The English-Speaking, German-Loving, French Politician Europe Has Been Waiting for
Emmanuel Macron is promising hope and change — for the entire continent.
In some of his many previous lives, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron has been a philosophy student, an investment banker, and a minister of economy. It is not surprising, then, in his current life as an independent candidate for the French presidency, he does not always speak like other candidates. And it’s not only the substance of his language that stands out but also, sometimes, his choice of language. Last week, in a speech at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Macron spoke in impeccable English on the imperative of giving Europe a chance.
And of giving the future a chance: Macron’s speech offered a powerful and convincing case that he is the last great French hope for a European future based on a common market and a common morality, a single currency and a singular commitment to the continent’s core values.
Though his immediate audience was Humboldt’s faculty and students, Macron was in fact addressing a far wider audience. He was seeking to mobilize French as well as German youths, and — in a reference to the program that allows EU citizens to study in other member states — the non-Erasmus as well as the Erasmus generations. Based on the audience’s response to his speech, and his surging poll numbers in France, Macron — despite not having the support of an established party, or perhaps because he doesn’t — is no longer the dark horse but instead the white knight for a growing number of French voters. However, what this particular knight promises, beyond verve and vitality, is not yet clear.
Predictably, the National Front lambasted Macron’s choosing to speak English in Berlin. From the extreme far-right party, the tweets came fast and furious. Marine Le Pen, the party’s presidential candidate, announced: “The presidential candidate Macron is going to Berlin to speak at a conference in English.” With a distinctly Trumpian flourish, she lamented: “Pauvre France!” (“Poor France!”) Her second-in-command, Florian Philippot, was equally displeased: “It’s not only that he [Macron] disrespects our language, but he also doesn’t believe in France.”
Language matters, of course, in France — especially when the language is not French but English. Fears that the language of Molière and Pierre Corneille — and thus the place of France — would be swept away by English have long stalked the French. Moreover, Le Pen’s ire might have been compounded by her ignorance of English, even though this trait has long been, if not a qualification, then at least not an obstacle to the Élysée. (Most presidents of the Fifth Republic have had an adversarial relationship with English. Indeed, one thing the Socialist François Hollande and Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy had in common was a Clouseauian grasp of the language.)
At the start of his talk, Macron joked — in French — that since he has always believed the point of speech was to be understood, it made no sense to speak French at a European conference where English was the common tongue. He then segued seamlessly not only into English but into a worldview that would have been thoroughly familiar to the father of the European Union, fellow Frenchman Jean Monnet (whose English was fluent enough to coin the phrase attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt describing the United States as the “arsenal of democracy”). But this same view is now retreating under the pressure of nationalist parties across Europe, united in their distaste for both the United States of America and the United States of Europe.
Given the ascendancy in the polls of Le Pen and the candidate of the center-right Les Républicains, François Fillon, Macron’s approach might seem tantamount to political suicide. Both Le Pen and Fillon have run not just against immigration and refugees but also against Brussels and Monnet’s idea of Europe. Le Pen has, without respite, railed against immigrants in France, declaring, “Immigration is not an opportunity but instead a burden. We have neither the means, desire, nor energy to treat the unfortunate of the world with more generosity.”
Despite his Catholic faith, Fillon is equally unforgiving of those unfortunate enough to be born in failed states. When Fillon unveiled his immigration platform on Jan. 11, the newspaper Libération described it as a “bombshell.” Instead of focusing on Fillon’s plans to reduce or eliminate state aid to immigrants, the paper instead underscored his intention of introducing immigration quotas from non-EU states. Not only would this mark a rupture in French immigration policy since 1945, but it also marked a divorce with the French republican tradition that refuses to distinguish among races and religions. As the historian and legal scholar Patrick Weil warned when Sarkozy made a similar proposal in 2008, “If we adopt this law, France — the home of the rights of man — will be shunned by civilized nations.”
As for Europe, Fillon is still remembered for having voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, and although he now describes himself as European, he insists that France “remain sovereign in a Europe that respects nations.” Of course, if the EU didn’t exist, Le Pen would have had to create it, so useful has it been as a scapegoat in her political rise. (The EU does try to defend its own honor: While Le Pen has been demanding France’s withdrawal from the union, the EU has been demanding more than 300,000 euros it claims she took from Brussels’s bank account to pay her National Front staff.)
Finally, both Fillon and Le Pen have repeatedly played the national identity card. This month, Fillon caused a stir by presenting as presidential credentials that he is “Gaullist and Christian.” Rarely frequenting the church, Le Pen instead anchors her faith in the scripture of classic extreme right-wing (and anti-Semitic) thinkers like Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras. What unites these otherwise disparate discourses is that they leave precious little room for France’s 5 million Muslims.
Macron’s erstwhile colleagues in the Socialist Party have done little to set themselves apart from these claims. In particular, their leading candidate, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, has hammered away at a straight and narrow interpretation of republicanism. He called for the outlawing of the so-called “burkini,” an Islam-inspired full-body swimsuit, warning French Muslims to be more “discreet” in advertising their religious convictions. Valls has been equally unbending on the politics of immigration. During a visit to Germany last year, he slammed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees. Echoing his ostensible foe in Le Pen, he declared: “Europe cannot welcome any more refugees.”
Given the widespread appeal of anti-immigration and anti-European politics, Macron’s position becomes all the more striking. It reflects not only his political and moral convictions but a strategic conviction as well: The French and the Germans, he believes, can still be rallied to the European project. He first expressed this position when, in early January, he published an editorial in Le Monde. Addressing the terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, he announced: “We are all Berliners, we are all Europeans.” In crisp and compelling language, Macron argued for more and not less Europe. The answer was not to “expel refugees from the national community and build barricades between one another” — the solution for which nationalists on both sides of the Rhine clamored — but was instead to galvanize cooperation and compassion among Europeans. Whereas Le Pen and Valls see the refugees as a burden, Macron insisted they represented an “economic opportunity” for France and Europe.
Significantly, Macron repeatedly praised Merkel for maintaining, even in the face of terrorism, “our common values and preserving our common dignity by welcoming and lodging refugees in distress.” But Macron had not only come to praise Merkel on her refugee policy but to provoke her on her monetary policy. Describing the euro as little more than a “weak Deutsche mark,” he urged Germany to adopt a pro-growth and pro-investment strategy, all the while cutting slack to the EU’s struggling members. Should Berlin fail to do so, Macron warned, the euro “would be dismantled in 10 years’ time.” In a clever riff on the concept of sovereignty — which now has totemic significance for Europe’s nationalist right — Macron went on to argue that the euro will be saved only if Europe, and not its constituent members, acts like a truly sovereign body.
Not only has he challenged the Gaullist concept of national sovereignty, but Macron is also challenging the Gaullist concept of the state. Rather than maintaining the dirigiste model bequeathed by the concept’s namesake, Macron is an unapologetic liberal. Not surprisingly, the policies he enacted as economy minister remain radioactive among many on the left. The so-called “loi Macron” of 2015 bundled together a number of modest labor reforms, in particular allowing stores to remain open on Sundays, that sparked waves of union demonstrations and a schism within the Socialist Party. But Macron not only had the support of one important union, the CFDT, but also powerful old-guard Socialists like Gérard Collomb, the mayor of Lyon. Several other powerful figures on the left have since gravitated toward his candidacy, including the influential architect and intellectual Roland Castro and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former revolutionary of 1968 and current Green Party representative in the European Parliament. (Cohn-Bendit was, in fact, slouching prominently in the front row during Macron’s speech at Humboldt, right next to former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.)
Most telling, though, was the enthusiastic legion of students sitting in the auditorium’s mezzanine. Macron made a point of directly addressing them during his talk, just as the students made a point of repeatedly cheering both his economic and political stances. What we might call Macronomie 201 has a swelling enrollment in France as well. In contrast to the staid and sparse crowds at the rallies of his opponents, Macron’s campaign events consistently draw thousands of loud and enthusiastic supporters. Last week, fewer than 300 people attended a speech by Valls in Clermont-Ferrand — the same city where, a week earlier, Macron drew a standing-room-only crowd of 2,000, with another 500 turned away at the doors. Reflecting Macron’s burgeoning popularity, polls now credit him with 20 percent of the vote, placing him in third place behind Le Pen and Fillon. In a startling poll published last week by French pollster Ifop, Macron would defeat not only Le Pen with 65 percent of the vote, but also Fillon by 52 percent, in the second round of the election.
The obstacles faced by Macron, running without the support of a political party, remain imposing. But as the unflappable and understated political commentator Eric Dupin recently wrote, “something is happening” with Macron’s candidacy. There is, he wrote, a kind of “political crystallization” taking place around his candidacy, spurred by Macron’s promise to confront ideological shibboleths of the French left no less than the right. In a much-discussed column he wrote for the French edition of the Huffington Post, the crusty leftist Castro gave voice to this crystallization. Following their meeting last November in Paris, when Macron declared his candidacy to more than 10,000 supporters, Castro left deeply impressed. He was certain, he wrote, that Macron was not going to “occupy a centrist position but a central position. This is the proper place for a president of the Republic, one who is not the incarnation of a party but the president of all the French.”
As elections and referendums in 2016 remind us, stranger things have happened. But unlike the experiences in Great Britain and the United States, the stranger thing in France would be an immeasurably more hopeful thing, perhaps for all of Europe.
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