Is the Maghreb too conservative to be swayed by the model of France’s Macron?
Tunis - The new political model emerging in France since the election of 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as president has not gone unnoticed in the Maghreb where societies tend to take cultural and political cues from their former colonial power.
They seem too conservative, however, to follow the new French model, despite the countries’ young people clearly yearning to break economic stagnation and rigid political and social hierarchies.
France is the main exporter of goods and ideas to the Maghreb despite the fierce and relatively new competition from the Middle East’s religious, cultural and political influences.
Macron, a former investment banker who had never held elected office, won presidential elections based on a pragmatic left-to-centre platform. The political consequences of his victory are still being felt as the previously ruling Socialists were left fighting for relevance and their rival right-wing Republicans are eager to become the main political force in parliament after the June elections.
Macron’s La République en Marche (Republic on the Move) party presented new faces as candidates for the parliament — men and women who are mostly newcomers on the political scene.
Macron’s ascendency to the French presidency spawned dreams and comparisons in the region’s elite salons and popular cafés in Casablanca, Algiers and Tunis.
However, unlike past French political waves that had been quickly embraced by Maghreb’s youth, from communism in the 1920s to May 1968 youth protests to the women’s rights movement, the Maghreb mindset appears politically too traditionalist to adopt the Macron model.
“Between Macron and Ould Abbes, the comparison goes beyond the issue of age. Macron moves on the right direction of history while, with the latter, history is frozen,” Algerian writer Abed Charef said about the new French leader and the long-time Algerian politician.
Djamel Ould Abbes, 83, led Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) campaign in the May 4 parliamentary elections. The FLN, which is led by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80, took the most seats in the legislative elections, described by opposition groups as a “vote hold-up” because of alleged wide-scale fraud.
Ould Abbes argued during the campaign that: “The FLN of Bouteflika will always win elections without staging campaigns. The FLN will remain the winner of polls for another century.”
“This freshness and youth of Macron reverberated with peculiar strength in a country like Algeria where stereotypes and conservatism run deep in contrast with a reality dominated by the yearnings of a population where more than half are 20 years old or less,” said Charef.
Algerian officials broke with tradition and openly backed Macron during the French presidential campaign, calling him “Algeria’s friend” based on the diplomatic calculus that Macron could give a new impetus to bilateral relations if elected.
From another perspective, though, the stunning emergence of Macron in French politics reminded many in Algeria that the bright pages of their country’s history had been written by young men.
“The six leaders who staged the liberation war against French colonial rule had an average age of 31 on November 1, 1954. The veteran among them was Mostefa Ben-Boulaïd, aged the same as Macron today,” said Charef.
“They were not only young. They had a new political project of innovation and freedom.”
In Morocco, the landscape outside the royal palace where reform-minded King Mohammed VI has put the country on a path to prosperity and development is not likely to follow the Macron example despite the huge interest in the country raised by his success.
“The resurgence of a new leadership from outside the current political structures is a very difficult and thorny exercise in Morocco because of the stifling conservative political environment making the formation of elites follow and obey to a rigid hierarchy,” said Rabat University political scientist Hassan Tareq.
“Macron created a new political movement in 12 months and succeeded in convincing the French with his new project because the French enjoy a particular political culture that is not strong in Morocco.”
“A phenomenon like Macron`s cannot be imagined happening in Morocco. Big families, business interests and conservative standards command tightly the process of elites here,” he added.
In Tunisia, which is widely recognised for its 2011 youthful uprising that toppled the authoritarian regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the comparison with the Macron model has highlighted the country’s deep conservatism.
“The renewal of politics in France had given birth to a radical transformation of political and ideological concepts. Meanwhile, Tunisia, a country that is rich with innovative youth, is basking in the most noxious forms of conservatism,” former Tunisian diplomat Farhat Othman said
The country’s young democratic experience has been to a large extent dwarfed by unemployment-related social unrest.
Dominant secular elites are also wondering whether the resurgence of Islamists in Tunisia since 2011 would harm the chances of transforming the country into a more modern and prosperous state, pushing it to another form of political conservatism.