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  • Writer's picturepeter grose

Elle of a fight

Elle magazine is something of a French institution. It comes out weekly, looks as good and reads as well as any monthly, and is regularly devoured by over 300,000 buyers a week. With a cover price of 2.60 € and packed with high-end advertising, it is a serious business. It doesn't venture much into politics but this week it did.

The sigh of relief around the world when Emmanuel Macron trashed Marine Le Pen in last week's presidential election was audible even in our little island of Oléron. Not that we covered ourselves in glory here, or even contributed much to Macron's victory. In the first round of voting, when there were some 12 candidates Macron was ahead in our commune with 28.67% of the vote to Madame Le Pen's close runner-up with 27.97%. Among our neighbours in the commune of Saint-Pierre d'Oléron, Ms Le Pen did better than the national average. In the second decisive round in our commune, with only two candidates, Macron scored 52.54% to Mme Le Pen's 47.46%. I shall now look at my neighbours and fellow shoppers in Lidl through new eyes. What, if anything, can they have been thinking of?

Where does Elle come in. The photo at the beginning of this blog entry is part of the cover of this week's magazine, published last Thursday, three days before the second round vote. Here's the full cover:

The cover-plug in the red panel at the bottom reads: Marine Le Pen at the Elysée? FOR US IT'S NO! Our roll call of objectors includes Elisabeth Badinter (a well-known French philosopher), Leila Slimani (writer), Vanessa Bruno (fashion designer) and Camille Cottin (actress). PLUS our alarming opinion poll. About 150 prominent French names signed the appel (roll call). The alarming opinion poll results showed a mere 6% separating the two finalist candidates, with 53% for Macron and 47% for Le Pen. (In the actual vote, the margin for Macron was a more respectable 17%.)

Even more alarming were the false perceptions voters had of Marine Le Pen, as revealed in Elle's polling.. Some 49% of voters thought Ms Le Pen was a feminist (she isn't), compared with 30% for Macron (he is). What matters is that Elle could not be accused of sitting on its hands when it came to telling its readers how to vote.

Even the French themselves think they are a nation of complainers. Just about everyone thinks things have to change, only not for them. Most French people agree that we can't ask the young with jobs to be the sole support of elderly pensioners. But raising the retirement age from 62 to 65 remains out of the question. Just as Joe Biden is being blamed for record inflation in the United States, so the French are inclined to blame Macron for things well beyond his control, like the price of petrol and the cost of electricity. He did manage to land one highly effective punch in the presidential debate when he took Ms Le Pen to task for promising to increase wages for the low-paid by 10%. As Macron pointed out, wages are not set by the president of France but by French employers.

Macron reminds me of Tony Blair, through whose premiership I lived in the UK. The British Labour Party will have grown up on the day it recognises Tony Blair for what he was ... a reforming PM who won a record three elections on the trot for Labour, and made what was admittedly one gigantic mistake during his time in office.

Reforming? You bet. He stripped the hereditary peers of their legislative powers, introduced a minimum wage for all, organised devolution for Scotland and Wales, won a record three consecutive terms for Labour, and delivered a reasonable economy. He made a catastrophic mistake in Joining George 'Dubya' Bush's Iraq war, but it is both childish and silly to let this wipe out some very substantial reforms he initiated. The same goes for Macron, whose genuine successes are lost in a mish-mash of name-calling.

Where does Elle come in to all this? The answer is in the opinion poll (sondage in French). The numbers can be used to support the most damning allegation thrown against Macron, that he has destroyed the centre in French politics. Certainly the centre-right Gaullist UMP (now re-branded as les Républicains) and the centre-left socialists (Parti Socialist) have been totally sidelined, being reduced to a low single-figure percentage of the vote in the presidential election. But it seems a bit crass to blame Macron for this. Surely credit for destroying the Parti Socialist should go to that ninny François Hollande, who was president before Macron and who introduced Macron to politics by appointing him Minister for Finance in his cabinet. And at least some of the credit for destroying the UMP should surely go to Laurent Wauquiez, their former leader, who in a fatuous attempt to win back far-right voters from Marine Le Pen, tried to outdo her in immigrant bashing. You can't. One of the fundamental rules of politics is that a loony will always out-loony you.

So if Macron hasn't destroyed the centre, what are his other crimes? The other big accusation is that he didn't win at all, in the sense that people didn't vote positively for him, but rather that people voted against Madame Le Pen. That, it's argued, explains the wave of support that carried Macron over the line. It will take years to know whether this argument holds, but in the meantime the anti-Macron voices will have to explain how Macron The Unpopular scored highest in the first round of voting.

It seems to me there have been three clear winners in the current round of voting. First, let's acknowledge that Marine Le Pen managed to re-brand and detoxify the old National Front (Front Nationale) to the point where she could present herself as the mother of France rather than as an immigrant-bashing harridan. She has proved herself much cleverer than her father, who founded her party. So credit to her for that.

Another unlikely winner is Jean-Luc Melanchon, the leader of the far left La France insoumise ('France unbowed'). With the disappearance of the centre-left Parti socialist and the disappearance of the once-powerful far left French Communist Party he can now make a fair claim to be the leader of the French left. He will probably overplay his hand (he usually does) so this claim may end up not amounting to much. In the meantime his respectable third place in the first round of voting means he is currently France's first man of the left.

(In passing it's worth noting that only the far left and the far right can hold their heads up in Macron's France today.)

The third winner is obviously Emmanuel Macron himself. What an achievement! It's over 20 years since a French president won a second term, and he is the first French president ever to have won re-election while his party controlled the National Assembly. He did this from a standing start. First he created his own political party, which he led to victory in the présidentielles as well as in the Assembly. The first time he stood for any elected office was in 2017, when he stood for (and won) the presidency of France. (Don't tell me about Donald Trump. He didn't create his own party, he simply wrecked the GOP.)

Now comes Macron's real test. If he is to leave something substantial behind, he will need to find, train and promote a successor. So far there's no-one. We're watching, Manu.

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