Is the Maghreb too conservative to be swayed by the model of France’s Macron?

Sunday 28/05/2017
Soft power. Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche! (Onwards!) and then candidate for the 2017 French presidential election visits the Basilique Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers, last February. (Reuters)

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.