Is Emmanuel Macron pandering to the far right?

The French president faces a tough balancing act, pressured to appeal to the right, but not so far as to abandon the left.

Unemployment is expected to be one of Macron's biggest challenges in the run up to the 2022 vote [File: Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP]

Paris, France – With his eyes on a second mandate and fierce challenge from far-right opposition leader Marine Le Pen, French President Emmanuel Macron’s desire to appeal to conservative voters may not come as a surprise.

But many say his recent rightward shift will not bring him any closer to pinching support from Le Pen’s stronghold base.

“What [Macron] is doing now is just preparing for the major success of Marine Le Pen,” Alexis Poulin, a political commentator, told Al Jazeera.

“[Far-right voters] clearly want to stick to the original and in Macron, they only see a fake president trying to act like he’s understanding.”

But the motivation behind Macron’s recent actions is more complicated than that.

The next presidential vote

With the next presidential elections 18 months away, France’s mainstream left and right parties have yet to present any viable candidates, leaving Le Pen in line for a 2017 repeat when she made it to the second-round runoff.

While Le Pen ultimately lost the vote to Macron with 35 to his 65 percent, there are growing fears within the president’s party that this could change in 2022.

Record unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus is expected to be one of Macron’s biggest challenges, and he continues to struggle to shake off his image as an ex-banker elitist out of touch with the everyday struggles of the country’s working class.

This leaves Macron faced with a difficult balancing act, under pressure to appeal to the country’s right, but not so far as to abandon the left.

Nevertheless, a series of controversial actions from the self-described centrist have puzzled voters on both sides of the political aisle.

Two forthcoming laws, in particular, have left many suspecting that Macron is pandering to the far right.

One proposal, known as the Global Security Bill, has already passed through the lower house of parliament.

Critics are up in arms about one clause in particular, which would restrict people from filming the police in a way that threatens their physical or mental integrity; violators would risk a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine and one year in prison.

The second bill, which will be debated in Parliament next month, is part of a wider crackdown on “extremism” and what Macron has called “Islamist separatism”.

Among other things, the law would monitor international funding coming to mosques, limit homeschooling and create a special certificate programme for French imams.

Attack on freedoms

Earlier this month, 33 influential personalities who voted for Macron in 2017 signed an open letter in the French investigative website Mediapart decrying both proposals for “rolling back the freedoms of information, opinion, belief, education, association, demonstration and protest”.

“To allow this attack on our freedoms and rights is to install what the neo-fascist extreme right dreams of: an authoritarian state where the rule of law becomes a police state,” the letter read.

The country’s far right, on the other hand, has overwhelmingly supported both bills, with some calling for even stricter measures.

“We do not treat the causes. We know very well that mass immigration leads to community withdrawal,” National Rally spokesperson Sebastien Chenu told French radio France Info when asked about the “separatism” proposal.

“Timid advances will not meet the immense challenge. France is no longer confronted with a simple ‘separatism’, but with a communitarianism of conquest,” Nationally Rally Vice President Jordan Banealla said of the proposal earlier this year.

In the wake of two gruesome attacks, including the beheading of a school teacher near Paris followed by three fatal stabbings at a church in the southern city of Nice, public support for a law that claims to curb “extremism” remains high.

But in order to truly capture the far-right vote, Macron would need to take an even more hardline stance on immigration.

Something he is not willing to do, says Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist specialising in the far right.

“He will never be able to serve this kind of stuff to his centre-left wing supporters,” Camus told Al Jazeera.

Because of his position as a centrist, Camus says Macron cannot succeed in capturing votes from the far right or far left.

“There are too many big differences and so many topics they do not agree on, especially when it comes to globalisation, the European Union and immigration policy.”

Camus says Macron’s latest moves should rather be taken as an appeal to more traditional French conservatives.

But even some deputies from the traditional right have shown restraint.

Four members of Les Republicains (LR) abstained from Tuesday’s vote on the Global Security Bill, after police were filmed using excessive force while dismantling a protest refugee camp set up on the Place de la République in central Paris.

Widespread public fury over the law increased days later, when surveillance footage caught three police officers brutally beating a Black music producer as he was entering his Paris studio.

The victim, Michel Zecler, later said he also endured a series of racial slurs from the officers.

In a Facebook post, Macron said the footage brought “shame upon us”, adding he was calling on the government to form proposals that “reaffirm the link that must naturally exist between the French people and those who protect them”.

Meanwhile, thousands turned up across the country over the weekend to protest the bill.

In Paris, demonstrators were sprayed with tear gas after launching fireworks at the police.

Le Pen, meanwhile, voted in favour of the law in Tuesday’s National Assembly vote, as she called for this “protection” to be extended to military forces.

Macron is not Le Pen

Given the widespread backlash, analysts suspect it is unlikely the text of that bill will remain in its current form.

But the influence of the far right in both the security and “separatism” proposals cannot be underestimated.

“[Macron] is creating policies Le Pen would never even dream of,” Poulin told Al Jazeera.

But for all his so-called pandering, Macron is not Le Pen. And that may very well be his saving grace in the next presidential election, according to Camus.

“You have to keep in mind that many people in this country will vote for the man who can just stop Marine Le Pen from winning the presidency,” Camus said.

If voters can rely on Macron for anything, it may be just that.

Source: Al Jazeera