A Tale of Two Cities, Two Countries and Two Elections

“Fog in the channel; the continent cut off.” This is an apocryphal British headline, trotted out so often that it has become almost hackneyed in its usage to illustrate the difference (and implied pre-eminence) of the UK from the rest of Europe. Much ink has been spilt since the Brexit referendum discussing the various differences, but – given the unexpected alignment of the British and French electoral cycles – I wondered if it is possible to shed more light on the topic from a different angle, whilst being ‘a Brit abroad’ in Paris?

For example, both Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron are trying to paint themselves as relative outsiders, individuals who have deliberately not become embedded in the inner machinations of the political elites. Macron is doing this rather well, despite his ministerial and banking background. Remarkably, so is Theresa May. Partly due to her gender, partly due to her distinctiveness from her predecessor David Cameron. But principally due to her deliberate choice to throw the political playbook out of the window – not overtly courting the media, taking her time to make decisions and not feeling the need to announce a new policy every five minutes. The nature of a General Election campaign will test these tenets to their limits, as it will also for Macron, as he is forced to appear less of an outsider and more of an insider as a future President.

2016 was the year that populism saw electoral success through Trump and Brexit. Doomsayers cited Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and a fatally wounded Merkel as harbingers for an even more ground-breaking 2017. But, whereas the European Referendum vote in the UK appears to have lanced the populist boil, with Theresa May (the archetypal anti-populist) about to return to power with what all pundits believe will be a greatly increased majority, France continues to face the elephant in the room represented by the National Front. Even if, as expected, Macron defeats Le Pen, I get no sense that that would be that. Many argue that Le Pen is positioning herself for 2022, perhaps anticipating a scenario whereby the inexperienced Macron falls flat on his face and the European Union continues to stumble from crisis to crisis.

Moreover, there is perhaps also something of a similarity with the presumptuousness (which got found out in 2016 thanks to Brexit and Trump) surrounding the now widely expected victories of Macron and May.  Of course, if Jeremy Corbyn were to win, then the UK will have to become a nation of hat eaters, and similarly in France protests votes tend not to last into the second round. However, the frontrunners are having to invest substantial time in balancing playing the leader-in-waiting with insisting that “it’s all still to play for”. A lesson from 2016 perhaps, but far too many – in both politics and business – take positive results for granted and do not effectively manage expectations.

Finally, to return to the question at hand – London and Paris; Britain and France; May and Macron. The British vote to leave the EU felt cataclysmic at the time and continues to be the biggest of the potential black clouds over the UK’s future. But witnessing the political and cultural foundations of France being challenged in one of the world’s global cities, Paris, one gets the distinct feeling that there are more similarities than differences, fewer things to disagree on and more areas for cooperation – EU or no EU, May or Corbyn, Macron or Le Pen. However, such sentiment does not guide politics nor business, which are all about dividing lines and beggar-thy-neighbour policies. This may be a negative conclusion, but it is a fact of life regardless of who is in power or running for power, in Paris or London, the UK or France.

Written on the heels of my participation in APCO’s Myriam Ugeux-Gérault Fellowship.

About the fellowship:

The Myriam Ugeux-Gérault Fellowship was created in 2010 to honor the work and memory of our Paris colleague, Myriam Ugeux-Gérault. Myriam demonstrated a passion for corporate communications, social responsibility and innovative marketing while representing the essence of APCO’s mission and values.

One selected recipient receives the opportunity to attend a conference related to strategic communications, corporate social responsibility, innovation or digital communication, as well as one week in APCO’s Paris office to learn more and share best practices in such fields.