Left, right and Macron

Macron, as many other centrists, has campaigned on the promise of being neither left nor right, hoping to resemble unification as well as distancing himself from the diluted left, right playing field. However, now that he is the president, Macron will have to wage a different battle to make sure that populists won’t hit back twice as hard.

Economic growth is pushing through, unemployment rates are back at their pre-crisis levels and democrats are gaining momentum against their incumbent right-wing opponents. People have grown tired of Manichean politics, the politics of leaving the EU versus further cooperation with the EU, of close borders versus open borders, these choices often portrayed as a choice between intellectual progressive leftism versus bigoted right-wing extremism. Rita Verdonk, a Dutch politician, once campaigned on the motto that she was ‘Neither left nor right but straightforward’, her message was unmistakably right-wing, but her slogan does catch the wrongs of the terminology, people are done with these ever-changing, over-simplifying terms. Centrist parties, much like Macron and his movement campaign on being neither left nor right as well, and win. Do left and right still mean something?

The T-junction

The left and right terminology finds its origin in, ironically, the French National Assembly in 1789. Those opposed to the revolution, evidently proponents of the old monarchy, sat on the right in the recently found parlement they so loathed, proponents of the revolution sat on the left. The divisions continued and later on, in a time where there were still no parties in the French political landscape, leftists came to be regarded as innovators, rightists often as defenders of the constitution. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did the terms gain popularity as they began to be used informally to describe one’s political ideology. One can conclude that in these times, right-wing parties protected the interests of the upper-classes, leftists tailored to the people of lower social-economic class. It is at this time, the time of industrialization and worker suppression, that the left adopted the role of protecting workers from the aristocratic upper-class, a feat of democracy if you will.

The left, in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century associated with Marxism and later on social democracy, gained popularity quickly. However, income differences and worker suppression became less of an issue as left-wingers began to lose their prevalence in Europe. Optimism quickly transcended pessimism in the time after the Great Wars, it was a time of secularization and the civil rights movement. Leftists swiftly abandoned their traditional working-class voter base, rather representing intellectual, minority voters. Quickly, right-wingers managed to pick up this left-behind group and sound the voice of these socially conservative voters.

Skip ahead three decades and one finds itself in the time of pro-business conservatives such as Reagan and Thatcher, who made the best of the economic prosperity of their years. Social democrats, who embraced multiculturalism, often formed coalitions with such mildly conservative, pro-business parties, forming the basis for Tony Blair and Wim Kok in building their ‘purple’, third way cabinets. Fueled by the fall of the Soviet empire, their centrist, neo-liberal ideology caught on.

One can see that the definitions of left and right have long correlated and moved, the political spectrum is not what it used to be. The fact that the definitions of these terms are as ever-changing as political ideologies themselves is two-fisted. However, as with anything, people tend to cling to such terms, bringing themselves to the almost binary choice as described in the first paragraph, an even worse trait of these one-sided designations.

Left and right and the french elections

Besides these obvious shortcomings, globalization has rendered parties on the left and the right useless. Social democracy, which is losing its influence swiftly, was – and still is – the foundation of European politics. No longer is it possible to impose radical protectionism or drastically change foreign policy. Countries will be rapped over the knuckles by the European Union, Wall Street or any other influential institution. Ideology is compromised to the furthest extent. Macron, as well as other moderates, seems to have gained immensely from campaigning on a message that is independent of political direction. He understood that people grew tired of this diluted playing field. He also understood that, as a result, many Europeans tended to more extreme parties to break the politics of this loving consensus.

His recently established cabinet of ‘left and right’ is an excellent first step towards a new type of government that does not comply with terminology but tailors to the ballots the French have cast. Le Pen’s talking points will remain talking points. Macron and his cabinet should seek to acknowledge those and offer viable solutions, contrary to bleak rhetoric, and renew the sense of democracy that once originated in that same France. If his administration won’t, right-wing populist will be back, and win.

The fate of the Union and the safe center

The French election seems torn – almost binary – between progress and backwardness. Le Pen or Mélenchon would both mean a severe and possibly catastrophic blow to the European Union as well as a conflict-ridden French government. Voters, disregarding populism from both flanks of the political spectrum, search for the middle ground; En Marche!

If one were to use sporting terms, 2016/2017 has been an immensely worrying – albeit interesting – season of politics. All suggested that it would be the season of the ‘people’, of the left-behind working man, that at its center would be the battle between the forgotten and the global elite. The next domino stone of this nationalist insurgent seemed destined to fall as Donald Trump climbed the stairs of the White House and the United Kingdom took a header down the steps of the European Parliament. However, as the Netherlands has acted a little more ‘normal’ and rejected the ‘wrong kind of populism’, in the words of Prime-Minister Rutte, Western political development saw a rejection of the nationalist incumbents and with that a safe escape to more centrist and conventional parties. Now, as France’s election is coming up with two anti-EU and market-skeptical candidates – Jean Luc Mélenchon is downright anti-market – are estimated to lose, as well as a general election in the United Kingdom, many hope that this trend can continue and Western democracies can once again rely on moderates to run the country.

Today (April 23), three days after another IS-claimed terrorist attack, is the day that the French will take to the polls. Under a loud a voté, as is tradition under de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic, their vote will be cast and their most important civic duty satisfied. Contrary to convention in the Fifth Republic, however, an independent candidate is leading the polls, with the runner-up and the number three being independents as well. As already stated in the previous paragraph, the election seems torn between populists and more conventional candidates. Torn – almost binary – between progress and backwardness. France, as one of the three main founding countries of the European Union, still is one of the driving forces behind the Union. Now, with Brexit, Trump, Erdogan and Putin already threatening the connecting element of the continent, the people of France have the power to bring the final catastrophic blow to the project. One that was created not only to further trade and commerce, but to work together on projects that take decades to accomplish, to fight climate change as well as create a powerful bond to protect its people from a repeat of the great wars at the beginning of the Twentieth century. 

Bluntly, a victory by either Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon – both independents – would be an outright disaster. Both take anti-EU and anti-immigration stands and as such pose immediate threats to the European Union as well as create nothing but conflict within the French government itself. Mélenchon, who is a traditional Trotskyist, does add some of his own hard-left ingredients, 100 billion in social spending in an already in-debt country for example, all in all, however, their would-be presidency reflects rather the same type of EU-loathing and anti-elite sentiment. That leaves two candidates who have an actual chance of winning the election: Macron, the Socialist economy minister turned liberal internationalist and the scandal-scarred Thatcherite conservative Fillon.

Mr Fillon, the Republican candidate, is a well-known figure in the French establishment – a true ‘swamp habitant’ if you will. In a country that has long been a staple of big government and strong, charismatic presidents, the hard-right Fillon dares to campaign with pro-market ideas that include deregulation, a higher pensioning age and drastic cuts in social spending. However, as he has taken 900.000 euros of state money to pay family members for ‘work’ – doing nothing – he turns his powerful claims of change in mere hypocrisy. We then find Macron, the political newcomer.  He started his movement En Marche! only yesteryear. As of yet, his only government experience is as economy minister under François Hollande, whom he frequently opposed with more liberal-oriented views. His plans include drastic cuts in social spending, progressive social policy and more collaboration with the European Union. The social-liberal candidate rejects the traditionalist views of his Republican opponent and does not care for deep relationships with Russia.

Many disregard him for his centrist views with Le Pen noting that he ‘can’t decide’. Those who support the idea that one has to hold a dogmatic position that can be easily categorized and sorted on the political spectrum frankly does not understand democracy. As with any democracy, what matters is the will of the people, whether that’s a little leftist in terms of social ideas and a little right-wing in terms of economy does not matter the slightest bit. After all, we can conclude that the French elections show, as with the Dutch elections – note this article – an escape to a safe center. Disregarding the hard-right under Le pen, the hard-left under Mélenchon and the Catholic conservative Fillon leaves a void for just one pro-EU, pro-market, Russian-skeptic, non-stealing, social-liberal candidate: Emmanuel Macron. En Marche!