Emmanuel Macron’s spectacular victory in the French presidential election on Sunday — despite the last-day hiccup due to the hacking of his mails — has become a talking point across the world for a variety of reasons.
First, Macron, at 39, is the youngest president in France’s history (in 1848, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis Bonaparte, was elected the first president under the Second Republic, at the age of 40). Macron is two years younger than the median age of the French population today, whereas successive French presidents, on average, have been 20 years older than the French median age.
The second talking point is that Macron is the first president who does not belong to either of the two established political parties — Socialist Party (PS) or Les Republicains (LR) — that have alternated at the helm ever since the Fifth Republic was established in France in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle.
Third, Macron has himself been a talking point in the past year — ever since he came to prominence in French politics — because of his spouse, much as Donald Trump was during the run-up to the American presidential election. Like Trump, Macron shares a 24-year age gap with his wife. The only difference is that Macron’s wife is the older spouse: It has been stated not erroneously that Trump is old enough to be his wife’s father and Macron is young enough to be his wife’s son.
But what makes Macron’s victory momentous is his anti-corruption crusade that has grabbed the eyeballs in a country afflicted with large-scale political corruption. De Gaulle was instrumental in investing immense powers in the office of the president (he described the president as embodying the spirit of the nation) with a grand vision to make France the leading light of the world. Unfortunately, successive French presidents, after de Gaulle resigned in 1969, have turned out to be puny men, either personally corrupt or surrounded by corrupt associates and most of them have gone unpunished by law.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was President of France from 1974 to 1981 had received multiple gifts of diamonds from the then notorious dictator of the Central African Republic, Jean Bedel Bokassa. It was illegal for him to keep it a secret. The scandal — that was revealed by the investigative French media — no doubt, adversely hit Giscard’s chances for a re-election bid (he lost to François Mitterand in the 1981 election), but went unpunished by the law.
Jacques Chirac was accused of embezzling large amounts of public funds when he served as Mayor of Paris, but went on to become President of France for two terms (1995-2007). When the law finally caught up with him, he was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011. Interestingly, Chirac did not attend the trial, claiming 'memory loss'.
Nicolas Sarkozy’s tenure as president (2007 to 2012) was strewn with corruption charges — that he and his aides received kickbacks from the sale of submarines to Pakistan, that he had received illegal gratification from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for ladling out special favours. Sarkozy also lost the re-election bid a la Giscard, but the law is yet to catch up with him. Outgoing President, François Hollande, has made news for a scandal of the sexual — as opposed to financial — nature, but many of his close associates have kept alive the tradition of political corruption in France.
A media report established that Hollande’s budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, had an undisclosed Swiss account that held €600,000 (roughly $660,000) and Hollande’s campaign treasurer Jean-Jacques Augier had invested in offshore businesses in Cayman Islands. Four more of Hollande’s ministers resigned on corruption charges in the past four years. No wonder then that Hollande ruled himself out of a re-election bid and the Socialist Party candidate was out of the reckoning in the current presidential poll right from the outset. Naturally, François Fillion, the former prime minister and the Les Republicains candidate, became the hot favourite to win the bid for the Elysee Palace when the presidential race began in earnest last year.
Fillion, in fact, emerged the front-runner in the opinion polls for several months before a corruption scandal was exposed by a weekly French newspaper in February this year. The paper reported that Fillion had employed his wife, and later his two children, as his parliamentary assistant for many years and had made clandestine payment of over a million euros of public funds as family payroll, whereas his wife had always prided herself as ‘just a mother’ in all her press interviews.
Within a month of this exposé, Fillion came under formal investigation for embezzlement of state funds and his front-runner status blew away; he was reduced to being an also-ran. With two established political party candidates out of the reckoning, there could have been the possibility of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen emerging as the front-runner. Le Pen is the high-decibel champion of the radical Right a la Trump in the US, and she fancied her chances with increasing support for protectionism and white nationalism across western capitalist nations.
But Le Pen also came under a shadow when the European Union’s fraud office charged her with using €300,000 (roughly $330,000) from the EU’s parliamentary budget to pay her party staff. While she is politically against the European Union, taking money from the EU and misusing the fund clearly did not go down well with a majority of the French electorate.
That brought Macron, with a financially impeccable track record, to the centre stage of French politics. It helped that Macron had never held any elected office. He was virtually unknown to the French electorate until three years ago when Hollande appointed him economy minister in 2014. Macron resigned from the position in 2016 with an ambitious goal of creating a centrist platform (En Marche!) that would occupy a middle ground between the Left socialists and Right republicans.
But what appealed to a large number of the French voters the most was the anti-corruption crusade of the new platform, disillusioned as they all were with the corrupt ways of the existing parties. Macron promised to put an end to every shade of corruption; he pledged to "end nepotism and conflict of interests". He said that there were some politicians who were relatively clean, but he emphasised that voters were insisting on more "morals" in politics. "I believe in zero tolerance towards corruption," he repeated in meeting after meeting.
This anti-corruption stance clearly earned him dizzying success. Barely three years after assuming an unelected political role and a year since launching a political platform, Macron has made it to the dream job as President of France.
In our country, there is a parallel to this French phenomenon in the Aam Aadmi Party, headed by Arvind Kejriwal who rode in on an anti-corruption wave to become the Chief Minister of Delhi twice, in quick succession, sweeping aside two established national parties — the Congress and BJP — which had a monopoly of power over Delhi since it was created in 1993. The people of Delhi, disillusioned with the corrupt ways of both the established national parties while in power, were bowled over by the agenda of moral politics that Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party presented before them and gave the debutant party and its leader an at first, tentative mandate in 2013, and later a more decisive mandate in 2015.
But, unfortunately, in less than a year’s time, Kejriwal and his team appeared to have forsaken the moral high ground and embraced the old ways of the 'normal politics': The charges of nepotism have begun to fly thick and fast. An inquiry committee charged the Kejriwal government with diversion of public fund for partisan activities. His ousted cabinet colleague Kapil Mishra’s allegation on 7 May about a Rs two crore kickback to Kejriwal, hit another low in the trajectory of the AAP. Overall, the halo of Kejriwal and his party as the protagonist of a new political culture lies in tatters today.
Will the same scenario be repeated in the case of Macron and his En March! as well? There is no reason to be outright cynical, but history tells us that it is better to stay vigilant.
Published Date: May 08, 2017 07:54 AM | Updated Date: May 08, 2017 07:56 AM