Macron’s ‘Centrist’ Pragmatism
When President Macron won the French presidency, his victory was hailed as a success for centrist pragmatism amidst a rising tide of populism. It’s not so long ago that former Labour, former The Independent Group, former Change UK, former Liberal Democrat MP Chuka Umuna and his political bedfellows were touring the television studios singing the President’s praises. But since 2017, which seems like a lifetime ago, France’s own heir to Blair has confounded his cheerleaders. When the Yellow Vest protesters took to the streets, Macron dispatched the Gendarmerie to carry out a brutal crackdown which saw thousands injured and several killed. When it became clear that the EU had fluffed its vaccine rollout, Macron became the ugliest of vaccine nationalists, casting doubt on the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine, shortly before approving it for his own, already vaccine-sceptical, population. Now, Marine Le Pen is polling as high as 48%, buoyed by her parties’ victory in the 2019 EU elections, and it’s now that we see the true depths of centrist pragmatism. Macron’s Minister for the Interior recently told Le Pen that she was too soft on Islam, her being only concerned with dealing with the radical elements.
Macron only won in 2017 because every other mainstream party in France rallied around him in order to block his second-round opponent, Marine Le Pen of National Front. Only the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon who had come third in the race, showed the foresight not to give his endorsement. And if ever a tough decision were vindicated, that’d be it. Given the nature of Macron’s victory as being effectively leant in a bid to block Le Pen, it would have been prudent for the President to govern in a consensual and bipartisan manner. But the President’s governing style pays little heed to his shaky mandate - It’s not for nothing that he is sometimes derided as a little Napoleon.
Macron’s reign speaks volumes to so-called centrist pragmatism. It does whatever is necessary to win and thereafter consolidate power, and gets away with it by calling itself centrist. In the long running shadow box between the French and American Presidents, Trump would call himself a nationalist and tell his supporters to ‘use that word’ while Macron, who had been dubbed the Trump whisperer, made sure to distance himself from the Donald for reasons of real politic by declaring that he was a ‘patriot, not a nationalist’. But if nationalist means anything, then Macron fits the bill and then some. Macron has gone further and farther than Trump in attacking critical race theory, branding it a threat to France which is tantamount to ‘ethnicization of the social question' — amounting to 'breaking the republic in two’. While Boris was sheltering in place as rioters were desecrating the Cenotaph in London, Macron took to the airwaves to declare a not one step back defence of French culture, and when sectarian clashes broke out in Dijon, he again appeared on television to adopt an equally hard-line position - and backed up his words with tough action.
And in my view, much of that is good. In a sense Macron has been collegiate in absorbing the policy platforms of his rivals; he watered down his neoliberal economic reforms with an eye to retaining socialist votes, and put his foot down on sectarianism, Islamism and wokeism to win Le Pen’s voters. Perhaps that’s a contradiction to on one hand accuse the President of being kingly, and on the other hand too accommodating - But then his pragmatic ideology is inherently contradictory, so it’s no surprise. He claims to be in the centre but adopted right wing economic reforms until the resistance became too much to overcome. He says he is a pragmatist and that is true, because in his own self-interest he is willing to position himself to the right-wing of Marine Le Pen, and he is unafraid to do down the efficacy of vaccines if he thinks it would win him some more plaudits. That’s nothing if not pragmatic.
But Macron has gone too far. Rocked by the latest opinion polls, his government’s policy is now so right wing and totalitarian on the question of Islam, it has forced the National Rally leader to defend the right of Muslims to be afforded the freedom of religion, and on live TV no less. His attacks on the British vaccine programme, which were totally anti-science and run afoul of the advice given by the WHO, are dangerous to the British and the French people. The French have one the most vaccine hesitant populations in Europe, and in an effort to look like a tough nationalist in the wake of the EU’s inoculation immolation, he undermined his own people’s confidence in the Oxford vaccine, which he would very soon approve for use in France. That is dangerous.
Donald Trump was branded a pariah by the British press for much less. Yet Macron is able to operate at the extreme end of populism without rebuke, and all the while he maintains the convenient veneer of centrism. The truth is, centrism doesn’t have much purchase on the public mood, voters have left wing views and right wing views, usually a mixture of both, and the centrist nomenclature is just a veil of respectability which can, but isn’t always, used to do whatever is necessary to win an election, without being subject to the same mud throwing that populists find themselves on the receiving end of.