Monday, January 2, 2017

Narrowing the Field

FT columnist Wolfgang Münchau sees the French presidential race as a 3-way contest among Fillon, Le Pen, ... and Macron. He's not alone in already counting out the eventual Socialist candidate even before the debates and the primary of the Belle Alliance Populaire. But is he right to do so?

It has to be granted that Macron has played his cards awfully well. His political timing has been impeccable--and at this stage of a political battle, timing is often everything. But vagueness has also been an essential part of his strategy, and at some point this will begin to cost him. Macron is running as the new kid on the block, and for that it suffices to say "Out with the old!" But "In with the new!" comes next. Voters and, more importantly, journalists will then want to know what "the new" looks like, and what is Macron actually offering beyond what is in la loi Macron (and El Khomri) and the Attali Commission report (and perhaps the Gallois report)?

For Munchau it all comes down to Europe. Macron is for, Le Pen is against, and Fillon is ambivalent. Macron, moreover, is a federalist, and Munchau approves, while wondering if he can get Germany to go along with whatever plan he may (or may not) have for strengthening the EU's central institutions. In essence, Munchau is endorsing Macron for his vagueness while condemning Le Pen for her clarity. But in the upcoming primary debates Macron is likely to become a punching bag for all the Socialists, since he is really the man they are running against, more than they are running against one another. This may force him to descend from the cloud on which he is currently floating above the fray.

Or maybe not. Some politicians seem charmed, and for the moment Macron is enjoying a peculiar état de grâce. Pourvu que ça dure. But for now Munchau seems to have captured the feeling that the French race has narrowed, that the Socialists are out of it, and that Macron could (according to a couple of polls) edge past Fillon to become Marine Le Pen's opponent in round 2. If so, it would be the most stunning political rise in the history of the Fifth Republic. This in itself seems to have captivated the media and perhaps the public. But is it real? No one has yet cast a single vote for Macron for anything. And since he has refused to take part in the primaries, his first test will come in the Big Show. Until then we won't really know whether he's for real.

P.S. I should add that Macron has abandoned his vagueness in one important respect. He forthrightly praised Merkel for her refugee policy, which he says saved Europe's "dignity." And implicitly he criticized France for not doing enough. This is a courageous stand and not calculated to win votes. He deserves credit for it.