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La République en Marche! – How Macron could trample over Britain’s Brexit plans

Rhys Felton (University of Warwick)

The sensational victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French presidential elections last summer with his social movement ‘La République En Marche!’, a political force established only the previous year, provided a welcome relief to recent anti-Europe trends. The 39 year-old romped to victory with 66% of the votes - a success that, when combined with the far-right’s failures in the Netherlands and Austria, dealt a major blow to nationalist parties that had envisaged dominating European politics following Brexit. The young talisman was elected on a strong pro-Europe base that showed a clear rejection of what the Front National’s Marine Le Pen had coined ‘Frexit’.
The success was perhaps even more significant considering that France is often seen as one of the most Eurosceptic countries on the continent – a result of sveral cultural specificities that result in a sensation called French ‘exceptionalism ’. These specificities include a protectionist outlook that contributes to French exceptionalism both in terms of cultural heritage and economic commodities. French industry often boasts proudly of the quality of French products that find themselves in the ‘haut-de-gamme’, that is to say upmarket, top-of-the-range production. The exceptionalism therefore leads to resentment when other European countries import French-imitation style products or even counterfeit French labels from elsewhere, especially in key industries such as fashion and perfumery. Similarly, there are concerns that the EU has led to an ‘Americanisation’ of European culture with over 50% of films in the French box-office being ushered in from the US. [1] This again is seen by many in France as a sign of the EU threatening French exceptionalism on a cultural level due to a lack of protectionist thinking. Consequently, only 33% in France feel both French and European, and 25% even see the EU as a threat to national identity. So how will the ascension of pro-Europe Macron (in a country that shares many of the same Eurosceptic sentiments witnessed here) impact Brexit?

The main impact of Macron’s presence in the Élysée will undoubtedly be the strengthening of the EU’s negotiating position in the Brexit talks. Despite numerous warnings from leading economic forecasters and business experts during the referendum, the electorate will rue not taking seriously the risk of skilled workers and businesses relocating to France. Macron has repeatedly appealed to these major players in British society, including Scientists and academics to relocate to Paris, declaring when visiting the UK, "I was very happy to see that some academics and researchers in the U.K. because of Brexit are considering coming to France to work… It will be part of my program to be attractive for these kinds of people. I want banks, talents, researchers, academics and so on." Who could blame them if they accepted the invitation of a pro-growth politician who has reformed the work laws to help businesses prosper? Banking groups such as Lloyds, Schroders, Ashmore, and HSBC are all potential ‘Brexit migrants’ heading for Paris. After all, these are mostly the educated, business-savvy groups that staunchly supported Remain. Macron’s insistence on economic growth, battling to enforce necessary work reforms and business initiatives should make France an economic super-power once more after decades of stagnation. This relaunching of the French economy targeted through a shift from the former rigidity of the 35 hour week law that constrained businesses to now allow them to become more flexible and able to adapt to the demands of contemporary, globalised markets. This growth, inspired by the economically liberal Macron, will enhance the EU’s Brexit negotiating position by reducing the level of dependency on British trade. All meaning that the Brexiteers’ ‘they need us more than we need them’ mantra is proven to be hollow.

It’s also worth noting that the election of Macron has strengthened the Franco-German relationship as both countries will now look to collaborate in order to progress the European project. Yet most importantly, Macron has balanced his desire to work with alongside Germany with a gritty determination to reform the EU and not bow down Merkel’s gratifications. Unlike Hollande and Sarkozy who always appeared subservient to the German Chancellor’s authority, Macron has clearly indicated that the two powerhouses of Europe must work on a par to create a ‘fair’ Europe. This sort of de Gaulle-Adenauer or Mitterrand-Kohl relationship of mutual respect could lead to serious changes within the structure of the EU, potentially addressing various typical Eurosceptic concerns of a corrupt, bureaucratic institution that only benefits Brussels. It is these types of strong, binding relationships that initially helped establish the ECSC (European Coal and Steel Community), providing the foundations for the 1957 Treaty of Rome and eventually EU, the largest economy in the world. Macron will be looking to use Brexit as an opportunity to strengthen the position of the euro as the pound struggles with years of uncertainty. This indication that the EU is progressing both socially and economically will give the EU negotiating team the upper hand, making life very difficult for David Davies.

Macron’s election will also impact Brexit through compounding the increasingly negative public perception of Brexit at a time when a recent BGM poll revealed that 52% were now in favour of staying in the EUThe new French President’s pro-Europe campaign was full of positivity and optimism, supported by concrete strategy- a combination that contrasts sharply with Brexit, serving to highlight the dire quality of contemporary British politics. Take for instance, one of Macron’s first achievements as President – the introduction of a ‘moralisation law’ in French political life. This sought to eradicate the use of corrupt or crass methods to gain votes, money, and power. This type of ethical political thinking underlines the desperate need for reflection within British politics, especially the selling of lies to voters during the referendum campaign. For example, the famous £350m for the NHS was slapped on the side of a bus to take advantage of the uninformed in a ruthless ploy to earn votes and has been revived since by the political conman Boris Johnson. Questions must be asked at how this lie, that was almost immediately rescinded by the Leave campaign after victory for being false, has been able to resurface in public debate. The lack of any retribution for lies told during the referendum has normalised sensationalist politics in Britain, trivialising democracy. It’s no wonder when contrasted to Macron’s positive France that Britain’s international reputation is falling into disrepair, impacting post Brexit global relationships. The irony here that many Brexiteers parroted the soundbite about putting the ‘Great’ back into Britain, blind to the fact it would reduce Britain’s standing on the world stage . Macron’s desire for France to be an international power, in contrast to Britain’s approach, does not stem from isolationist rhetoric that simply claims grandeur, but instead focusses on cooperation and mutual effort between countries. The official Macron twitter feed posted numerous, almost candid, pictures meetings between the newly-elected President and world leaders during the first few months of his term. This highlights the major difference in the Macron approach to international affairs compared to Brexit Britain – you don’t prove a country’s greatness by simply claiming it in delusional speeches at home, but instead through demonstrating it with collaboration and diplomacy.
Another noticeable contrast is Macron’s bravery in comparison to the attitude of British politicians during and after the Brexit debate. For instance, Macron put country before popularity with the recent work law reforms that led to mass protests, taking the unheard-of step of interfering with the French labour system which has previously been avoided for fear of fall-out due to the fact that  it forms part of French ‘exceptionalism’. The French see their protection of workers as an exceptional symbol of Frenchness, ‘based on the conviction that the French model does not fit the Bismarkian/conservative ideal type, but rather represents a unique version of universalism based on solidarity’. [2] As a result, Macron’s popularity rating has plummeted considerably and ‘La République en Marche’! suffered in French Senate elections .Yet what is essential here is that he first thinks of the future of his country not his own image. However, in contrast, Brexit has revealed many British politicians are spineless. A prime example of this is Jeremy Corbyn, a man very capable of mobilising huge support and galvanising the youth to vote. Yet during the referendum Corbyn was hugely unimpressive, lacking in passion and conviction that contributed to an overall lacklustre Remain campaign. Many of his supporters have defended him in arguing that he can hardly be expected to campaign for something he doesn’t really believe in. His own personal Euroscepticism is however beside the point, as the leader of the Labour party whose official position was to Remain, it his obligation to campaign to the best of his ability for that post. In the fallout of Brexit many politicians, including Corbyn, failed to provide effective opposition to Brexit with Labour’s ambiguous position allowing the Tories to force through their vision of a ‘Hard Brexit’. Here the issue lies in politicians’ wariness of appearing to go ‘against the will of the people’. It is this opportunistic cowardice the has been so vividly highlighted by Macron’s honest and courageous approach, often conceding that people will disagree with him but that he will strive to convince the population through reason and debate.

Macron has in fact indicated that although he doesn’t wish to punish the UK with the final Brexit deal, he would prefer a ‘Hard Brexit’ if that meant that the EU would prosper. Macron is a highly pragmatic and competent politician who as economy minister under Hollande’s government, managed to stabilise the French economy that crashed under Sarkozy. The balance of trade deficit was reduced to €46.8bn from €71.2bn in 2011, in part aided by Macron’s insistence on the ‘Loi El-Khomri’, a law which can almost be seen as a preamble to his recent labour reforms. He is capable of being a very tricky partner in a post-Brexit world and as France is Britain’s main gateway to Europe, Macron recognises the potential benefit for his country. The implementation of tariffs and transit fees for rail and truck deliveries that pass through the Hexagon is a very real threat for British businesses.

Interestingly, the success of Macron’s young, centrist movement could suggest the need for a new, similar force in British politics. The last general election was a major disappointment for the Liberal Democrats whose Anti-Brexit stance failed to gain the mobilisation expected. This was the consequence of two major factors: firstly, the poor public perception that continues to linger from the forbidden coalition and the tuition fee scandal; secondly, the presence of tactical voting in favour of Labour due to the sudden opportunity of change presented by the abysmal Tory campaign. Given that the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are both electorally limp, and that the traditional Left and Right are both failing to grasp the severity of Brexit on the future on the country, there is a gap and a unique opportunity for a Macron-esque movement.

So ultimately, Macron’s presence will not help the UK’s struggle to benefit from Brexit as he will strengthen the EU’s position in Brexit negotiations, highlight Britain’s political inadequacies and damage the UK economy as influence shifts across the channel. Although France will undoubtedly remain a close ally to the UK and a reliable partner, there is a sense that, within the long history of rivalry between the two countries, Macron’s France will happily accept the benefits of the regressing Rosbifs.


[1] Drake, Helen, Contemporary France p.168

[2] Milner, Susan, 'Social Policy and France's Exceptional Social Model', in The end of the French exception?, Chafer, Tony pp.57-60