Emmanuel Macron, leader of France’s En Marche! and candidate for the country’s presidency, seems too good to be true. Intelligent, impeccably educated, charismatic, he is very different to François Fillon, who is officially ‘embattled’ – and certainly looks jaded – after the emergence of a financial scandal regarding the unorthodox (and state subsidised) employment of his wife.
And Macron is nothing at all like the far-right leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen.
Today Macron makes an appearance in London to court the thousands of French voters who live in Britain. As well as supplementing his internationalist image, this visit has a more obvious numerical purpose. Macron needs every vote he can get. Despite his rapid rise, he trails Le Pen and alternates with Fillon in the polls. But if he were to come second in the first round of voting, Macron would almost certainly win the presidency.
Macron is something of an oddity: he is filling stadiums with supporters; he is apparently energising people in a new and interesting way; he is creating a ‘movement’ (the most over-used and intangible phrase in contemporary politics) – and yet he is not a populist, and nor is he of either the extreme right or hard left, who can fill rooms and even arenas with true believers but struggle at the ballot box.
For an entirely new political party to do so is notable, and for an almost apolitical, moderate campaign to have this impact is remarkable.
Macron is a true moderate, a scarce commodity at this particular time. As the world adjusts to the new reality created in the course of the last year, moderation is in short supply. Macron’s centrism is remarkable in its sanity. This is especially evident on the international stage.
When Russia sponsored an armed separatist movement in Ukraine and invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, its leaders could hardly have dared hope that things would work out this well. Invading a European nation and enforcing a violent change in borders – neither of these things endear a country to its neighbours.
Committing war crimes in Syria to aid the survival of a regime which uses chemical weapons: again, hardly a gesture likely to guarantee plaudits from the world’s politicians. Or so it seemed. Things can change rather rapidly, and what were once norms of international conduct have been almost entirely discarded. Now politicians from foreign powers vie to be nicest about Vladimir Putin.
This depressing trend can be seen in populist movements across Europe, notably in Britain, where Nigel Farage, the former leader of Ukip, and his many hangers on and imitators are never unwilling to praise Russia’s leader. They think he’s ‘playing a blinder’ in Syria, for example. Arron Banks, a major Ukip donor and key figure in the recent referendum on EU membership, writes that the ‘EU caused the civil war in Ukraine’.
These people support Russian aggression ostentatiously. Some do so out and out; they’re proud of their previously unfashionable position. Others do so for more usurious reasons. Many in the governing Conservative party are all too willing to minimise Russian actions. Some are covertly or not so secretly in favour of Putin’s authoritarianism, his much vaunted ‘toughness’. Others hide behind grubbier motivations, for example a desperate desire to secure something to suggest that Britain can trade and succeed after it leaves the European Union.
In France, both Le Pen and Fillon have made notably pro-Russian interventions in recent months. Both of them have suggested that sanctions against Russia for its aggression against Ukraine be limited. Le Pen actively denies that Ukraine has been invaded at all.
French politics has witnessed a profound change in rhetoric towards Putin.
Macron, alone among the top three, does not give succour to Putin. He does not excuse the Russian president’s excesses as justified or lessen the litany of his crimes. For this, as well as his remarkable rise, Macron has attracted increasing attention from Kremlin-backed media.
Like Angela Merkel, Macron has been subject to attacks and defamations and outright hoaxes online, many of them seemingly traceable to the matrix of content generation which aided Donald Trump in the recent American elections.
Much is said about ‘fake news’ – often, at least when referring to mainstream news stories, in a fatuous bid to counter something that whoever deployed the phrase doesn’t like. This misses out the bare fact of fake news; it’s not biased reporting or mere inaccuracy but rather dedicated, deliberate falsehood. And Russia has cultivated this falsehood and perfected its use, helping to spread absurd and lurid rumours about Hillary Clinton, for example.
Now the formidable apparatus associated with the production of these false stories has been turned on Europe’s moderates. Merkel is accused of locking up her critics, or critics of the EU in general. She is accused of importing migrants for nefarious ends and turning her back when they commit truly awful crimes.
Macron, because of his lack of a record in government, cannot be attacked on these grounds. Instead, he is painted as an agent of influence for the Americans – as a traitor and a man with no loyalty to France. In an era which has seen the resurgence of the nation and the crude exhortations of performative patriotism, this is a potent charge.
Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, a man whose organisation attacks anyone critical of Russia who is likely to win an upcoming election, hints at material he may or may not have on Macron.
This is a deliberate attempt to derail his candidacy, and therefore to remove the possibility of a critic of Russia from becoming president of France. If that were to happen, the Putinist international would have secured a significant victory.
Macron’s internationalist centrism is exactly the sort of moderation which could vanish from Europe in the next year. He is not a perfect candidate, but in a choice between supporters of Vladimir Putin and those who are being attacked by Russian agents, the latter is certainly preferable, and should be defended resolutely against the calumny of the former.