If there’s one politician in Europe as triumphant as Nigel Farage right now it’s Emmanuel Macron. The European election results were not, as many outside France have declared, a humiliation for the French president. On the contrary, they were a success. Publicly the Elysée described the result as “honourable”, but in private the president was reportedly cock-a-hoop. “Basically, we’ve won, it’s a triumph and Macron is jubilant,” said one of his staff.
While his LREM party may have trailed Marine Le Pen’s NR by a narrow margin (23.3 per cent to 22.4), Macron’s eyes were on another opponent. Seven years ago the centre-right Les Republicains [LR] were the ruling party in France; today they are a fringe outfit, which won just 8.4 per cent of the vote on Sunday, pushing them into fourth place behind the Greens, who polled at 13.4 per cent.
The result is a catastrophe for LR, and already the recriminations have begun with the party’s leader, Laurent Wauquiez, unlikely to last much longer in the job. He’s had eighteen months to resurrect his party after their unprecedented failure in the 2017 presidential election but he is patently unfit for the role.
Incidentally, the remarkably swift disintegration of LR should serve to focus Tory minds; underestimate the Brexit Party at your peril, for if you do then your party could soon be as irrelevant as LR. To think it is only three years since a young upstart called Emmanuel Macron launched his LREM party
For Macron, the destruction of Les Republicains has been an important strand to his political strategy since that day in April 2016 when he unveiled his new party. He had correctly identified that the key to electoral success was to destroy the LR. He was helped to that end by the party itself, which chose François Fillon as its candidate in the 2017 election.
A privileged, dull and aloof man, who rarely visited the real world of hardship and uncertainty, Fillon trailed third in the first round of the presidential election, the first centre-right candidate in the history of the in the Fifth Republic who failed to reach the second round.
That meant Marine Le Pen went head to head with Macron in the second round, a duel which he won easily. Two years later the leader of the rebranded National Rally is once more the president’s main foe. The LR are defeated and demoralised, so too the centre-left Socialist Party, which took just 6.1 per cent of the vote on Sunday, just behind the far-left France insoumise, whose 6.3 per cent share was a crushing disappointment for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
So that leaves just Le Pen, an adversary who won’t cause Macron many sleepless nights between now and the 2022 presidential election. On the contrary, she is what one of the president’s team described as their “dream” opponent, such is his belief that the two-round presidential election system precludes a Le Pen victory.
Macron’s confidence isn’t misplaced. He has obliterated the LR by luring their socially and economically liberal voters (predominantly metropolitan and middle-class) to his party. They approve of his economic reforms, they are in general pro-European and they support the robust manner in which the police have responded to the violent element of the Yellow Vest movement. LR voters who are less liberal in their outlook have defected to Marine Le Pen. In other words, Macron has forced centre-right LR voters to pick their side: his or Le Pen’s.
Macron is betting (and he’s right to) that come the 2022 election, the Greens and Socialists will vote for him over Marine Le Pen. She has taken some voters from the far-left in these elections. But it’s one thing to vote for Le Pen in a European election and quite another to send her to the Elysée.
“It’s the best possible scenario,” declared Gilles Le Gendre, president of LREM, in the wake of the Euro election result. “This isn’t a rejection of the president. On the contrary, we’ve perfectly polarised the political landscape.”
So buoyed is Macron by Sunday’s results, reports today’s Le Figaro, that he is preparing to embark on phase two of his reform programme. On Monday, he hosted his ministers at the Elysée to plan overhauling pensions and unemployment insurance; and he is also exploring how best to exploit the success of the Green Party in the European elections by bringing them into his camp to endorse his environmentally aware credentials.
There is, of course, a flaw in Macron’s strategy as he seeks to win re-election. And that is that it has deepened the divide in France between the metropolitan middle-class, who are enjoying the fruits of globalisation, and the rest.
The first manifestation of the latter’s anger was the Yellow Vest movement, which was suppressed to a large extent by the ruthless response of the police. Furthermore, Macron has been mightily emboldened by the apathy of the rest of the world to the sight of scores of French men and women mutilated and maimed by their own police.
Nonetheless, while the colour may have drained from the Yellow Vest movement the rage remains; and with increasingly few options at the ballot box the people may rise again in the coming years, but this time in such numbers and with such fury that the police won’t be able to beat the protestors into submission.