Tale of two cities: it’s sunny in France, but cloudy in UK
French President Emmanuel Macron's election win sent positive messages, while British Prime Minister Theresa May's ballot box hiccup weakened her mandate
It’s a tale of two contrasting cities. In London on Friday, Theresa May was, without real mandate, re-elected as Prime Minister. In Paris just over a month ago Emmanuel Macron was, on the back of a huge majority, inaugurated as the youngest ever President of France.
This handsome and enigmatic 39-year-old is very much a political maverick and an unconventional outsider despite hailing from deep inside the French establishment.
He has worked for both the French treasury and an elite Parisian investment bank, but he also married his drama teacher – so goes the tale, he first kissed her when he was 15 and she, still his teacher, was 40 – before rapidly scaling any ladder, be it academic, civil, corporate or political, that he chose to climb.
In April 2016 he formed his own party, the centrist, pro-European En Marche! and used it to deliver a business-friendly vision of European integration. And just over a year later, he was inaugurated as President.
Before his election, many were predicting the break up of consensus politics in France and this fear amplified when both far left and far right candidates – Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine” Le Pen, respectively – saw surges late in the campaign.
But Macron romped safely home and since taking office he has been hailed as the “Anti Trump” savior of Europe and the man who can make France an economically and geopolitically resurgent challenger to Germany, the EU’s de facto leader.
Macron became greatly admired on the world stage when he first took on Donald Trump over the American’s childishly daft macho-man “battle handshake” habit – and won – and then scolded the US President for pulling Washington out of the Paris climate agreement by twisting Trump’s own words against him. When Macron said “Let’s make our planet great again” his position as a smart, significant and respected world player was assured. And he has been in office for less than 40 days.
Compare this Parisian fairy tale to the nightmare that is currently playing out in London.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, like Macron, worked in finance before politics, but that’s where the comparisons end. After 20 years, first with the UK’s central bank, the Bank of England, and then in financial compliance, and after working as a part-time local government councillor since 1986, May entered full time politics in 1997.
She has, in the 20 years since, worked her way steadily up the party hierarchy and built a reputation as an ambitious, authoritarian yet cautious politician.
When David Cameron resigned in July 2016, following the UK’s Brexit vote, 60-year-old May was the sole candidate to stand to replace him as leader of the Conservative Party and thus became only the second female British Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher. And she was popular.
Her appeal, said Janan Ganesh writing in the Financial Times, was because she knew she spoke to, and probably for, a very English type of person who was: “middle-class, suburban-to-provincial, plain in taste, respectably right-wing, unnerved but not unhinged by modernity.”
Things changed in the weeks after she chose to hold a surprise “snap election” in April 2017 .
“Since I became prime minister,” she explained when she announced the election, “I’ve said there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and security for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions we must take. ”
The election was, said May, about Brexit and getting the “best deal for Britain.” Her main opposition was the left of centre leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely perceived to lack leadership and to promote policies that were too socialist, old-fashioned and unpopular. It was commonly thought she would win comfortably and increase her majority in the process.
But something odd happened. The Prime Minister ran a presidential campaign that focused less on policy or the nation’s economy, and more on her personality and her ability to negotiate in the upcoming Brexit talks.
At first she wouldn’t join the other political party leaders in debates and then, as the weeks ticked by, she wouldn’t give press interviews. And, as she faced increased criticisms, doubts and heckles, Theresa May in front of a nation watching live, seemed to just, well, wilt.
This hard-nosed career politician woman that had ran on a promise of “strong and stable” leadership turned, as gleeful critics pointed out, into someone who was “weak and wobbly.”
Conversely, Corbyn was perceived to be increasingly running a campaign that was key-issue driven and his somewhat self-effacing and low-key persona – in absolute contrast to May’s – started gaining wide appeal with his many packed public appearances around the country taking on the feel of, in part, an evangelical experience and, in part, a rock festival.
Crucially his team made smart use of social media and he managed to motivate youth to vote like never before. And they voted for him.
Labour went on to add 29 parliamentary constituency seats to its total, while the Conservatives dropped 12. May’s government now held 318 out of a total of 650 seats, considerably more than Labour’s 261, but, crucially, not enough to form a majority government.
With no majority mandate to govern, she been forced to form a coalition of sorts with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
Historically hardline and born out of the bitter sectarian “troubles” that plagued Northern Ireland for much of the 20th century, the DUP in recent years has been keen to reinvent itself as modern political force and will be keen – and flattered – with the key role it is about to play in mainstream UK politics.
It has some very different views to the Conservative Party. On Brexit, largely because of the land border it has with the Republic of Ireland that has been “open” for decades, it wants the UK to remain in the common trade area.
But also it has strong anti-same sex marriage and anti-abortion standpoints. This liaison, that gives May a very slender majority in the UK’s ruling Houses of Parliament, is in political terms a long way from a dream domestic partnership.
On the global stage things will be even tougher again. Britain’s EU departure talks are scheduled to start in weeks, but already key figures in Brussels are questioning if May will have the clear mandate to negotiate on behalf of the UK. Globally, it could be even worse.
On Friday, the sterling was not surprisingly hammered by the dollar. Trade wise, so much hope has been put in the UK’s supposed “golden relationship” with Beijing, so publicly brokered by May’s predecessor, Cameron. This supposedly is bringing US$40 billion worth of deals into the UK from China.
Being notoriously astute at avoiding making comment on any other country’s domestic issues, on Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it had “noted” the outcome of the election, but she would not comment directly, saying it was an internal affair.
“But what I want to stress is that China will, as before, pay attention to the development of Sino-British ties,” she told a daily news briefing. “We are willing to work with Britain to promote even greater developments in relations.”
Privately though, China will be horrified at the mess that is English democratic rule.
It was only a few weeks ago that Chinese President Xi Jinxing was congratulating Macron for winning France’s presidential election by saying China was hoping to further ties between the two.
According to China state broadcaster Xinhua, Xi said China was keen to work with France to push the “close and comprehensive Sino-French strategic partnership to a higher level.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has his own parliamentary elections later in June and polls show him all set to win an absolute majority in parliament in this month’s legislative elections.
Both Macron and May have had similar challenges to tackle. Austerity, immigration, European partnerships and the combating of economic slowdowns are problems in both Paris and London.
The difference right now is more leadership than policy. And China doesn’t seem to really mind what the brand of politics are from a particular partner country. But it most certainly does like to deal with a strong leader.
In today’s Paris they have that. In London, they do not.