Relative youth at the highest office is not always a virtue, even less it seems when times are tough for the common man
By Jan Arden
In elections that were widely followed and commented here, throughout Europe and elsewhere around the world, French citizens had to choose last weekend between the same two radically different personalities, projects and worldviews that had battled it out in 2017. In the Sunday verdict, President Macron was returned for a second and final term in office with some 58% of votes cast against 42% to his rival Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblementnational (RN). Hundreds of news shows and editorials have already analysed the elections, the outcome and the upcoming next stages: appointment of a Prime Minister and legislative elections to follow within thenext two months. There is therefore little we can add beyond highlighting some aspects worth noting from our horizons.
Some might feel this difference of 16-17% was a historic re-election and comfortable enough for the winner, yet there were several reasons for the President and his party La RépubliqueenMarche(LREM) to hold celebrations that were clearly subdued if not minimalist. First, the context of international tensions, with a raging war at Europe’s doors disrupting all sectors of European and the French economies, which have been weighing down badly on the purchasing powers of many millions of families are far from over.
Second, although the French authorities are recognised to have managed the pandemic reasonably well, without major departures from people’s freedoms and fundamental rights, the first Macron spell was clearly under pressure from the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement and constant street manifestations that clearly labelled him as the banker’s choice, if not the President or candidate of the well-to-do. He had therefore to dig deep and roll up his sleeves to bravely hit the worst-hit areas to explain or justify his government’s policies during his tenure.
In 2017 Emmanuel Macron had the appeal of youth, freshness and the “gift of the gab” to take on and dismiss both the traditional left (Partisocialiste) and right (Les Républicains). It was maybe the vision of many elder politicians that, rather than the recurrent left-right confrontations, France should be governed by a broad centrist party, leaving two fringes, one on the far-left and one on the far-right: Macron made that gamble pay off handsomely in 2017 and, although battered by his first-term policies, has enshrined it in the 2022 results.
Both the traditional left and right, (namely, Partisocialiste and Les Républicains, the Sarkozy/Fillon party) have been left literally in ruins, leaving populist or radical left Mélenchonand far-right Le Pen at about 22-23% each of electorate support in the first round. The implications as legislative elections approach are mind-numbing for all traditional political structures (including ecologists and greens) who have to re-invent themselves rapidly to avoid becoming permanent fringes and also-rans in many localities and regions.
Thirdly, after the first round, there was a risk that France would end up bitterly divided between the haves and the have-nots on the one hand and, on the other, between the South and East, favouring Marine Le Pen and the rest more sensitive to Macron’s centrist appeal and the republican spirit rallying to reject the far-right views of the Rassemblement national. That geographical divide has not happened in the second round as electors of both candidates were fairly well spread, but the divides have shifted to age and socio-economic groups: those below 25 and above 70 are clearly in the Macron camp, while a majority of lower- and middle-income classes have voted for Le Pen.
Geography as a divide has not entirely given way though, as most of the Caribbean and Indian Ocean DOM-TOMs have weighed in favour of Le Pen, (unheard of 55-70%) a clear indication that they may be under far greater socio-economic duress than their metropolitan counterparts and responding favourably to the Rassemblement national’s set of populist measures. This is a disquieting situation that the future Macron government may need to address to avoid social eruptions and volatility in regions that are often prone to such despairing events.
Fourth, the relative high degree of absenteeism and blank votes (near 30% combined), the fact that more than 40% of Macron voters are reputed to have turned up only as a republican front to keep the far-right Rassemblement national out of power rather than adhering to the Macron liberal philosophy and project, and the constant rise of Rassemblement national voters from one election to the next, are good reasons for the President’s modesty in Sunday’s win.
Gone was the regal demeanour of 2017, Macron’s brief victory speech at the Champ de Mars this time around was steeped in humility, sobriety and seriousness as he recognised publicly those factors and promised “new methods”, a greater sense of inclusiveness in his new term and a singular ambition to transform France into the first country for ecological matters and development. The cruel fact that most age groups between the ages of 25 and 70, in other words the most active ones, flocked to his rival Le Pen must be hard to digest.
Social and economic distress hitting hard at many millions of French citizenry in the working classes and many professions (educators, nurses, policemen, etc) may have touched the candidate Macron as he courageously hit those difficult areas in rather rumbustious exchanges with the unhappiest citizenry. But whether his pledges epitomize deeper realizations or utterances of a heady night, his immediate attention would be to weigh carefully his options for the most suitable PM candidate for appointment. Will he tilt to the left and greens to woo Mélenchon’s electors or turn to a moderate right figurehead to mainstream some far-right electors?
Unable to stand again at forty, President Macron has already etched his name in history books, for this will be a hard feat to beat, but he cannot remain aloof from the fate and future of the rather uneasy coalition of people and policies that constituted his party, the La Républiqueen Marche. The PM choice will be defining for his broad government policy intentions and determinant to keep his party in good stead for the legislative elections that in some quarters are referred to as the electoral “third round”. As for the appointee, Matignon can be a formidable platform for propelling future political ambitions but in these difficult economic times, with simmering social unrest and a highly volatile state of Europe with the Russo-NATO-Ukraine crisis, manoeuvring room may be severely constrained and the posting will certainly come with its share of high-profile challenges and risks.
President Macron made the point that, elections being over, he is now the President of the whole of France in its diversity and intends to honour that trust and privilege to serve one and all indistinctly. Finding the right tone and answers to legitimate distress and feelings of impoverishment that the double whammy of an unprecedented pandemic and a tragic Ukraine war have wrought in quick succession, is not always an easy task and it takes guts to recognize that the failings of his first term will be corrected.
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Leadership by example
Relative youth at the highest office is not always a virtue, even less it seems when times are tough for the common man. Public expectations demand greater exemplarity in higher spheres of government functions and deliverables, as the ongoing Boris Johnson “Partygate” has highlighted in the UK.
The common man and the population in general expect leadership by example in trimming down wastes, chasing up frauds and terminate futile expenses, even if such measures as a reduction of princely salaries, luxury cars, pensions, overseas trips and per diems from public purse, would be primarily of symbolic value. Battered by the pandemic and colossal price escalations that affect all communities equally, people expect more solidarity and empathy and less of partisan politics churned out at Saturday press briefings and too often in the National Assembly. They certainly expect less of or delayed fanciful projects that have no real urgency and greater fiscal responsibility.
The common man and the population expect that our policing institutions weigh with level heads how to handle any pacific manifestations of social distress when arbitrary arrests simply stoke up more resentment and anger. Mauritians are largely pacific by nature but, in difficult times, repression of those venting out their pains and sufferings, in various rural villages and urban areas, can tear apart our social fabric. As we write, the President of the Bar Council, Yatin Varma despite an interim Supreme Court injunction to stay until the matter was heard in Court, was allegedly shoved aside as police, acting on orders, grabbed one of his clients for deportation to Slovakia, leaving the legal community baffled at such disrespect for both the Bar and the Supreme Court.
Repressive tactics and reeling out cold figures and statistics constitute dismal answers to the real distresses, the anxieties derived from lack of alternative avenues to be heard for thousands of families that are going through difficult times to make ends meet. VAT and taxes on fuel and many other products combined with rupee depreciation effects hit harder the modest classes, the micro and the SMEs and the elderlies. To authorize the Dubayjalsa for thirteen ministers and accompanying officials, to postpone regional elections, to dismiss the various proposals for some immediate relief as a “dilapidation of public funds for short-term gains” may all be testimony to the regime’s own confrontational political culture, resulting in the disconnect of higher offices of the land.
There is still time here for the authorities to change paradigm and narrative, review methods and rebuild bridges with the common man. In much more becoming terms, Tuesday’s issue of Le Mauricien reports revealing comments from two top guns of the conglomerate sector, Jean-Pierre Dalais and Arnaud Lagesse at a Business Mauritius-Institute of Directors function. We can only trust that theirvoices will wake up high government quarters and the financial authorities to the socio-economic realities and slow down if not reverse the accumulated mishandlings that may drag the island to the unenviable status we have seen elsewhere in our region.
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