Euan McColm: French show there is room in the centre ground

Labour Party, take note: a moderate response to the rising right is more effective than a radical one, says Euan McColm.

Marine Le Pen is swiftly attempting to rebrand herself as an on-your-side woman of the people, says Euan McColm. Picture: Getty Images

As disguises go, it lacks imagination. Surely it will fool nobody?

Having made it through to the second round of the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen announced she was temporarily stepping aside as leader of the far right Front National party. This she was doing in order to unite France; the election was more important even than her own party.

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It would appear that, having considered the unlikelihood of victory while the candidate of choice for neo-nazis, Madame Le Pen is swiftly attempting to rebrand herself as an on-your-side woman of the people. All that extremist stuff? Mais non! Mme Le Pen is nothing to do with that lot now.

Unfortunately, no matter how she presents herself, now, the former leader of the FN has a lifetime of participation in the sort of extremist politics that does nothing but divide. She has, unwisely it would now appear, conducted her political life in full view of the French voting politics. They know who and what she is.

Just because Marine Le Pen has taken a break from leadership (what a Nigel Faragesque move) doesn’t mean she has ceased to embody everything the FN stands for.

Even in these times of the unthinkable becoming reality, it seems highly unlikely that Mme Le Pen will win the decisive second round of voting on 7 May.

Polling suggests that the 39-year-old centrist Emmanuel Macron will win by more than 20 points.

Monsieur Macron came through the first round ahead, with 24 per cent to Mme Le Pen’s 21.3 but, although more than three-quarters of French voters did not support him on Sunday, he stands to substantially increase his lead next month. In aftermath of the first round, the defeated centre right Republican candidate Francois Fillon and the Socialist Benoît Hamon both urged their supporters to vote for Mssr Macron.

Mssr Fillon told his supporters that the Front National had a history of violence and intolerance. It would, he said, bring only misery and division to France and his commitment to fighting extremism meant he would be voting for the centrist candidate.

This was a decent and statesmanlike response to defeat.

It would have been reassuring if the defeated “radical” left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon - France’s Jeremy Corbyn, if you will - could have found it within himself to have done the same.

Instead, Mssr Mélenchon displayed the abject moral cowardice we have come to expect from the modern left and refused to endorse Macron.

He didn’t only refuse to back the front-runner, though. More gravely, he refused to denounce the neo-fascist extremist challenger.

Like the unreconstructed Stalinists and jealous converts who surround Mr Corbyn, Mssr Mélenchon dare not make any concessions to his plan for a socialist revolution. If the price of that - and of reform of France’s relationship with the EU - is a fascist president then, perhaps, that is a price worth paying.

A friend suggested to me yesterday that, here in the UK, we’re paying more attention to the French presidential elections than ever before. My crumbling memory won’t let me agree with or dismiss that take but it is, I think, true that we understand these elections more clearly than we have previously.

The stakes in the French presidential election are ones we recognise.

This is a battle over identity, over where voters see themselves in relation to the rest of the world.

The wave of populism clattering over political establishments, sweeping away conventional wisdom, has redrawn the battle lines.

We recognise the battle of tribes in France because it so closely resembles the battle of tribes here.

Those - and I count myself among them - who believe that the best response to the intolerance promoted by Mme Le Pen and others on the new right should come from the centre should be heartened by Mssr Macron’s success.

Granted, the first round of the presidential election showed four of the five characters within touching distance of each other but the centrist - who formed the movement En Marche only a year ago - has shown that a confident, articulate and dynamic figure can make progress without resorting to petty nationalism or the demonising of minorities.

The failure of Mssr Mélenchon to publicly reject the prospect of a Le Pen presidency marks his “radical” vision as being as dangerous as the fascism he has previously been so vocal in condemning.

Mme Le Pen and Mssr Mélenchon represent two sides of the same coin. Their politics is heavy on bold claims and remarkably light on thought about the implications of policy. Neither holds dear a vision of a successful, diverse society. Only those who meet the criteria would gain entry to their respective Utopias.

Here in the UK, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has helped create the space for a Macron-like centrist. If he steps down as leader after Labour’s inevitable defeat in June’s general election, it may still be possible for that figure to emerge from the party’s ranks.

But if this does not happen, Mssr Macron shows that a new movement can gain momentum quickly. Centrists in the UK may have no choice but to form a new party.

Across the English channel, it is not the puffed-up, petty little men of the supposedly radical left who are on the brink of defeating a grotesque far-right project that thrives on the dehumanisation of others, it is the moderates of the centre ground.

It turns out that politics doesn’t have to be driven by hatred, even in these tumultuous times.