After Brexit and Trump, it is unsurprising that liberals around the world are deflated, depressed, and in despair. The bad news never seems to end, and with important elections coming up in the Netherlands, France and Germany in the coming months things could potentially get a whole lot worse. There is however, a growing sense that voters in France are about to elect an unashamedly pro-European, centrist, internationalist, as their new President and reject the far-right populism that plagued both sides of the Atlantic in 2016.
Emmanuel Macron, 39, has never been elected to office, served briefly as the Economy Minister for France's deeply unpopular incumbent socialist government, and only formed his 'political movement' En Marche ! (Let's Go!) less than a year ago. Despite all these supposed drawbacks, according to opinion polls Macron is in second or third position, behind first round leader Marine Le Pen of the Front National. In the second round, polls show Macron would beat Le Pen by a wide margin. Macron is Europe's man of the moment, and his victory in May will give liberals something we are desperately in need of - hope.
As I joined the queue, that circled Westminster Hall twice, to get into Macron's much anticipated London rally on Tuesday, there was a buzz in the air. Never have I ever seen so many people queue to hear from a politician, let alone a political novice, which Macron is. For many his political inexperience is what makes him so endearing, particularly given the corrupt nature of the French political system. We needn't look any further, to find such an example of corruption, than another challenger for the Élysée, François Fillon, who is currently embroiled in a scandal known as 'Penelope-gate' involving his wife and children. When inside the hall it became clear to me the scale of Macron's appeal and the success of the movement that he had created - over 3500 people, including the former British Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, had turned up to hear him speak. There was a sense of optimism and excitement in the room as we waited for him to arrive, and in addition to the tricolour, signs adorned with France's motto of 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité', European Union flags filled the hall. Something that would never happen at a British political rally, ironically whilst ardent pro-Europeans gathered, the House of Lords, just a stone's throw away, was debating the governments Article 50 Bill, which if voted through will start the formal Brexit process. When Macron took centre stage, and began his remarks, it was easy to see, despite my limited French, why so many are attracted to this candidate. His rapid transformation from Rothschild investment banker to polished potential European statesman is spectacular, unseen before in French and European politics.
Macron's phenomenal, and frankly meteoric rise, is partly down to his own charisma and personality but is also a consequence of the failures of establishment politics in France and across the European Union. Something that the Brexit and Trump victories illustrate, is the deep-rooted anger in the West at how the 'establishment' has governed for decades. Macron freely declares himself as an outsider of the establishment, he chose to resign his post in the socialist government, his only political role to date, and has been equally critical of the French centre-right establishment party 'Les Républicains'. On his first trip to London as a potential candidate in September 2016, I heard him talk about the need to end the binary left, right divide that has defined how we do politics in Europe and the West and the desperate need for a new non-tribal centrism to take on populism and the far-right. That's what he is offering the electorate - and the size of his rallies, his position in the polls, and the level of abuse he is receiving from the establishment media, shows the French are going mad for Macron.
During his short visit to London this week, he was afforded a sit down in Downing Street with the Prime Minister and Chancellor Phillip Hammond, a clear indication of how seriously European leaders are taking him. With Brexit negotiations looming Theresa May is keen to reach out to EU leaders and potential leaders, who will decide her fate but more importantly our fate. Ever brazen Macron used the opportunity to tell the PM that, 'Brexit means Brexit', he wants France and Europe to take a hard-line approach during the Brexit negotiations and not "concede short-term concessions" to the UK. When speaking to the press after, he once again urged French expats in the UK to return home. He wants, 'banks, talents, researchers, academics', he made a similar plea a few weeks ago aimed at American researchers, entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists who no longer feel Trump's America will make tackling climate change a priority. Macron isn't afraid to use what has happened in America and the UK to benefit France. It is clear a Macron victory will make Brexit an even worse prospect for the UK - making the argument for a second public vote on the deal, currently espoused only by the Liberal Democrats, an even stronger one.
A fragmented, post-Brexit Europe, that is often described as having little vision and direction, needs a leader like Emmanuel Macron more than ever. The stale, tired, European institutions need someone willing to make the big reforms, that European leaders to date have been afraid to make. Rather than papering over the cracks, Macron's vision is about remaking Europe and making it work for the people that feel it has left them behind. Rather than running away from his pro-European views, Macron shamelessly declared in Westminster, "we need more Europe and we need a better Europe". His victory in May is the shakeup the EU needs, and as we deal with the fallout from the Brexit and Trump victories, I hope it will lead to a resurgence of liberal centrism around the world too, it is badly needed.
As I left Westminster Hall, with the chant, 'Macron, Présidente!' ringing in my ears, I proudly grasped my EU flag whilst walking past Parliament, and once again felt what I had felt before last year's setbacks - inspired by politics - inspired by the possibility politics brings, let's all keep our fingers crossed and hope he pulls this off - En Marché !