Nicola Lamb: France puts its faith in youth with election of Macron

By Nicola Lamb comment

A woman reacts during the rally at the Louvre Museum where Emmanuel Macron celebrated his victory. Photo / AP
A woman reacts during the rally at the Louvre Museum where Emmanuel Macron celebrated his victory. Photo / AP

COMMENT

As he strode through the Louvre to the sounds of Ode to Joy this morning, Emmanuel Macron made a stylish entry on the world stage.

The music is the European Union's anthem: Fitting for the EU's defender in the French presidential election but a surprising choice for a young man about to lead a major historic power in its own right.

The imagery of Macron royally walking alone through a landmark linked to the kings of the past, in darkness and minimal lighting, was a deft cinematic touch.

The celebration of the La Marseillaise came later as he addressed his supporters in Paris.

But the sober statement of support for the EU was appropriate for an election result that offered hope to the EU and the idea of a shared future for Europe.

The message was clear: This was a win for the globalists over the nationalist forces.

"Tonight, Europe and the world are watching us. They want us to defend the spirit of light under threat everywhere," Macron said. "The world wants us to defend freedom, justice and the environment."

Had his opponent in the final round, Marine Le Pen, been successful, a Frexit and major instability was on the cards. Germany and France have driven the European project. That will now continue to be the case.

At 39, the new President-elect appears determined not to be taken lightly. He has risen fast and far by playing his own notes, being his own brand.

He is both the youngest leader and the first president from outside the two traditional main parties since 1958.

It is hard not to make a mental connection to the fresh-faced victorious Tony Blair 20 years ago. The former British Prime Minister clearly did, saying in a statement that Macron's win "shows that the centre ground is alive and kicking and the place where elections can still be fought and won by progressive politics".

The centre is a difficult area to straddle and Macron faces an almost immediate test with legislative elections in June.

Signs are mixed.

Macron won by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. The turnout was considered low for a French election at 75 per cent, 5.5 per cent down on 2012 and the lowest since 1969.

More than four million votes were blank or void. IPSOS found that the most important factor - at 43 per cent - motivating support for Macron was opposition to Le Pen.

Yet in a Harris Interactive poll on voting intentions for June, Macron's En Marche! movement was the most popular with 26 per cent compared to the conservative Republicans and Le Pen's Front National on 22 per cent each. That's still a sizeable bloc on the right. Today, he told his supporters not to boo those who voted for Le Pen.

Can Macron draw more to the centre and appeal to nationalists without parroting more conservative positions?

He appears to have absorbed lessons of the US election and the styles of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. These days being authentic to your own approach rather than seeming put together by committee is essential to the ambitious rising leader. Part of that is being surprising and doing the unexpected, being freed of party scripts and structures.


If there is a 'right' way of running for the French presidency, Macron probably turned it on its head. Macron had good luck, good strategy and good timing. He was the only candidate defending the EU and calling for reforms, and he distanced himself from the traditional parties when being an independent was an asset.

He only had his first main brush with politics three years ago, and only started En Marche! in April last year.

Macron was a former investment banker and had never been elected to office. President Francois Hollande had brought him into the Socialist government as an economy minister for two years, but he left last August to launch an independent bid for the presidency.

He lacked the traditional resume and years of experience in the political spotlight for such an important job. He lacked the traditional party base and organisation. He was up against people who had both.

The potential opposition was intimidating. Other early contenders included former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and former prime ministers Francois Fillon, Alain Juppe and Manuel Valls.


But the election campaign's background was Brexit and Trump, and the shift against traditional politics across Europe.

Macron's road to the Elysee Palace was also paved by a crucial decision by the most powerful man in France.

At the start of December, Hollande announced that he was not seeking a second term.

In one sense, it wasn't shocking. Hollande was unpopular for a multitude of reasons, political reality demanded it. But it was shocking that he, unusually for a political leader, was bowing to political reality. It was also historic - the first time since France's Fifth Republic began in 1958 that the incumbent had not sought a second term.

Hollande's move - to ensure a more competitive candidate against the conservative and far right prospects - opened up the contest on the centre and far left. Macron and Jean-Luc Melenchon were the most popular contenders. Benoit Hamon defeated Valls in the Socialist primary but fizzled in the first round of the election in April.

On the conservative side, Fillon emerged victorious for the Republicans. He soon became submerged in a family payment scandal and stubbornly refused to quit. Macron also benefited from Fillon's blow-up.

With polls showing Le Pen likely to make the second round, her opponent was likely to be the beneficiary of a stop-the-National-Front unity push. That was the case - and quite different to the US where the Republican establishment ended up embracing Trump.


The President's decision to remove himself from the field and allow for renewal of leadership is an interesting one for other countries.

In the US, the leader of the Democrats for the previous eight years is now retired at age 55.

But many of the senior leaders of the party are old and filling the void when younger (35 to 55-year-old) leaders should be becoming known to the public. Two around that age group who have made advances this year are DNC chair Tom Perez, 55, and Adam Schiff, 56, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence committee.

Yet we have also heard a lot just recently from former Vice-President Joe Biden, 74, former Secretary of State and presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, 69, and Senator Sanders, 75. It is quite possible that all three could turnout for the 2020 primaries.

Party House leader Nancy Pelosi is 77, party Senate leader Chuck Schumer is 66, leading Senator Elizabeth Warren is 67.

It isn't a great vote in the future in these days where one of the world's most influential companies, Facebook, is run by a 32-year-old.

France has placed its hope in youth.


- NZ Herald

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