‘France Isn’t Ready for Macron’

To his supporters, Emmanuel Macron represents France’s future. Now he just has to convince everyone else.

A picture shows a vandalised campaign poster of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron (L) of the En Marche ! movement in Lyon on May 1, 2017 ahead of the second and final round of the French presidential election on May 7. / AFP PHOTO / JEFF PACHOUD        (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows a vandalised campaign poster of French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron (L) of the En Marche ! movement in Lyon on May 1, 2017 ahead of the second and final round of the French presidential election on May 7. / AFP PHOTO / JEFF PACHOUD (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

I spent Wednesday in the southwestern city of Bordeaux, a bastion of support for Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate for French president in Sunday’s election. In the first round of the election, April 23, Macron won 31 percent of the vote in Bordeaux, while Marine Le Pen, his far-right rival, won only 7 percent. (The only more lopsided performance among France’s big cities was in Paris, where the outcome was 35 to 5.) Polls show that Macron’s lead over Le Pen is holding steady at 20 points, but volunteers for his En Marche! party were going door to door in the impoverished suburbs outside of town in the hopes of driving faint-hearted supporters to the polls, and winning over the few remaining waverers.

Porte-à-porte, as it is known here, is a very recent innovation in France — I was told that a few members of the Obama team had come over to show the En Marche! team how it’s done — and the four volunteers I traveled with had no lists of likely voters, Macron supporters, fence-sitters or anything else. We walked around concrete housing compounds in Cenon, a struggling suburb of 25,000 where the unemployment level is 20 percent and 60 percent received some form of welfare, according to Aziz Skalli, the volunteers’ leader. We knocked on doors and talked to whomever opened up.

Though Cenon has a large population of North African and West African immigrants, the buildings we canvassed were occupied largely by elderly white people. Few would say who they voted for in the first round, or who they would vote for on Sunday. The French continue to accord a certain reverence to the idea of the secret ballot. One gentleman with very few teeth — I could barely understood a word he said — said that he had been approached by Macronistes in the local supermarket, and had told them that he would never vote for that lunatic Le Pen. An old woman in a housedress said that she had been prepared to vote for Francois Fillon, the candidate of the center-right Republicans, until he had been engulfed by scandal. “But do you know about Macron’s plan for retirees?” Sebastian Molyneux, a volunteer, asked. She did not. He told her. She remained noncommittal.

I soon realized that I would learn more from the volunteers than from the voters. With the exception of Skalli, who for the last 20 years has served as a municipal councilor in the neighboring suburb of Lormont, none had ever been involved in politics before, or had felt any strong affiliation for any of the parties. Olivier Fournier, the youngest at 28, said, “I grew up in a union household — my parents and my grandparents. We were a Socialist family.” But Fournier left behind the blue-collar world, or perhaps that world left him; most of the factories in and around Bordeaux are shuttered. Fournier manages a restaurant. “I was for Macron even before I read his program,” he said. “He was young, he was fresh, he wasn’t from a political background.”

Molyneux and Mohammad Achraoui, who rounded out our team, had both graduated from university. Molyneux ran a nursery school, and Achraoui worked as an insurance agent. Molyneux was impressed that Macron, alone among the 11 candidates in the first round, spoke up forthrightly for the merits of the European Union, and for France’s role in Europe, a subject about which French voters — like those all over Europe — have become increasingly sour. Achraoui, born in France of Algerian parents, said to me, “I always voted for the Socialists. But what did they offer disadvantaged people in the poor areas? Public assistance. It’s so hard for people to get out of these neighborhoods. Most of the people who make it are athletes or rappers or even drug dealers. I was lucky. My parents imbued me with a love of French culture. I love theatre, and I love the language of Molière” — the expression the French use for correct French. Achraoui was a striver who had made it in today’s France.

Afterwards, Achraoui invited me to the very modest apartment he shares with his wife and baby for a coffee. He and his wife are both completely secular; she kissed me when I showed up at her door. “I’ve always been a liberal,” Achraoui told me. “I’m liberal in both political and economic values. The Socialists aren’t liberal; they’re statist. What Macron says to people here is, ‘You need to have the same opportunities as Frenchmen everywhere. We need to improve transportation so that you can get out in order to work in the city.’” Transport is indeed a signal issue for the technocratic leader of En Marche! For Achraoui, Macron is the French version of Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Italy’s Matteo Renzi. He is a new man for a new world.

Both Achraoui and Molyneux discovered Macron through the system of committees that he organized last spring, after he founded En Marche! These committees, themselves convened by volunteers, at the level of small towns like Cenon as well as big cities like Bordeaux, debated policy questions, sent proposals up to regional organizations, which after further deliberation forwarded ideas to party headquarters in Paris. The whole thing struck me as an ingenious gimmick to build a grassroots party from nothing, but Lex Paulson, an American veteran of the 2008 Obama campaign who lives in Paris and has helped organize Macron’s campaign, assured me that the party’s reliance on this apparatus to develop and transmit policy was very real. Paulson was the one who steered me to Bordeaux in the first place, to meet Tanguy Bernard, a 39-year-old development economist who had returned to France after ten years in the United States and Africa and now runs the local En Marche! regional committee.

Bernard is another refugee from the Socialists. “Traditionally,” he said to me when we met in an “eco-cafe” at the edge of Bordeaux, “the left was the party of discussion and debate, whereas the right was always about choosing leaders. But the old culture of activist training has weakened. We’ve lost that sense of collaboration and debate. Both parties are like designation chambers for the next leader.” Bernard was attracted both to Macron’s program of economic reform and to his innovative political process. “The volunteers are able to talk about the party’s program knowledgeably,” he said. “They have a sense of ownership.” The committees also served as a recruitment device. Yesterday’s debaters are today’s door-to-door volunteers.

Macron’s program, and the process he has built around it, is quite admirable and progressive and transparent — but is it France? Cenon, with its population of impoverished immigrants, went heavily in the first round for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far left La France Insoumise. For Mélenchon and his supporters, Marine Le Pen represents one kind of evil and Macron another, which is why Mélenchon has refused to endorse Macron even as he has repudiated Le Pen. The volunteers told me that whenever they launched into their spiel about the new generation, economic opportunities for youth, rupture with the old system, etc., they got a one-word answer from the Mélenchonistes: “banquier.” Macron, who left public service to work for Rothschild, forever bears that mark of Cain in a country that still cherishes a hatred of capitalists.

A taxi driver in Bordeaux told me, “If Macron wins, he’s going to kill me.” As economy minister, Macron had pushed through legislation allowing drivers without taxi licenses to transport groups of tourists — part of the same reform of the statist transportation system that Achraoui celebrated. “He says that he wants to bring disadvantaged people into the stream of work,” the cabbie said, “but all he’s doing is perpetuating poverty, and destroying our industry.” He added, for good measure, that Macron was “a fascist.”

Macron is squeezed between two extremes — two very large extremes. He’ll win the presidency handily, unless far more supporters of Mélenchon than are currently predicted cross to Le Pen, abstain from voting, or both. But what kind of mandate will he have on the other side? What fraction of French voters share that yearning for a breath of fresh air that I heard from the Bordeaux volunteers? One-fifth of the country will view him as a puppet of global finance, and another fifth, or more, as a passionate Europeanist who won’t defend France against Germany, immigrants or refugees (and as a puppet of global finance).

I happened to be in Bordeaux for the final debate between Macron and Le Pen. Bernard, the development economist, invited me to join him at the town house of a friend and Macron supporter. I arrived in the middle of Le Pen’s introductory statement, in which she said, “Mr. Macron is the candidate of savage globalization, of Uberization, of insecurity, of social cruelty, of the war of all against all, of economic pillage. . .” The first subject was the economy — Macron’s strong suit — and the room filled with knowing laughter when Macron said, in the face of Le Pen’s big-state, protectionist economics, “Madame Le Pen, how are you going to pay for that?” The candidate from the National Front seemed out of her depth, though on firmer ground with terrorism and immigration. Everyone thought that Macron won — and that was the popular consensus as well — but afterwards my hostess said to me somberly, “It’s too soon. France isn’t ready for Macron.”

That will be the great question after Sunday. France goes to the polls again next month to choose representatives to the National Assembly, and it is widely assumed that the major parties, locked out of the final round of presidential voting, will bounce back. In that case, Macron might have to appoint a prime minister from the right who does not share his views and does not feel beholden to him. But nobody knows; in the almost 60 years of the Fifth Republic, no one has ever before been elected president save from the big center-right or center-left party. Even in the worst case, Macron will have defended France’s republican values against a candidate widely seen to threaten them. But whether he will also be able to champion the liberal values that thrill members of France’s rising generation is a question for another day.

Photo credit: JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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