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Macron faces test of character as Le Pen’s popularity grows

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It would be a political earthquake as disruptive as the UK referendum vote for Brexit in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as US president later that year.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s extreme right Rassemblement National party, is doing so well in the polls that she threatens to foil Emmanuel Macron’s re-election bid and could win next year’s presidential vote to become the country’s first far-right leader since the second world war.

Only last week, she likened herself to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK’s Brexiters — and by implication former US president Trump — as a politician who could triumph with the support of all kinds of voters. “There’s no more split between left and right, there’s a split between the globalists and the nationalists,” she said.

But is a Le Pen victory really likely next spring? The arguments among French politicians, so fevered that they have sometimes even displaced the deadly Covid-19 pandemic as a topic of debate, suggest there is at least the possibility of a political shock in France akin to Brexit and Trump.

“There are lots of ingredients that are the same,” says Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank. “A rejection of elites. Feelings of injustice. The desire to ‘take control’ of one’s country’s destiny.”

Marine Le Pen addresses supporters during her unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2017. The latest opinion polls suggest she is closer to pulling off a shock akin to Brexit next year © Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The consequences of a far-right victory in the EU’s second-biggest economy would be momentous at home and abroad.

Le Pen has successfully “detoxified” her party and moved it towards the centre since she succeeded her anti-Semitic father Jean-Marie Le Pen as leader a decade ago. But she and her nationalistic supporters remain hostile to immigrants and free trade. They are short of economic experience, friendly towards populist autocrats such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and highly critical of the EU, even if she has withdrawn her threats to leave the bloc and abandon the euro. Most of these positions are the direct opposite of those adopted by the liberal, internationalist Macron since he took office in 2017.

There are other factors that might help to put Le Pen, who has called Macron “the last gasp of the old system”, within reach of victory. One is his handling of the pandemic, which has been marred — in the eyes of doctors at least — by his own recent reluctance to follow the advice of scientific advisers and impose a more stringent lockdown to curb a third wave of infections.

He finally extended restrictions on movement to the whole country from Saturday. But more than 96,000 people have already been killed by the virus in France, and the latest surge accelerated by the spread of new variants is overwhelming hospital intensive care units in Paris and in the north of the country.

Another problem for Macron is his reputation among many of the French as an arrogant know-it-all. With between 34 and 41 per cent approval for his performance as president in recent weeks, Macron is more popular than his Socialist and centre-right predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same point in their terms, but anecdotal evidence suggests he is a divisive figure who has alienated many of those who voted for him and his “neither right nor left” message in 2017.

“She [Marine Le Pen] will win,” says Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist who was Macron’s predecessor as economy minister under Hollande. “It’s like the Trump phenomenon or the Brexit phenomenon.”

Montebourg says it is Macron’s character and his “oligarchic” policies that have boosted Le Pen’s popularity, and that the president is fooling himself and France by trying to persuade people to vote for him as a “rampart” against Le Pen and the far right in a putative second round Macron-Le Pen runoff in the presidential race.

“Macron is hated because he’s arrogant,” says Montebourg. “So he’s not the ‘rampart’. He’s the one who will put Madame Le Pen in power.”

President Macron announces the latest Covid-19 restrictions on TV. His reluctance to follow scientific advice and impose a more stringent lockdown has been criticised by doctors and could help Le Pen’s electoral chances © Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images

Pandemic stalls reforms

Morin agrees that Macron is seen as “arrogant, scornful, haughty” and says support for his administration at a time of national crisis has masked his underlying unpopularity. Even though Le Pen is just as divisive, “there’s a whole bunch of people who detest Macron as much as they hated Sarkozy”, she says.

Yet it is not just Macron’s character that has thrown up obstacles to his re-election. The deep economic recession triggered by the pandemic is also likely to reverse his administration’s earlier achievements in reducing France’s perennially high unemployment rate, although jobs have so far been sustained by a massive, deficit-financed economic rescue plan designed to stop businesses such as restaurants and hotels from failing by paying both owners and employees.

Macron’s signature economic reforms, for example to the costly state pension and unemployment benefits systems, have also been stopped in their tracks by the pandemic. Those reforms had already been challenged by the sometimes violent anti-government gilets jaunes protests that erupted across the country in 2018 and persisted for more than a year, but they had appealed to many of the country’s centre-right voters.

By keeping the reforms on his to-do list, Macron alienates many working-class voters, and by failing to follow through with them he alienates entrepreneurs and much of the middle class. Significantly, many gilets jaunes protesters at the start of the movement were Le Pen supporters from outside Paris, even if some of the later demonstrations were taken over by anarchists and supporters of the far left.

A ‘gilets jaunes’ protest in Paris in 2018. The violent challenge to Macron’s economic reforms persisted for more than a year © Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

Nor has Macron much to show for his intense efforts in foreign policy, including his repeated attempts to court Putin and persuade Russia to make peace with Ukraine, and his abortive drive to reconcile Iran and the US under Trump to help resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Macron was the victorious insurgent candidate in the 2017 election partly because he championed what seemed like non-partisan economic reform and a vigorous sort of internationalism, but neither has produced the results he would have liked.

“Right now he has no foreign policy triumphs that he can point to in an election campaign and claim that France has more grandeur as a result,” says Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. “In the domestic sphere Macron does have political accomplishments such as pension reform, but what he is missing is something where individual French people are likely to say ‘Here’s how he’s changed my life for the better’.

“In some ways Macron comes across as a French version of Obama, polished, cerebral, self-assured, highly intelligent and thoroughly professional,” adds Dungan. But the former US president “found it more natural than Macron does to convince people he feels their pain”.

A queue to vote in Marseille during the first round of the 2017 French presidential election. Macron was the victorious insurgent candidate who championed what seemed like non-partisan economic reform © Anne-Christine Pujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

The latest opinion polls suggest Le Pen has a real chance of winning, representing a significant threat to the French establishment and the unity of the EU. When her father shocked France by eliminating the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin in 2002 to challenge Jacques Chirac in the run-off for president, he lost by 82 per cent of the votes to 18 per cent. The front républicain, the defensive system under which voters choose a candidate they dislike to keep out the one they hate, showed its value: the left voted en masse for the centre-right Chirac.

Fast forward to 2017, and the gap had narrowed. In the second-round battle, Macron beat Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. Next year, according to the latest opinion polls, Le Pen could lead in the first round and therefore be assured of a place in the final, and if it is Macron that makes it through as well then he is currently forecast to win by as little as 53 per cent to 47 per cent, according to a Harris Interactive-L’Opinion poll in March. The front républicain system is crumbling because many leftwing voters say they will abstain. Some may even vote for Le Pen, whose strongholds are in the industrial towns of the north once dominated by communists.

“Is it too early to start talking about this?” asks Dungan. “No it’s not. The polls right now show Le Pen and Macron pretty well neck-and-neck. It’s not that people are hostile to Macron. It’s that they’re not certain he understands them.”

Marine Le Pen launches a rightwing alliance of smaller political parties. Her main support is in the industrial towns of the north once dominated by communists © Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Identity crisis

The way the voting system works in France’s Fifth Republic — “in the first round you choose the candidate you like, and in the second round you eliminate the one you don’t” goes the political axiom — explains the unpredictable nature of its elections and the importance of the front républicain. While Le Pen can rely on a solid far-right support base, votes for her rivals risk being wasted if there are multiple competing candidates from the centre-left and centre-right in the first round.

It is this system which in 2017 almost delivered a run-off between Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the extreme left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party. No less than four candidates achieved first-round scores of around 20 to 24 per cent of the vote — although in the end the two finalists were Macron and Le Pen.

A protest against the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed after showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Macron has run a campaign against Islamist terrorism and “separatism” in Muslim-dominated suburbs © Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

Macron himself has benefited and continues to benefit from the weakness of the traditional parties. The once powerful Socialist party is particularly enfeebled and increasingly eclipsed by the greens. The centre-right movement has repeatedly changed its name in recent years — it is currently called Les Républicains — which suggests it has an identity problem, and several politicians are presenting themselves as possible candidates, including Xavier Bertrand, now president of the Hauts-de-France region, and Michel Barnier, who was the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.

The question now is whether Macron can rely on voters from the centre to get him through the first round and then attract enough additional supporters to back him against Le Pen in a run-off.

The president has yet to declare his candidacy for re-election, but his strategy is clear: to present himself to voters once more as the person most likely to beat Le Pen. This infuriates politicians such as Montebourg on the left, who say the French are weary of Macron and do not want another Macron-Le Pen showdown.

Macron retorts that he is simply dealing with the political reality of France today. “I’m not the one who put Marine Le Pen there,” he told MPs of his governing La République en Marche party recently. “It’s the voters. She and her father before her have been there for 25 years. She was there before us.”

BigRead: French presidential elections first round votes Macron vs Le pen

Battle for hearts and minds

Gérald Darmanin, Macron’s hardline interior minister, is leading the charge to appeal to far-right and centre-right voters — as well as old-fashioned secular republicans of the left — by trying to crack down on crime and restrict immigration, and by highlighting the president’s campaign against Islamist terrorism and “separatism” in Muslim-dominated suburbs.

In an FT interview in March, Darmanin said the danger for France was “to let Madame Le Pen become president of the republic because we’ve shown ourselves to be too naive, too soft”.

For Macron, some tricky months lie ahead as he seeks to navigate France through the pandemic, prepare for the French presidency of the EU in the first half of next year and consider his political future.

A Macron-Le Pen confrontation in the second round, let alone a Le Pen victory, is far from certain, even if each has chosen the other as their preferred opponent. There are other uncertainties too. It is possible that either Le Pen or Macron or both will fail to get through the first round of the election. Nor is the eventual winner of the presidency guaranteed to secure a parliamentary majority in the National Assembly elections that follow, a scenario that could condemn him or her to ineffectual “cohabitation” with a hostile government.

Edouard Philippe becomes mayor of Le Havre last year. The former prime minister is seen by business leaders as an alternative candidate to Macron © Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images

Business leaders who were once largely supportive of Macron and his economic reforms have started to wonder whether they should hunt for an alternative candidate — perhaps Edouard Philippe, the once loyal prime minister replaced by Macron last year and now mayor of Le Havre, who is believed to be biding his time for the following election cycle.

“The thought I hear from some fellow bosses is that ‘too many people hate him [Macron]; the handling of the pandemic, especially in the past two months, has been poor; Macron has lost it’,” says a senior French executive.

Macron’s electoral challenge, says Dungan, is that he needs to win the hearts and minds of the people. “He’s not a career politician: schmoozing is not his strong suit. His risk is not that Marine Le Pen wins; it’s that he loses.”

As for Le Pen, her weaknesses are evident, not least her poor performances in television debates, which sealed her fate when she confronted Macron before the final round of voting in 2017. And although she promises a “return to common sense”, “lower taxes” and “economic patriotism” as well as curbs on immigration, she has yet to convince voters that she or her government would manage the economy competently.

“When you see the opinion poll numbers, nothing is inevitable,” says Morin. “For the first round Macron and Marine Le Pen are ahead . . . but the others are not far behind.”

And surely Le Pen’s scepticism towards the EU and her recipe for economic sovereignty is too incoherent for pro-European voters to choose her as president? Dungan is not so sure: “Trump and Brexit have shown that’s a great way to get elected — not on the facts, but on the feelings.”

 

 

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Mail-in delays and recounts: Canada’s election tallying drags on.

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Three days after Canada‘s federal election, the final tally of seats remained unclear on Thursday, with mail-in ballots still being counted in some regions and at least one electoral district facing an automatic recount.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were handed another minority mandate late on Monday, in an election that ended with all the major parties holding virtually the same number of seats they had before the vote was called.

A handful of seats remain too close to call, as election workers across the country continue to count ballots. Those tight races will not meaningfully impact the overall outcome.

“We’re on pace to have all results within five days of polling day, and the majority should be in by the end of today,” said Natasha Gauthier, an Elections Canada spokesperson.

The count is taking time due to both coronavirus protocols and the fact that votes are being counted locally while being monitored by political party representatives.

Trudeau will not speak to media until the results are all in, a Liberal spokesman said.

As of 1:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday (1730 GMT), the Liberals were elected or leading in 158 of the 338 seats. The official opposition Conservatives were leading in 119, the left-leaning New Democrats in 25 and the Greens holding just two. The Quebec-focused Bloc Quebecois looked set to take 34.

Graphic: Canada‘s provisional election results:

One electoral district faces an automatic recount, which occurs when the race is decided by less than 0.001% of all votes cast. Parties can also request recounts in very close races after the count is finalized.

(Reporting by Julie Gordon in Ottawa; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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Ocean politics, DNA history and the climate experiment: Books in brief – Nature.com

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To Rule the Waves

Bruce D. Jones Scribner (2021)

The oceans are the key zone for potential military confrontation; some 85% of global commerce relies on them; around 90% of global data flows along undersea cables; oceans are central in the global fight over climate change. Those four simple facts are analysed in this penetrating historical and political study. Author Bruce Jones, director of the project on international order at Washington DC think tank the Brookings Institution, fears future oceanic conflict, especially now that COVID-19 has amplified existing international tensions.

The Secret of Life

Howard Markel Norton (2021)

The 1953 discovery of DNA’s double-helix structure might be one of science’s most fascinating and oft-told stories. Yet much about it is still contentious — even who termed it “the secret of life”. Historian of medicine Howard Markel’s fine book focuses on the role of Rosalind Franklin, whose X-ray crystallography image of DNA — crucial to Francis Crick and James Watson’s breakthrough — was used without her permission. A hesitant Watson tells Markel that he was “honest but … you wouldn’t say I was exactly honorable”.

A Biography of the Pixel

Alvy Ray Smith MIT Press (2021)

Pixel is short for ‘picture element’: a misleading etymology, writes computer scientist Alvy Smith, who co-founded Pixar Animation Studios in 1979. Pixels are invisible, like computer bits, and not to be confused with “the little glowing areas on a screen, called display elements”. Hence this book’s technical core: how the former is converted to the latter, and the thinkers who paved the way. These range from Alan Turing to the undersung graphics mathematicians involved in the films Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, Finding Nemo and more.

Our Biggest Experiment

Alice Bell Bloomsbury Sigma (2021)

Climate campaigner and science writer Alice Bell’s nuanced and accessible history of the climate crisis describes the legacy of scientists including Eunice Foote, the first to warn that increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide would affect global temperatures, at an 1856 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. By ignoring Foote’s insight for so long, “we’ve inherited an almighty mess”, concludes Bell. But “a lot of tools” can alleviate the effects of global warming, if used wisely.

Being a Human

Charles Foster Profile (2021)

Vet and barrister Charles Foster won an Ig Nobel Prize for living in the wild as various animals, as described in Being a Beast (2016). In his latest book — controversial, yet oddly compelling — he lives as if in the upper Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Enlightenment periods, and compares human consciousness in each. Ancient hunter-gatherers, he argues, were superior to modern urban-dwellers for their “cosmopolitanism” and “motion”. He savages written language, invented post-Neolithic, for its “wholly spurious authority” over experience.

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An anti-green backlash could reshape British politics – The Economist

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WHATEVER A British voter’s natural political hue—Tory blue, Labour red or Liberal Democrat orange—these days it ends up green-tinged. The Tory government talks effusively about “building back greener”. Labour wants a “green industrial revolution”. Liberal Democrats have used their position as the third party to argue for everybody to go further and faster. And then there are all the people who want to raze the carbon economy to the ground the day after tomorrow: not just the Green Party but also extremist groupuscules such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain.

Which leaves a gap in the market for something different: anti-green politics. Brexit transformed Britain by tapping into ordinary people’s resentment of distant elites, and anti-greenery could do the same. Environmentalism is driven by populists’ two big bogeymen, scientific experts and multilateral institutions. Green campaigners vie to befuddle the public with acronyms and jargon. Multilateral institutions override democratic legislatures in order to co-ordinate global action. In the public mind, greenery is coming to mean global confabs that produce yet more directives, and protesters who block city centres and motorways.

Greenery suffers from the classic problems of technocratic policymaking, namely offering distant rewards in return for immediate sacrifices and imposing uneven costs. Over-50s, the most reliable voters, won’t be around to see the world boil. Poorer people are likely to suffer more than richer ones from the green transition, not just because they have less disposable income but also because they are more likely to work in the dirty economy. The impression of injustice is reinforced by the fact that many of the most vocal green activists have a material interest in the green economy as bureaucrats, lobbyists and entrepreneurs.

A fuel-price rise in 2018 inspired France’s gilets jaunes; Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Finland’s Finns Party have lambasted green hysteria. In Britain, by contrast, anti-greenery is still nascent. Some on the Tory right have complained that their party is in the grip of the green lobby. A few MPs in the “red wall”—once-safe Labour seats in northern England that turned Tory over Brexit—have warned that green levies on driving could see those voters switch back again. The closure of some London streets to through-traffic has sparked protests.

But such rows are about to get a lot louder. Turbulence on the global energy market is drawing unflattering attention to British energy suppliers, which are struggling with the transition from coal- and gas-fired plants to renewables. The more the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, says about there being “absolutely no question of the lights going out”, the more consumers will worry. And other environmental policies on the horizon will also hit them hard. From 2030 the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned. The electric cars that will replace them are rapidly improving, but not yet as cheap or as convenient. For city-dwellers it is hard enough to find parking without having to look for a charging-point too, and long journeys require planning.

Since the discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965, most British homes have used the fuel to heat their homes. But the government plans to take gas-fired boilers off the market in the coming years, to be replaced by hydrogen boilers or heat pumps. The date for the switchover is slipping, since neither technology is ready for mass roll-out. Air-source heat pumps are larger than gas boilers, produce lower temperatures and cost much more. People’s enthusiasm for greenery may reach its limits if familiar, well-functioning products are replaced by more expensive, inferior ones.

In the past decade climate-change denialism has given way to something cannier and harder to pin down. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party and a major force behind Brexit, claims that he is as green as the next man—indeed that he voted for the Green Party back in the 1980s—but that he’s in favour of “sensible environmentalism” rather than the establishment kind that taxes “poor people to give money to rich people and big corporations while China’s going to ignore it all”.

Anti-greens are also seeking to reshape politics indirectly: not just by creating new parties, but by changing the hue of the established ones from inside. For neither of Britain’s biggest parties is as deep-dyed green as they appear to onlookers. The Conservative Party certainly has big names who preach environmentalism, like Zac Goldsmith, an aristocratic Brexiteer. But it has always also been the party of homeowners who care about their energy bills, motorists who want to get the last mile from every gallon and older people who don’t want to change their ways. More recently, they have been joined by red wall voters with little spare cash. Labour, for its part, is an uneasy coalition of graduates, who cheer every green initiative, and lower-paid workers, who are nostalgic for the days of well-paid jobs in heavy industry and primarily concerned with making ends meet.

Hot air emissions
How to avert an anti-green backlash? Politicians need to avoid unforced errors, such as making everyone rip out perfectly good boilers before replacements are ready. They need to shield vulnerable groups from the costs of the energy transition, remembering how the mood turned against globalisation when politicians failed to honour promises to compensate the losers. They need to see the world through the eyes of people who accept that climate change is a problem but must ceaselessly struggle to get by in the here and now. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, won easy applause at a UN round table on climate action this week by expressing frustration that the “something” the world is doing to limit global warming is “not enough”. The audience he really needs to convince is the one that laughed along to his provocations before he re-entered Parliament in 2015, such as mocking wind power as too weak to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

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