January 2018 newsletter – Letter from France – Le Retour de Napoléon

In his latest Letter, Alan Kirman looks at the implications for French politics of electng a President without a party background.

My last letter finished with the pious hope that 2017 was going to be an improvement on the previous year. I have to admit that it has been a close call. What has dominated the news here has been the remarkable election of Macron, portrayed by some of the media and many of the intelligentsia as a reassuring move back to the centre, with reasonable not too liberal economic policies and a more progressive view on the social front. 

The role of the tweets
To understand why this is not the case it is worth taking a look at how Macron managed to become president. In the early part of the year, the primaries threw up two candidates, François Fillon on the right and Benoit Hamon on the left to whom should be added the candidates who were from parties which did not hold primaries and those who had no party as such. A fascinating analysis of the evolution of the communities associated with each candidate was undertaken by the Institut pour la Complexité in Paris headed by David Chavalarias. The idea was to profit from the huge amount of data now available on the Web and, in particular to focus on the tweets and re-tweets of people involved in the presidential campaign. The method was relatively simple but difficult to implement because of the sheer quantity of information involved.1

There are many ways in which one might wish to look at the evolution of groups supporting the various candidates in an election, and the method chosen by Chavalarias and his colleagues concentrates on tweets. In the context of the 2017 French presidential elections, they developed the Politoscope, an open platform for the analysis of political tweets, which was used to collect and analyse almost 60 million Twitter exchanges between more than 2.4 million users. They used this data to build a case study, and, in their words, ‘to present a method allowing the socio-semantic trends of a multipolar political environment to be automatically monitored’. How did they do this and how did they set about about identifying the clusters or communities associated with the different candidates? First one has to reflect on what constitutes a link between two twitter accounts.

The authors argue that, in order to rank accounts according to their political orientation, it appears that the use of retweets is the most commonly used definition for a link between two accounts. That is, people of similar political dispositions tend to retweet to each other but that such re-tweeting is much less common with differently disposed individuals. They identify social groups in the political twittosphere as ‘dense networks of accounts that recurrently relay content, without modification, between each other’. Their system captured the real time activity on the political twittosphere for a period of 11 months prior to the presidential election. 3700 original accounts were used for this process and they included candidates and a number of politically prominent figures to get the ball rolling. With these were then linked the people who received or sent tweets to them. Then there was the process of counting retweets and this was followed by the use of clustering algorithms to determine the groups to which people belonged. The size of the database expanded rapidly and in addition it evolved over time. Since individual accounts were identified, movements of individuals from one group to another could be observed.

The presidential outcome
Two things are worth noting. Firstly, the affiliations of voters before this election were extremely volatile. Francois Fillon, the enormous favourite at the beginning of the campaign was drowned in the Penelopegate affair (he was accused of misusing public money to pay his wife for an essentially fictitious job). The right had a natural alternative candidate, Alain Juppé who was somewhat more moderate than Fillon but who had had been strongly opposed by Sarkozy the ex-president and by Fillon's followers. Here is where the Politoscope analysis becomes interesting. There was a clear campaign on the right by those in the Fillon and Sarkozy camps to block Juppé. This left the door open for those who had been with Juppé to move to Macron. So, the right tore itself apart but what happened on the left? How did the official socialist candidate Benoit Hamon do so badly? Firstly those on the 'extreme left' led by Melenchon mounted a campaign to discredit Hamon, secondly, those to the right of the socialist party like Manuel Valls the former prime-minister, were only too happy to join the Macron bandwagon, and to argue that Hamon’s idea of a universal basic income was simply unaffordable. All of this led to the following outcome for the first round of the election.

Official first round result
Macron 24.01%
Le Pen 21.3%
Fillon 20.01%
Mélenchon 19.58%
Hamon 6.36%

Predictions as to how this would translate into votes in the second round varied considerably but the famous glass ceiling for the extreme right still seems to be there.

Official second round result
Macron 65.5%
Le Pen 34.5%

However, the ceiling is much less effective than when Jacques Chirac faced Marine Le Pen’s father in the second round in 2002. Then, Chirac led on the first round with less than 20 per cent and went on to obtain 82 per cent in the second round.

The legislative elections
Next, came the legislative elections where many had forecast that Macron’s ‘party’ would not do too well, since it was not really a ‘party’ and that there were many deputés from the previous parliament who would be re-elected because of their good reputation with local voters even though they had not backed Macron,. The contrast was with Chirac in 2002 who having demolished Jean-Marie Le Pen could count on a solid and well organised party and parliamentary support and went on to win 398 seats.

The truth this time was a sort of half-way house with, after the second round, Macron's party, En Marche, obtaining 43 per cent of the votes cast but getting 306 seats. 53 per cent of the total in Parliament to which should be added the 44 seats of their allies the MODEM. This, unlike Chirac’s victory, does not appear to be an overwhelming majority but given the fragmented nature of the opposition it should prove to be sufficient to govern. It is also worth noting that Macron’s party obtained its seats with the votes of only 17 per cent of the registered voters. This was because 57 per cent of those registered did not vote and 10 per cent of those who did voted ‘blanc’ or ‘null’. A victory with so little popular support was not destined to bring cheering crowds into the streets and indeed it did not. One other thing that is important is that, because of the law forbidding people to hold two elected offices many former deputés did not run for re-election. Furthermore half of Macron’s candidates had never held any elected position.

What was the consequence of all this for Macron? With a very sketchy programme and a largely inexperienced majority he decided to implement some of his electoral promises by decree rather than through the normal legislative process. Looking at his performance so far, it is clear that the collection of people behind him in parliament is divided into two camps. On the economic and security front he has already shown signs of his faith in what has come to be called neo-liberalism. Together with those on the right who rallied to his cause his message is clear. Deregulate the markets, particularly the labour markets and many of France’s economic woes will disappear! Indeed, the French, apparently weary of the whole political process, did not protest mightily at the passing of the new labour law although it substantially exacerbates the precariousness of employment and, while doing little to protect workers, is welcomed by employers since it makes firing part of their labour force easier. This will not, many of us believe, alleviate unemployment but maybe this time is different, to quote Reinhart and Rogoff. The standard argument used to justify this approach is to say that we have to move from protecting particular jobs to protecting those in the labour market. In other words you may lose your job but we will take care of you till you find the next one and that will happen much more rapidly once the new measures bear their fruits. However, there is still a strong identity attached to one’s job and surveys have shown that most people want ‘a steady job’ and not the knowledge that when their job disappears they will easily find another. This may be unreasonable but it has strong psychological roots. Furthermore, Macron has done little to reassure the average worker about his esteem for them. His move to cancel the payment of salary for the first day of sick leave carries the strong hint that France is full of people just waiting to take time off from work. Perhaps we should be moving into the twenty-first century and trying to rethink the whole notion of work and its place in society but there is little sign of that.

Security and the environment
As far as ‘security’ goes, Macron has shown himself to be more radical than his European counterparts. We are told that it is regrettable that of over 80,000 demanders for asylum last year only 27.000 were accompanied to the frontier and deported! Furthermore a ‘major law’ is in preparation to limit immigration further. Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said 11 places of worship have been closed ‘for incitement to commit terrorist acts’ under the state of emergency and 41 people are under house arrest because they have links to organisations spreading extremism and hatred. The State of Emergency, strongly favoured by the right, has finally been lifted but not by restoring the normal legal rights of individuals but rather by enshrining the ‘exceptional measures’ in normal law.

But given the differences in the positions of those in his party he has to make gestures to all sides and the question is where do his own convictions lie? The fact that he picked up as many supporters on the left as on the right, suggests that it must be the case that there are some areas in which Macron is more ‘progressive’. After all, his minister for the environment Nicolas Hulot is a hero of the ecologists. Indeed, on the climate front it might seem that Emmanuel Macron had taken a clear stand. He confronted Trump directly, inventing the slogan, ‘Our planet first’ and convoked a meeting in December in Paris called the ‘One Planet Summit’ with various forms of encouragement for those who had opposed the Trump stand. There he said, ‘We are losing the battle’ echoing the words of Jacques Chirac 15 years ago, ‘Our house is
burning and we are looking elsewhere’. Unfortunately, we are now no longer looking elsewhere but the house is still burning. We have not yet managed to make a concerted effort to develop and to finance the instruments necessary to extinguish or, at least circumscribe, the fire. So, Macron’s energetic confrontations with Trump and his appeals to philanthropists and to large corporations to resort to ‘green finance’ on the environmental front, by which is meant financing less energy consuming and less polluting activities, have not yet, proved to be more than gestures. Yet, even in making these gestures to placate the left, he reveals his instinct to rely on the private sector, and the financial sector in particular, to solve fundamental problems. But, much more than this will be needed as we have to move from an emphasis on reducing emissions to actually reversing them through carbon capture.

Meanwhile despite his clarion calls for international action at the public and private level, Macron’s overall commitment to the environment is far from clear, his pragmatic attitude to nuclear powered electricity, his compromise on glyphosate and his ratification of the CETA transatlantic trade treaty, which has been severely criticised by the ‘greens’ leaves room for doubt. Here again the division within the government is clear with Nicolas Hulot sitting uncomfortably between two stools. We will know more when the government decides whether or not to proceed with the construction of the new airport near Nantes. Here the two factions are at loggerheads, the socially and environmentally engaged against a variety of commercial interests. The decision will show who has the upper hand. So what we see is Macron making gestures to the left on their favourite issues such as the environment but with little real evidence that these are more than gestures. He is hardening his line on immigration and the economy to satisfy the right. However, to avoid getting bogged down in fights between the two groups he has launched himself with enthusiasm onto the international front and particularly the European front with a clear call for closer integration.

So the situation is becoming clearer. As Merkel faces her own difficulties Macron now sees the same sort of hole opening up on the European front as the Politoscope revealed in the French elections. But is this strategy, starting with the reinforcement of European institutions a real option? Will he be able to lead that fight and with which allies? Domestically he takes a strong personal approach to implementing measures, since there his majority is big and composed of different but inexperienced members of parliament who can be easily overruled. However, not content with being able to play the strong man at home, will he not be tempted to adopt a Napoleonic attitude towards Europe? His surprisingly low popularity ratings at home do not seem to provide the ideal base from which to conquer Europe but, on ne sait jamais!

1. All the details of their methodology and their results can be found in Noe Gaumont, Maziyar Panahi, David Chavalarias. Methods for the reconstruction of the socio-semantic dynamics of political activist Twitter networks: Application to the 2017 French Presidential elections. hal-01575456

Related resources