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How Will French Workers Vote?

As a leftist presidential candidate surges in the polls with a hard line on combating inequality, the man once considered a strong frontrunner is struggling to win support beyond elites.

When he was still the minister for the economy in May 2016, Emmanuel Macron visited Lunel in the south of France. The country was in the grip of a widespread social movement at the time, hotly debating the government’s new labor law. Questioned by two opponents of the bill, he called out somewhat scornfully to one of them, dressed in a T-shirt: “You’re not going to scare me with your T-shirt. The best way to afford a suit is to work.”

“But I dream of working, Mr. Macron,” the young man replied.

That incident seems a long time ago now. Since that summer, Macron has left the government. He has founded a new political party, En marche!, in order to stand for the presidential elections. Although the race is tightening, most polls indicate he is likely to get through to the May 7 second round with Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate. His score hovers around 24 percent.

On closer inspection of his core supporters, however, it seems he does not appeal to all social groups. According to a survey published by the Elabe Institute on April 11, Macron mainly attracts senior managers and the intellectual professions (33 percent of voting intentions). Amongst workers, this score drops to 17 percent. The hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Le Pen in particular, are far ahead of him, with 21 percent and 46 percent of workers’ support respectively.

For several years, the far-right has been winning over the working class. This is partly due to a defiance of the political class. Fabien (Editor’s Note: first names have been changed in this article), who is 31, will vote for the Le Pen, the National Front candidate in the first round of the election on April 23. This site manager in Auvergne feels “betrayed by the politicians. They are out of touch with our lives.”

Macron understands this well. He is therefore trying to chart a course outside that of the traditional parties and claims he is “neither right nor left.” Macron also has the advantage of being young. At 39 years old, he stands out from other politicians in a country where the average age of parliamentarians is 55 in the National Assembly and 66 in the Senate.

Macron is purely a product of the system and the elites that a growing number of the French seem to be rejecting.

Together with his partner, he is often on the cover of both gossip and news magazines, which never fail to praise him with words such as “modern,” “renewal,” “iconoclast,” creating the image of a candidate who is “outside the system.”

According to political scientist Thomas Guénolé, Macron has benefited from “massive media hype.”

Benoît, a job seeker from Nancy, was won over by the “outside the system” argument and by Macron’s tactic of reaching outwards. “He surrounds himself with business leaders, citizens. It’s time to turn our backs on professional politicians.”

Yet Emmanuel Macron is purely a product of the system and the elites that a growing number of the French seem to be rejecting. At the age of 25 he went to the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the most prestigious educational institution in the country. Three of the last six French presidents, as well as seven former prime ministers, attended the school.

After qualifying, Macron moved into the highest levels of state administration, first joining the General Finance Inspectorate. Under former President Sarkozy he was appointed as deputy rapporteur for the Attali Commission, a liberal report that was supposed to relaunch economic growth. He then benefited from the revolving doors system, joining the investment bank Rothschild in 2008, where he made a fortune, notably by organizing Nestlé’s purchase of the food subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, a deal valued at €9 billion (US$9.55 billion).

When François Hollande was elected in 2012, Macron rallied to the new president’s side as deputy secretary general of the Élysée. He was behind the Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi (Competitiveness and Employment Tax Credit – CICE), a no-strings tax credit offered to enterprises that costs France €20 billion (US$21.2 billion) every year. He was then appointed Minister for the Economy in 2014, when still unknown to the wider public, at the age of 36.

His name is still associated with a law passed in 2015 which covers, inter alia, permission to work on a Sunday, the liberalization of coach transport and the lessening of an enterprise’s responsibility in the event of collective dismissals.

Some see the hand of the existing system behind this new strongman of French politics. “His supporters, Jacques Attali first and foremost, are people who have been running the country for years. Macron is a rescue operation, he’s their liberal Trojan horse,” says Eric Beynel, spokesperson for the trade union group Union syndicale Solidaires, in an interview with Equal Times.

France’s major trade unions have refused to give their view. The CGT, notably, says it “does not wish to comment on the candidates’ proposals. What is important at this time is to get ideas across.”

Macron would abolish the wealth tax for shareholders.

Macron’s program is indeed free market-oriented. The wealth tax will be abolished for shareholders, for example. Other measures are designed to favor greater flexibility on the labor market.

“When he was minister, he sang the praises of self-employment, notably through Uber,” says the trade unionist. “But now that extends to everything. You can find a masseur or a driving school monitor through an app. But that is not entrepreneurial, it is a false employment contract, with no social protection. These enterprises do not pay any social contributions, yet they live off the work of others.”

In echoes of the T-shirt incident, Emmanuel Macron has appeared several times to be disrespectful towards workers. He plans for example to rename the ’compte pénibilité’ (hardship account – a measure enabling workers employed in arduous tasks to take early retirement) because “it infers that work is painful.”

If he is elected, young people will have to work more than 35 hours a week. “When we were young 35 hours was not much,” he stated, during an interview last November.

But above all Emmanuel Macron’s program remains vague. He has been responsible for numerous U-turns during the campaign, defending several policies, then saying the opposite.

“There is very little of substance. But he has put a very personal stamp on the way he has changed the political discourse. He has turned politics into a form of product marketing,” says Beynel.

Forty seven-year-old Suzanne is a top executive in a big company listed on the stock market index CAC 40. She belongs to Macron’s target electorate. Yet she does not trust the En marche! leader.

“I have the impression it is all just hot air. I don’t believe in him,” she tells Equal Times. Disappointed in her choice of Hollande in 2012, this time she is going to vote for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has been rising quickly in the polls to within striking distance of Marcon and Le Pen.

For others, a vote for Macron will be a vote against, and in fear of, the National Front. One such voter is Sylvain, who works in a supermarket. “The National Front frightens me. At the moment, Macron is the best placed to beat Le Pen. I think I will vote for him but I don’t share his views.”

Translated from French and originally published by Equal Times.

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