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Why is Macron hated?

Apr 30,2022 - Last updated at Apr 30,2022

NEW YORK  —  France is not the United States. Many liberals, including me, worried that Marine Le Pen might just win the French presidency for the same reason that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016: Loathing of the more liberal candidate would enable the far-right populist to squeak through.

Fortunately, enough people who dislike President Emmanuel Macron held their noses and voted for him in the second-round runoff in order to thwart Le Pen. If one must choose between cholera and the plague, many voters stated, then the former was clearly the better option. Macron himself acknowledged as much in his victory speech, stating that, “To all those who voted for me, not in support of my ideas but to block the far-right from winning, your vote obligates me.”

But the fact that 41.5 per cent of voters chose Le Pen, a candidate who represents a deeply reactionary, nativist and illiberal strain in French politics, is still worrying enough. Why, then, do so many people hate Macron?

The reasons French voters give for rejecting Macron are similar to those cited by US voters who could not bear Hillary Clinton. They are the candidate’s perceived arrogance, entitlement, aloofness, and, as with Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” remark about Trump supporters, a history of insulting less educated people with conservative views.

True, Clinton lacked the common touch, unlike her husband, former US President Bill Clinton. And Macron can come across as being contemptuous of anyone who stands in his way. But while personality counts in democratic politics, individual quirks do not explain everything. The visceral aversion to Clinton and Macron also reflects deeper social fissures resulting from shifts in party politics that began decades ago.

Political parties used to be held together by class-based economic interests. The left, closely linked to trade unions, represented the interests of the industrial working class, and the right spoke for small and big business. Liberal democratic systems worked because these parties held each other in balance. It was clear what they stood for, and most voters felt that they had a stake in the fortunes of one side or the other.

This began to change in the 1980s, when the left started drifting away from economic, class-based interests toward social and cultural issues such as anti-racism, gender and sexual emancipation and multiculturalism. Trade unions were weakened, especially in the US and the United Kingdom, by de-industrialisation, and their links with socialist and social-democratic parties began to fray. The left became more popular with educated and relatively well-off urban voters, many of whom disliked organised religion and opposed various kinds of social conservatism, such as racial prejudice.

The big mistake these left-wing elites made was to assume that the working class, urban or rural, would naturally share their “progressive” social and cultural ideals. In fact, many people who would classify themselves as working class are conservative. Religion thrives among the poor. Immigrants are often perceived as a threat to their jobs. Gay rights do not rank high on their list of concerns. And this is not just true of white voters. In the US, many Latinos, and even Black people, now vote for the Republican Party.

The left’s shift away from class-based politics began in the union-busting era of UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan, and became even more apparent after the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc. In the West, the need to balance free-market economics with moderate redistribution was no longer regarded as an urgent priority. Even the UK’s formerly socialist Labour Party under Tony Blair, and the US Democratic Party under Bill Clinton, became keen promoters of the neoliberal policy agenda.

Yet, if socially and culturally conservative rural voters and the urban working class felt increasingly alienated from center-left parties, they did not necessarily find the traditional pro-business centre-right hospitable, either. For a long time, the so-called “country-club” Republican elite in the US would pay lip service to the conservative views of mostly white, blue-collar voters without college degrees by stirring up racial fears and promoting “Christian values”. But, once elected, these Republicans would turn their attention to business as usual.

Many working-class voters thus felt betrayed by both the left, which they thought no longer represented their economic interests and despised their social attitudes, and the right, which took no notice of them once it was in power.

Both Trump and Macron exploited this opening. Trump took over the Republican Party and turned it into a populist cult, while Macron blew up France’s centre-left and centre-right parties and replaced them with himself. Both men promised that they alone could fix their country’s problems, as though they were latter-day absolute monarchs.

But Macron has a problem. Le Pen and Trump grew up in Paris and New York, respectively, with far greater wealth than Macron, but they share and understand the resentments of people who hate educated elites. Although Macron comes from France’s provincial middle class, he climbed his way into the upper class and assumed the superior attitudes of the old left-wing and right-wing political parties that he helped to destroy.

That is why he must rely on the votes of older, highly educated people in big cities. The old French working class supports either the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Le Pen. Rural voters prefer Le Pen. And the young are on the far left or do not vote.

We should feel relieved that enough French voters managed to stave off disaster. But Macron was right to temper any sense of triumph, and also to voice his obligation to those who dislike his policies but still voted for him. Many French voters feel abandoned, and Macron needs to take their interests seriously. After all, the liberal center cannot rely on urban elites alone. Let us hope that US Democrats are paying attention.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit” (Penguin, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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