Leo Varadkar and Emmanueal Macron's recent ascents to power are two of the most interesting political stories of 2017 for many global media outlets. They have shattered the record books for becoming the youngest leaders of Ireland and France respectively. Their personal relationships have captured the imagination of the wider public. Varadkar is Ireland's first openly gay leader while Macron married his secondary level drama teacher, 24 years his senior. Their enthusiatic and frank style of speech has lead to much praise and publicity. They are both viewed as 'fresh' and 'dynamic' in their homelands.
Now that I have gotten the seemingly obligatory fawning out of the way I want to dig a little deeper and highlight that while both of these politicians may espouse a new departure in politcs they are a lot more traditional than the public has so far realised.
The domestic conditions for their success do vary slightly, given my patriotic bias, we'll start with Varadkar. The leading party in Ireland, Fine Gael, has been in power since 2011. Enda Kenny has been their party leader since 2007 and is currently Ireland's longest serving member of Parliament. A very poor performance in the 2016 election led to him being returned as Taoiseach only as the head of a minority government. A number of controversies involving the national police force made his position untenable and there were very few shocked when he announced his intention to step down in mid May. Within 48 hours Leo Varadkar launched his campaign with a very smooth website and the immediate backing of two thirds of the party's members of parliament. His only opponent Simon Coveney stood little chance enduring what can only be descibed as the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. Since his public announcement that he was gay in January 2015 in the lead up to the Marriage Equality referendum, every statement and public appearance has been carefully managed.
The sophistication of his campaign is definitely something he has in common with Macron, whose catchy (if completely meaningless) slogan En Marche! (Onwards!) seemingly captured the imagination of the French public. Or at least that is the narrative his campaign team pushed. In reality Macron emerged from one of the weakest pools of candidates ever put forward for a French Presidential election. The two traditional parties both offered flawed candidates. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, never really stood a chance after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Francois Hollande. Francois Fillon of the Republican party was an early favourite before his campaign was derailed by allegations of corruption. Meanwhile the FN party of Marine Le Pen is reviled by a majority of the French Public. At times in the second round run-off the sum of Emmanuel Macron's argument for election amounted fact that he was 'not Le Pen'. Immigration often took centre stage in the campaign and Macron used this to take public attention away from his very pro-business policies and intention to reduce the government footprint on French society. To me these policies are basicaly those of the Republican party under Nicolas Sarkozy, wrapped in a shiny new box.
They include cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corproate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. Furthermore, his intention to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all can be deemed a more conservative policy as it includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
Leo Varadkar has tried to limit his planned policies thus far as he was more intent on convincing the Fine Gael members to follow their elected parliamentarians. His manifesto for party leadership was titled 'Taking Ireland Forward' (another catchy but utterly meaningless slogan). His carefully managed facade has fallen on occasion and there were potentially ominous hints of what is to come when he said he wants to lead a party for 'people who get up early in the morning'. His manifesto has a distinct Thatcherite feel to it. In the past the Irish people have rejected governments who move too far to the right (including the decimation of the Progressive Democrats). A Fine Gael party who try and drive these policies through under the illusion of a 'new type pf politics' will suffer a similar fate.
I have undoubtedly taken a cynical view of both men and may in time be proven wrong (particularly as both men finally have time to act and not only use catchy soundbites). However until then it seems fitting to borrow a Gallic phrase to describe my views on the direction both men will take their countries ; 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose' . The rough translation for this is the more it changes, the more it stays the same...