Despite his best attempts to blur political boundaries and ideological distinctions, Emmanuel Macron could accurately be described as centre-left. He famously – or infamously – said that there was no such thing as a “French culture” but rather that there was “a culture in France” and that it was “diverse”. His defence of multiculturalism during the campaign was also visible in his speech in Marseilles, where his listing – and celebrating – of numerous ethnic minorities was in parts almost word-for- word the same speech given by François Hollande in the same city five years earlier. Fittingly 47% of people who voted for his old mentor in 2012 voted for Macron in the first round of voting in 2017, with only 18% of those who voted for Sarkozy at that time doing the same. Despite his best attempts to hide this fact with his defence of the “en même temps” (‘at the same time’) approach, which was meant to display his capacity at being able to compromise and to be both left-wing and right-wing simultaneously, it is hard to describe the candidate who called France’s colonisation of Algeria “a crime against humanity” as right-wing.
However, the current President may well have little in common with the past candidate. Macron has slowly but surely moved progressively to the right since his election. This move was tactically relatively evident in his first month of Presidency when he needed to gain the best possible score in the Legislatives, where the biggest obstacle to getting a big number of seats for his new Party’s deputies was the classical French right-wing party Les Republicains, making his move away from the left a necessity in crushing a stunned opposition. To achieve this he (amongst other things) placed in his government many of their members, such as Bruno le Maire or Gérald Darmanin, and even plucked his Prime Minister Édouard Philippe from their ranks. Past this electoral deadline, however, one could have imagined Macron falling back to his former self.
In fact, the opposite happened, with the President maintaining and arguably increasing his right wing stance. The first and most obvious distinction with previous Socialist President Hollande is one of style. Where Hollande chose to act like the “Président Normal” Macron has instead emphasised the vertical dimension of the role by limiting his public appearances and declarations in a country that still had a king a few centuries ago. This monarchical style was particularly evident when he invited Putin to Versailles in May. Interestingly, he had shied away from following François Fillon’s footsteps in the campaign in terms of foreign affairs by not arguing for encouraging talks and negotiations with Assad and Putin as Fillon did. He chose a minister for education, Michel Blanquer, who has quickly become the Right’s (and possibly the country’s) favourite minister for his no- nonsense pragmatism. This decision contrasts sharply with Hollande’s decision to place in the same seat Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, deeply despised by the French right for her strong ideological stances on the subject of education. The debate on gay marriage that tore apart the nation and sparked a resurgence in Conservative thinking in France several years ago, seeing over a million people in the streets defending the traditional family model, is a dangerous terrain for Macron where the left/right cleavage is very strong. In this sense it is very telling to see that he has delayed legalising ‘Medically Assisted Procreation’ for lesbian couples to an unforeseen date in his mandate instead of this year, and one can even begin to wonder if he will even address it at all.
His stance on immigration however appears to be the most distinct turnaround. In November he was seen on camera debating with a Moroccan woman, telling her that if she was not in danger then she should “go home to her country”, words which, placed in most other political mouths, would have probably caused a substantial amount of media backlash. More recently, he said that “in no way we would let develop (…) a jungle“ in Calais, and defended the police’s work in the area, minimising with his Interior Minister Gérard Collomb any alleged police violences. Center-Left paper Le Monde, who ran a very ‘Macron-friendly’ line during the campaign, has described Collomb’s work so far, with his increase in refusals of allowing in migrants on the nation’s soil, as “offensive”, although in practice not that much seems to have been actually done.
But one can wonder if Collomb and Macron are not simply on the defensive, adapting to an ever-growing right-wing opinion in the French public, especially on the subject of immigration. A couple of months ago, an Ifop study showed that 70% of French people do not believe that immigration brings more to the country than it costs it. More recently, another Ifop poll showed that 48% see immigration as a “political project of replacement of one civilisation by another organised deliberately by our political, intellectual, media elites that we should end by sending back these populations from where they come from”.
This right-wing mood is visible in other forms throughout the nation. If both of the two traditional parties have suffered immensely after the latest Presidential election, Les Républicains are still – for now – standing relatively alive, unlike the socialist party. One needs only to compare the two electoral results in the last presidential election or the legislatives between both parties to see the contrast. Moreover Marine Le Pen seems to have abandoned her left-leaning economic policies after her catastrophic second round results to re-emphasise her right-wing rhetoric based on immigration, as shown by how Florian Phillipot, often depicted as responsible for this line, was pushed out and how she no longer focuses on the Frexit as the core of her political offer. Francois Fillon’s crushing success in the Republican primaries in 2016 stemmed from two decisive moments: when he published his book Vaincre le Totalitarisme Islamique (Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism) and when he became publicly backed by Sens Commun, the openly conservative group which was formed after the debates on gay marriage in France. Alain Juppé failed these very same primaries for being seen as too weak against Islamic extremism, gaining the nickname of Ali Juppé. Laurent Wauquiez moreover, the new President of Les Républicains, has been constantly accused by the media and political opponents of pulling his party to the right since his recent election.
Even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who sits firmly on Macron’s left, has arguably somewhat evolved in this direction. In 2012 in Marseille during the campaign he was full of praise in his words for immigration, and hence he subsequently saw his polls dip before finishing at 11%. In 2017, in Marseille again, he insisted instead on the fact that the “first task is to enable everyone to live at their home” and avoided explicitly praising immigration. This time he only narrowly missed the second round of voting and almost attained a result of 20%. Moreover, in a televised debate with Edouard Philippe in September, he did not contest the label of “Conservateur” placed on him by the Prime Minister, presumably as an insult. Recently moreover he opposed himself vehemently to surrogacy for homosexual couples, claiming that there was “no rights TO a child. Only children’s rights”. He further argued, in a rhetoric almost indistinguishable to that of right-wingers on the subject, that surrogacy would open the possibility of the commodification of the body.
This all paints the general picture of French politics at the moment, and therefore makes Macron’s ‘turn’ less surprising. With such a narrow center-left electoral base of 24% in the first round of voting, Macron knows he will need to expand his electorate whilst simultaneously weakening potential right-wing opposition by hunting on their territory. Macron also knows that the last time a candidate scored above 30% in the first round of voting was in 2007, in the person of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign had been sharply right-wing.
However, Emmanuel Macron will not want to lose his center-left initial electoral base either. It is important to note that so far most of his mandate has been focussed on an economic debate with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the only powerful opponent to his economically relatively liberal reforms, thus making right-wing sympathy easier to obtain in this context. The real acid test will be when (and if) the debate on Medically Assisted Procreation will resurface and how he will handle it. Only then will we know just how different the President is to the candidate, and how electorally profitable it is to be a right-wing candidate in France.