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Macron’s Victory

In 2004, a few days before that year’s local elections, I was canvassing outside Lansdowne Road as fans streamed in to see Ireland play Nigeria in a soccer international. As people got out of the northbound DART, it was a safe bet that they had come from the Dun Laoghaire constituency so myself and Lorcan Mooney, a candidate in Blackrock, lay in wait to hand out his leaflets.

A French guy came up to me and asked me what I was doing. I said I was a Member of Parliament and was helping a friend who was running in the Council elections.

He expressed surprise that a national politician would risk exposing himself to public anger and speculated that if this were France I would be strung up on that gate, pointing to the imposing metal barriers outside Ireland’s home ground.

Whereas in other parts of the world, you have to pay for political access, I would say that some Irish people would pay politicians to stay out of their lives.

But the episode made me wonder why canvassing in a public place would expose politicians to the risk of assassination in France. I had never felt any vulnerability before or since if I exclude threats of a canine nature.

I was thinking about this again following last week’s election of Emmanuel Macron to a second term as President of France.

France likes to protest. It’s a national pastime. It has often been said that France likes a monarch so that it can behead him (or her). That Macron avoided the chop is a great achievement. And a massive relief to the rest of Europe.

It is a stereotype that the French love to protest. Some trace it back at least to the French revolution through the Paris commune of 1871 and the legend of the great French resistance. But there will certainly be a greater propensity to take to the streets if you feel detached from the political system.

For the Irish audience it is astonishing that 42% of the French people can vote for a right wing pro-Putin, pro-Trump populist politician. The number voting for Le Pen (and her father before her) has been growing at each election since 2010. It can’t be dismissed as a protest vote.

In January 2019, Macron launched a Grand Debate across France. There were 10,000 local meetings and thousands of online contributions. Despite the implementation of many recommendations, turnout in the second round of the Presidential vote last weekend was the second highest in 60 years.

Election systems drive party systems. In France the two leading parties are almost completely new. Macron’s party was less than a year old when he swept to power in 2017.

The parties of Chirac and Mitterand have become an irrelevance.

An unstable party system suggests therefore something flawed about the electoral system. The one part of the French system notably different from our own is that Ministers can be appointed without being members of Parliament.

This can breed complacency on the part of politicians and contempt on the part of voters.

It’s even worse in European Parliament elections in France. In that case, there is a single constituency for the entire country so that the party nomination isn’t just the main thing; it’s the only thing.

Canvassing at a local level is a complete waste of time. Ministers and MEPs don’t have to spend any time in their constituencies. Is this why French people would string up their politicians?

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