Time for a new Entente Cordiale

Emmanuel Macron won a convincing lead over his rival Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential election – much stronger than in 2017. He now looks almost certain to be President of France until 2027.

This has major implications for Britain. The ruling political elites here and their cheerleaders in the anti-Macron press have targeted the French President with scorn and derision, whether over rolling out vaccines, rows about fishing or refugees crossing the Channel, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and most recently the jaw-jaw efforts made by Macron to try and dissuade Putin from his evil invasion of Ukraine.

Boris Johnson once mocked his French counterpart, sneering “Donnez-moi un break”. Macron was angry over the AUKUS treaty, which led the Right-wing Australian prime minister to tear up a contract for French submarines without informing Paris.

It was ineffable Johnson style, but whether we like it or not Emmanuel Macron is head of state – the same rank as the Queen or a US President – and for a mere British Prime Minister to dismiss him with a joke is not the way to improve Franco-British relations.

Johnson now has a big choice. Does he continue to encourage the sniping and snarking at Macron, as he has done since he became Prime Minister in 2019? Or does he look for a post-Brexit entente cordiale and set UK-France relations on a new trajectory? There is much scope for cooperation and maybe even fraternité, especially on defence cooperation and a pro-business growth agenda.

Macron is going to be the dominant leader of Europe in the next five years. He will have more power and authority than the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It was he who hand-picked the EU leadership team: the Francophone Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell (who has perfect French) and the EU Council President, the French-speaking Belgian Charles Michel.

Joe Biden understands politics better than most and Macron’s impending victory signals the end to hopes that other nations in Europe might take the Brexit road or indulge in Trumpian national populism. Macron and Biden both believe in a strong state, are pro-business, but willing to tax and spend. A US-France partnership is now on the cards.

It was always baffling why so much of the UK media establishment, especially the BBC thought that Marine Le Pen would win. Last September I wrote here: “While the Macron-hostile UK press seeks to portray him as beset by opposition in the streets, from the gilets jaunes to today’s anti-vax protests – often with overlap and support from both the hard-Right and the far-Left – the average French voter seems unmoved. In fact, he is on track for re-election.

“I was struck by this on a two-week swing through France last month. No-one is passionately for Macron. But when asked who they would put 100 euros on to be the next President of the Republic, most told me ‘Emmanuel Macron’.”

I claim no special insight but just am puzzled at why so many of the London media elites thought a French Nigel Farage or George Galloway such as Éric Zemmour was a serious person. Marine Le Pen has tried her hardest but has failed. She is about 4 points behind Macron. By contrast, at the end of the first round in 2017 she was only 2 points behind Macron, before going on to be beaten 2-1 in the second round.

Valérie Pécresse has reduced the French centre-Right party, Les Républicains, to a humiliating 5 per cent. The Socialists barely registered. The old 20th-century parties – Socialists, Communists, Gaullists — are now dead.

What might be unfairly called the Guardian voters of France gave 21.5 per cent to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who offers many of the policies of Jeremy Corbyn but delivered in the manner of Boris Johnson – with sound-bites, jokes, vivid metaphors, and verbal fireworks. Mélenchon made clear straight after the result that none of his supporter should vote for Marine Le Pen, though he did not endorse Macron.

Zemmour by contrast urged his 7 per cent of voters to support Mme Le Pen. But to guarantee their support she will have to tilt further to the racist Muslim-hating right, attack the EU and Nato, and thus lose the support she needs from French conservatives in the moderate, Gaullist tradition.

So crunch the numbers as we like, it is very hard to see Macron losing the Elysée. Whether he can again win a majority in the National Assembly, and thus name a Prime Minister to form a government, is the next question.

But for the moment Emmanuel Macron has won and the anti-European Right, the pro-Putin, anti-Nato French nationalists and Muslim-haters in France have lost.

Denis MacShane is a former Labour Minister for Europe

First published by The Article

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0