An echo of the French past

The 1970s offer vital clues to understand Emmanuel Macron, the leading candidate in the presidential elections

April 08, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:28 am IST

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche ! (Onwards !) and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, attends a meeting with French employers' association MEDEF in Paris, France, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche ! (Onwards !) and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, attends a meeting with French employers' association MEDEF in Paris, France, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The front runner in France’s presidential race is the dashing young technocrat, Emmanuel Macron. In less than a year, and without any experience as an elected politician, he has come to dominate a fractured and fractious political landscape.

Such a rapid ascent has inevitably given rise to a devoted fan base. In the past few months, endless articles have been written about how Mr. Macron’s success is “unprecedented”.

But history tells a slightly different story. Back in the early 1970s, with the shadow of Charles de Gaulle still hanging heavy over French politics, another technocrat burst on to the political scene. His name was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

The 1974 election

Few had heard of the young upstart when he unexpectedly decided to present himself as a candidate in the 1974 presidential election. He had graduated from France’s top higher educational institutions and served as Finance Minister under de Gaulle, but he did not have the support of a major political party and he was widely seen as too young (he was 48). He certainly lacked the credibility of the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, or the unified candidate of the left, François Mitterrand.

But Giscard d’Estaing’s trump card was his campaign — and he used it to excellent effect. Drawing on an American model, he seduced the French with televisual pizzazz, aggressive marketing and glossy endorsements by celebrities — most notably the rock star Johnny Hallyday. News reports at the time showed enthusiastic teenagers sporting T-shirts emblazoned with his campaign slogans.

The positive publicity paid dividends. He knocked out all the other centrist and right-wing candidates in the first round and was left facing Mitterrand, one of the most experienced and ruthless French politicians of his day. But Mitterrand was uncomfortable in the media world and he struggled to persuade voters, especially during the first ever televised debate between two presidential candidates. In the end, the outsider scored a spectacular — if slender — victory against his rival. With 50.81% of the vote, Giscard d’Estaing became the youngest French head of state since Napoleon. Carrying his message of liberal social and economic reform, he showed that it was possible to win the most important election in France without substantial party backing.

Can Macron win?

The parallels between Giscard d’Estaing and Mr. Macron are obvious. Not only do their biographies and ministerial portfolios overlap almost perfectly, but they share a similar campaign style. Mr. Macron’s emphasis on youth, independence and technocratic competence is a mirror image of the 1970s and he has successfully accumulated a host of endorsements from high-profile figures.

Allowing for the difference in context, their political platforms are virtually identical too. Giscard d’Estaing was marked as a liberal of the centre-right; Mr. Macron has come from the liberal centre-left. But the core reference points are the same: market-orientated economic policies, a desire for administrative reform, and a deep attachment to the European project.

All these things should give Mr. Macron cause for optimism. Giscard d’Estaing’s success in the 1970s showed that it was possible to build a liberal, centrist coalition and persuade the French to vote for it. Given that Mitterrand in 1974 was a much more formidable opponent than Marine Le Pen today, there is every chance that Mr. Macron can win this year’s election.

But governing is not only about winning — and here the lessons of the past are less edifying. Giscard d’Estaing’s image as an elitist technocrat stuck to him like glue. Over time, his allies either betrayed him or deserted him, and the end of his term was mired in corruption scandals (the most famous of which was exposed by none other than the Le Canard enchaîné , the same newspaper that has skewered presidential hopeful François Fillon this year).

The result of this inexorable slide was a crushing defeat in 1981, as Mitterrand and the left swept to power. The young star of 1974, who had so effectively harnessed the energy and enthusiasm of an electorate shaped by the massive social movements of 1968, ended his presidency looking tired and out of place.

Mr. Macron is likely to face similar difficulties. His candidacy has generated huge excitement and he has captured a genuine desire for something new in French politics. But can a gifted technocrat and former Rothschild banker satisfy a dissatisfied electorate? And, when the sheen wears off, who will continue to support him in Parliament and in the streets?

If the widespread discontent after the financial crisis of 2008 is this generation’s equivalent of the protests of 1968, there is real cause for concern. After all, Mr. Macron’s friends in the French civil service have singularly failed to come up with adequate strategies to deal with France’s current economic problems. And his own rather consensual platitudes offer no real modification of the status quo.

So, yes, history suggests that Mr. Macron’s momentum can lead him to victory. But it also suggests that disillusionment will set in fast. With a whole raft of political enemies poised to take advantage of any slip-ups, it will be a difficult — and dangerous — balancing act.

Emile Chabal is a Chancellor’s Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh and the author of ‘A Divided Republic: Nation, State and Citizenship in Contemporary France’

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