It was the great promise of Emmanuel Macron when, five years ago, he came to power after defeating the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, with 66% of the vote. “I will do everything so that, in the next five years, there will no longer be any reason to vote for the extremes,” he said in his victory speech on May 7, 2017, in Paris.
Macron was addressing the 34% of voters who had opted for Le Pen. And it was a message to France and to the world just after the victory of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States. The President of the Republic was convinced that his model would end up prevailing in the ideological clash between himself, a pro-European, and his nationalist rival, between a centrist and a right-wing extremist, between a liberal reformist identified with the elites and a populist who proposed a battle between the people and what she called the caste.
Now, when he submits to the polls a five-year presidential term marked by the revolt of the yellow veststhe pandemic and now the war in Ukraine, and when you look at her back-and-forth balance, one thing seems clear: Le Pen is stronger than ever and, according to the polls, she can legitimately believe that, this time, she does have any chance of winning the presidency.
Almost 49 million French with the right to vote are summoned this Sunday to the first round of the presidential elections. They will choose between 12 candidates. The two most voted go to the second round, on April 24. The polls are unanimous: in the first round, Le Pen will qualify alongside Macron and, in the second, he will be close enough to victory so that nothing is taken for granted.
From the offices of power in Paris, where macronism has its natural habitat, to the abandoned factories in the deindustrialized north of France, which are the breeding ground for populism and the extreme right, the evidence of two countries that do not understand each other prevails, and that at the polls they will once again measure their strength.
“I don’t remember who I voted for in 2017, nor do I know who I will vote for now,” says François Gorlia, a CGT trade unionist in Amiens, Macron’s hometown, indifferent to the discussions these days. Gorlia worked 26 of his 56 years at the local factory of the American appliance company Whirlpool.
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The factory was the scene of one of the highlights of the previous campaign when both candidates, Macron and Le Pen, appeared there a few days before the election surrounded by cameras and journalists. Today it is closed. “These people,” recalls Gorlia, “came here five years ago to brag and told us, ‘We’ll do it all for you.’ We see the result.”
“I am restless,” confesses Alain Minc, one of the president’s mentors and a man who has moved for decades through the control rooms of political and economic power, and knows him like few others. In his office in central Paris, on the eve of the first round, Minc adds: “This reminds me of the UK before Brexit. Or Trump night. We see how the wave rises and we do not believe that it will happen. And I’m not saying it happens. But we can consider that there is a chance in three, or one in four, that it happens.
Macron’s promised efforts to rein in Le Pen have failed. And a good part of the electorate considers that there are reasons to vote for the candidates who, on the extreme right or on the populist left such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, challenge the system, and advocate the breakdown of consensus – on the EU, on the NATO or on the market economy—which have dominated France in recent decades.
For Arancha González Laya, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs at Science Po and former Spanish Foreign Minister, “it is a choice between two models, and these models do not separate the left from the right.” In a colloquium organized this week by the magazine The Grand ContinentGonzález Laya pointed out: “The divide is between pro-Europeans and liberal democracy, and nationalists and populists. This is the choice. This is what this country is playing for and we are playing for the whole of the European Union.”
The challenge comes at a more complex time than in the year of Brexit and Trump. In the middle of Russia’s war against Ukraine. And with a candidate in France — Le Pen — who for years declared her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and whose party is indebted to a Russian bank. Her victory would mark a turning point in Europe. Perhaps in war.
“What is at stake is whether France remains close to the European ship or not,” one of the strong men of the Macron government, Gérald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior, told EL PAÍS. “Mrs Le Pen’s victory would be the end of political Europe as we know it.”
It was Friday, April 8, eleven at night, and there was an hour left before the election campaign was over. Along with other ministers, Darmanin spoke at a rally in Hesdin, a town of 2,300 people in the northern Hauts-de-France region. Among the public, local notables abounded: mayors of the area, councillors, businessmen, doctors. And people over 50 years old.
Nothing to do with the youthful atmosphere of Macron’s rallies in 2017. He was the disruptive candidate then; now he is the status quo. To Hesdin, the president didn’t even bother to come to begin with. He sent a recorded message.
The rally offered a picture of the France that is doing well – the one that votes for Macron – in a region that is usually pointed out as an emblem of the France that is doing badly. It is the old mining and industrial France, the lands that for decades were an impregnable bastion of socialists and communists. These voters, as mines closed and factories moved to countries with cheaper labor, lower taxes, and more flexible laws, flocked to the National Front, predecessor of Le Pen’s current National Regroupment (RN). . “The first workers’ party in France”, as its leaders boast.
An hour’s drive south, between World War I battlefields, is the city of Amiens. Here, in a family of doctors and in an enlightened and well-off provincial environment, Macron was born in 1977. Here, at the Jesuit school in La Providence, he fell in love with his drama teacher, Brigitte Trogneux. He was 16 years old; she, 40. Some time later, Emmanuel and Brigitte conquered Paris. And power.
In Amiens, too, Macron experienced a decisive episode in his career at the Elysee Palace. It happened on April 26, 2017 between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections that faced Le Pen. That day he visited his city in a campaign act. During a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce, the news reached him: Le Pen, without warning, had counterprogrammed him and had come to the city by surprise.
But the far-right candidate had gone elsewhere than Macron: to the local Whirlpool plant, which was about to move dryer production to Poland. Le Pen took selfies with striking workers blocking the entrance. “With me, the factory will not close,” he promised them to applause before leaving.
Macron, hearing about it, changed his plans and went straight to the factory. There was tension and jostling, a tumult in which the journalists, the strikers and the candidate’s entourage were mixed. Slogans were heard in favor of Le Pen. And boos to the young candidate, who launched into a debate with the strikers in the factory parking lot.
“You will not find the patronage behavior in me that you have seen with Mrs. Le Pen,” he told them. And she warned them: “The resurgence of France will take a while and it will be difficult.”
Macron won the election, and Whirlpool was left as a symbol. Of the audacity of the new president, capable of going headfirst into a hostile public. From the clash of models. From the deindustrialization of France: in 1980 the industrial sector represented 24% of the gross domestic product; now around 13%.
“Do not enter”, now orders a sign on the access fence to the factory. Someone has left the valley half open. Weeds grow in the parking lot. There is no one in the reception booth. The doors open without the need for a key or magnetic card.
No train runs anymore on the tracks that used to reach the factory and take the merchandise to France and Europe. Now the trucks leave ceaselessly from plants such as that of the giant Amazon, whose logistics center, 15 kilometers from Amiens, was inaugurated by Macron in the fall of 2017.
Whirlpool looks like a ghost ship, a monument to the ruins of industrial France. Trade unionist Gorlia says: “Every time I come it hurts. 1,500 people came to work here”. His father had worked here. His son no longer: at 21 he is a bus driver. Others have left.
“This is the symbol of Macron’s industrial failure,” François Ruffin, a deputy from Mélenchon’s party, writes in a phone message from central France, where he is campaigning. Ruffin is Macron’s closest rival: both are from Amiens; both studied at La Providence. “Whirlpool is the symbol”, he adds, “of his abandonment of the popular classes, of a globalization that he does not regulate”.
“The populist vote grows on the flaws of poorly controlled globalization,” commented the Minister of Industry, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, at the end of the rally in Hesdin. But here the coincidences with Rufifn end. “A factory that closes,” she maintains about Whirlpool, “is usually a factory that has been reached too late.” And she adds: “There are many factories that close, and there is a lot of talk about them, but not enough is said about those that open.”
Macronists defend that France is reindustrializing, that twice as many factories are being opened as are being closed, that unemployment has fallen to a level that brings it closer to the goal of full employment, that purchasing power —despite current inflation— has increased during the five-year period, and that the combination of tax cuts and massive state aid has pulled the French economy out of the doldrums.
Minc, the veteran adviser to the president, sums up: “Something very important remains from Macron: he has made France business-friendly”. That is, a country to do business. And he argues: “It has created the collective conviction that taxes should not be increased. It has created more flexibility. We have become the most welcoming country in Europe for foreign investment”.
Five years ago, Minc said that his success or failure would be measured by the following scales: “More Europe, less unemployment, less National Front.” He now takes stock, and it is imperfect: “More Europe? Yes: it has been faithful to its European commitment and has played a major role in the progress of Europe. Less unemployment? Yes, because of an event that is the global Keynesian policy to respond to covid. And less National Front? No, since the National Front can defeat him. This is a political failure.”
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