 seats went to the Centre of which En Marche is a part, 136 to French conservatives and only 45 to the fragmented socialist parties. The big loser was Le Pen’s Front Nationale, which acquired a mere 8 seats, 2 less than the Communists who managed 10.[iii]
The threat from the far right has been seen off – for now, but Monsieur Macron, has much to do. With Brexit negotiations now underway he will affect the lives of people in this part of the world more than any French leader since Napoleon. While the main Brexit negotiations will ostensibly take place with Brussels, the EU has been driven by its inception by the Franco-German axis and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Historically the Germans, lumbered by their historical baggage, have tended to make the balls while the French fire them. Germany is much more assertive these days but the role of Paris in the final Brexit result cannot be understated.
Monsieur Macron might be the new kid on the block but he will affect all our futures.