The unlikely front-runner to be France’s next president proves the problem with liberalism is the messenger, not the message.
- By Christopher GlazekChristopher Glazek is a writer in New York.
Whatever you think of France’s centrist establishment, you have to hand it to them: They took the threat of populism seriously. So seriously, in fact, that they dumped an incumbent president, created a totally fictitious party, and hitched their star to an unknown, telegenic 39-year-old whose defining biographical characteristic is that he married his high school French teacher. The idea was to give some revolutionary sheen to a centrist platform, and, barring some unforeseen catastrophe in Round 2, it seems to have worked. Emmanuel Macron, a globalist nobody, is well-positioned to become the next president of France, and perhaps even the next interim leader of the free world — at least until a new American president is sworn in.
Macron’s success raises the question of whether center-left regimes are foundering under the weight of an unpopular platform or simply unpopular leaders. Although crucial blocs of voters in many countries undoubtedly favor retreating from global institutions like NATO and the European Union, it’s not clear whether such views actually command a majority in any country, perhaps not even in the United Kingdom, where multiple surveys indicate that most voters, faced with a weakening pound, wish Brexit had failed.
In France, the doomed Socialist Party machine of President François Hollande and his former prime minister Manuel Valls, instead of clinging to vanity and suffering defeat at the hands of Marine Le Pen’s National Front brownshirts, concluded that fascism could be stopped in its tracks, but only through drastic action: dismantling the party system, committing suicide as a ruling class, and effectively endorsing a younger spokesman with a full head of hair.
The New York Times recently glossed Macron as someone with the “profile” of an “insider” but the “policies” of an “outsider.” The truth is closer to the opposite. Macron successfully branded himself as an outsider while boosting an agenda that differs little from his predecessor. Most impressively, Macron managed to co-opt the millenarian, apocalyptic rhetoric of his opponents on the extreme right and the extreme left. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s a man whose most fearsome opponent is a woman.) In his victory speech after the first round, Macron spoke of “changing the face” of France and smashing “the system that was incapable of dealing with the problems of our country for more than 30 years.” He told his supporters that they were “an image of renewal,” and he identified the main “challenge” for France as “turning the page of our political life.” While Macron adopted a platform that is incrementalist — loosening labor market restrictions, increasing public spending, strengthening the EU — he adopted a register that is revolutionary.
English-language publications typically translate En Marche!, the name of Macron’s centrist coalition, as “forward,” but “forward” fails to convey the name’s explosive, eschatological ring. “En Marche” means not simply “forward” — a slogan that, à la benighted Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s Jeb!, might suggest continuity with the old regime — but something closer to “turned on” or “on the march.” It’s not that Macron has fooled voters into thinking he’s a bomb-thrower — they know perfectly well that he’s pushing a neoliberal agenda. Macron might not sound totally believable when he calls for smashing the system, but change-hungry voters still appreciate the feeling of being targeted. Authenticity isn’t the only thing rewarded in politics; effort is rewarded, too.
Exactly how successful Macron’s gambit will be won’t become clear until after the parliamentary elections in June, when En Marche! will have its hands full trying to field a slate of electable candidates for an imaginary party. Macron’s most important objective, though, has already been accomplished. If polls are to be believed — and they are — fascism, Thatcherism, or Communard hologramism aren’t likely to come to the Elysée Palace.
It’s hard not to draw an unfavorable comparison between the center-left strategy in France and the center-left strategy in the United States, where leaders of the Democratic Party are mostly digging in, apparently unwilling to contemplate a hard reboot of personnel. Democratic Party regulars are fired up, but the party’s leaders, who remain unpopular, seem to be having difficulty capitalizing on that enthusiasm. Trump, by all accounts, has had a miserable first 100 days in office, with innumerable controversies and no major accomplishments. Nevertheless, some analysts say his approval ratings, in the low 40s, are consistent with narrow re-election. The Republican Party, which controls the entire federal government and most levers of power in the states, is deeply unpopular, but the Democratic Party, which controls nothing, is even less popular, according to some polls. The irony is that the Democratic Party’s platform on issues like health care, education, and immigration is as popular — and as progressive — as it’s ever been.
There are many reasons why Democrats had a poor showing in 2016, but an important reason is that they were represented by septuagenarian leaders who had been wounded, over a period of decades, by billions of dollars of negative advertising. Fair or unfair, those ads hit their mark. Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi remain historically unpopular figures.
Macron’s success suggests an obvious move. When leaders are unpopular, get new ones. For individuals, unpopularity can accumulate over time, but it isn’t transitive. After all, no Democratic politician in the United States (except possibly Anthony Weiner) is nearly as unpopular as Hollande. And yet Macron, whom Le Pen calls Hollande’s “baby,” and who served as Hollande’s economy minister, is well on his way to replacing his old boss. Just because voters have come to hate Pelosi doesn’t mean they’d hate Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Pelosi, in particular, has had a good run — her shepherding of Obamacare will go down as a historic accomplishment — but it’s time for her to resign.
Center-left globalism, however you judge its record at improving living standards for people in the developed world, is a coherent ideology with a reasonably popular message. It has had some political superstars associated with it — Barack Obama, Tony Blair — and some political duds — Hollande, Al Gore, Gordon Brown. Ironically, given globalists’ reputation for pragmatism, most globalist leaders who become unpopular are loath to take the pragmatic step of giving up office in the service of their ideology.
This is a mistake, particularly when confronting adversaries like the Kremlin or the GOP, which has focused its electoral strategies on the politics of personal destruction. Although America’s Republicans have won the popular vote in a presidential contest only once in the past 25 years, their performance has been extraordinary when you consider that they’ve never pursued an agenda that commanded anywhere near majority support. Democrats complain about dirty tricks and unfair attacks, but instead of constantly litigating the truth before the court of popular opinion, which turns out not to be a court at all, they’d do better to hand over the scalps of the leaders Republicans have maimed and cycle through to new people with thinner track records.
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