Journalist Rumyana Ugarchinska:
Macron has attracted 'caviar left' supporters
What scares voters most is Le Pen’s idea to have France leave the EU
5 May, 2017
Close-up: Rumyana Ugarchinska was born in Sofia in 1963. After spending the first nine years of her life in Bulgaria, she emigrated. Ugarchinska has a bachelor’s degree in French philology from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” and a master’s degree in communications and media from the Sorbonne. Ugarchinska, who lives in France, is a long-time journalist. She has authored several books, including some in Bulgarian and ran as an independent MP candidate in 2014. She is a rights activist for Bulgarians abroad. Her hobby is gardening although she has not much time for it.
- Ms Ugarchinska, were you surprised by the results in the first round of presidential elections in France?
- I cannot say I was surprised because the numbers were somewhat expected as polls have been showing them for two months. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy as analysts were telling us who will win and who is supposed to triumph at the end of it all. It also must be said that the media played a significant role in the first round to an extent that we have probably never seen in French elections before.
- What factors contributed to the lead of Emmanuel Macron, who lacks long experience in politics?
- I would say it is a combination of several factors that helped Macron build the lead he has. First, he refused to enter the primary elections of both the Socialist Party and their opponents to the right. True, he was with the Socialist Party before and served as minister of economy under socialist President Francois Hollande. But he resigned and the consensus opinion was that he would go on to do more. He refused to be part of the election game of the primaries as he knew he had no chance of winning. So he decided to form a movement instead of a party, which allowed him much more freedom to operate. As you know, the other candidates must conform with party dictates and take into consideration political allies and factions in their own parties, which robs them of the political freedom Macron has been enjoying. Second, he surrounded himself with excellent communications and political PR experts. They were masterful in creating a political marketing product, which is what he truly is. Macron’s team constantly had their finger on the public pulse, the pressing issues facing French society and for a whole year he was able to speak on whatever concern the public had at that time. So much so that at one point people started wondering: “OK, he has something to say on every topic but where is his programme?” Well, it certainly did not turn out to be among the strongest political programmes. But this marketing product was positioned very well thanks to the third instrument Macron wielded effectively - media groups and polling companies, whose owners decided to support him as candidate and give him a serious boost. They invariably showed him in his best light and then, when multiple allegations of misconduct hit his right-wing opponent Francois Fillon’s campaign, the discrediting circumstances were endlessly regurgitated by these media outlets. It is what cost Fillon the percentage point and a half that eliminated him from contention in the runoff. These are the factors that worked in favour of the 39-year-old Macron, who has never held an elected position or governed and whose only job in the public sector is his stint of two years and four months as minister of economy.
- On that note, he will face a veteran politician in Marine Le Pen on 7 May. With the exception of far-left candidate Melenchon, everyone has declared support for Macron in the runoff but will it be enough for a victory?
- In all likelihood yes. I think it will prove to be enough and not because everyone is convinced Macron is the right choice. Many of the people backing him have concerns about where he will take the country but they all urged the French to vote not so much for Macron as against Le Pen. This is the second time that France has had a far-right candidate in a presidential runoff. The first time it allowed Jacques Chirac, who had started to fade away in the political landscape, to register a landslide win. It is widely expected that to be the case again, even though many voters are skeptical about Macron’s abilities as a statesman. Many others reject the notion that he is a version of President Hollande, who, having failed to assert himself in one term, passed the baton to a new political creation like Macron. The people espousing right-wing ideas rejected President Hollande’s mandate and were left bitterly disappointed. They might decide to punish his heir and vote for Le Pen for lack of a better alternative.
- Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was the other far-right participant in a presidential runoff.
Things are markedly different from 2002. The fact is that Marine Le Pen refashioned the far-right party of the National Front, making it more moderate and acceptable. She refrained from racist comments, unlike her father, and created a more traditional right-wing party. What scares voters the most, and will probably prevent her from winning, is her idea to have France leave the EU and the Eurozone. It has really scared the French off.
- Is there any chance that the supporters of Melenchon, who was also for holding a referendum on Frexit, will vote for Le Pen in the second round, albeit reluctantly?
- It is possible and we have seen it in many local elections. For example, in the poor suburbs of Paris the National Front has ranked second after the communist party or the socialists. It shows that this anti-establishment electorate is inclined to swing from left to right. But more importantly, the programmes of Melenchon and Le Pen overlap significantly. There is also a rumour that a third of Fillon’s electorate has declared its intention to vote against Macron even though Fillon himself graciously accepted his defeat and urged his supporters to push back against the far-right and vote for Macron. It remains to be seen whether they will actually oblige.
- How much stock should we put in analysts predicting the end of traditional parties on both ends of the spectrum, and especially the socialists, because of their catastrophic showing in the first round of presidential elections?
- One thing is for sure, the Socialist Party is in decay. With only 6% of votes, it has clearly lost a huge chunk of its supporters to Macron. People joke that he has won over the so called “caviar leftists” - the more affluent and liberal segment of the party, which actually steers the country to the right. This is made evident by the showing of the socialist Benoit Hamon, who won the socialist primary over former premier Manuel Valls. So, the Socialist Party is the sick man of France and coming back from what happened to it will be a challenge. The Republicans, the traditional right in France, also has problems. And yet, despite the media onslaught of discrediting revelations its candidate suffered, he received a solid support of 17.5%, which is a decent showing. Expectations are that the Republicans will win majority of the seats in the general elections in June, which will force the new president to work with a premier from this party.
- This brings me to my final question. Do you think that the general elections this summer might tie the president’s hands, even though France is a presidential republic?
- Of course, this is the biggest problem that looms in front of the candidates advancing to the second round of presidential elections. They will not have the necessary majority in parliament to govern comfortably, knowing that the executive branch will implement their programme. As a result, those who voted for their platform will inevitably be disappointed as considerations regarding the parliamentary majority and its programme come into play. If the right-wing party prevails, it will be Fillon’s agenda. This would not be the first time such a thing has happened. France has seen several instances of a socialist president and a right-wing premier having to coexist. Perhaps the French were determined to show they want a change and to punish traditional parties. When it comes to government, however, given the way that general elections are structured in a plurality voting system, traditional parties are bound to be the prevailing presence in the next parliament. So, the French will have shown that they want change and simultaneously secured the familiar government formula once again.