France Has Its Businessman on Horseback

A country desperate for a sense of renewal has chosen Emmanuel Macron, a leader restless in his pursuit of destiny.

French president-elect Emmanuel Macron waves at supporters before delivering a speech in front of the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7, 2017, after the second round of the French presidential election.
Emmanuel Macron was elected French president on May 7, 2017 in a resounding victory over far-right Front National (FN - National Front) rival after a deeply divisive campaign. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / THOMAS SAMSON        (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)
French president-elect Emmanuel Macron waves at supporters before delivering a speech in front of the Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7, 2017, after the second round of the French presidential election. Emmanuel Macron was elected French president on May 7, 2017 in a resounding victory over far-right Front National (FN - National Front) rival after a deeply divisive campaign. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / THOMAS SAMSON (Photo credit should read THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Emmanuel Macron is France’s next president. We must pause for a moment to consider just how extraordinary and unexpected an outcome this is. Never in its modern history has France chosen a leader as professedly dedicated as Macron is to what the Anglo-American world understands as liberalism — economic and political liberty reinforcing one another in a virtuous circle. The very word remains an anathema in French intellectual life. But of course the election does not matter for France alone: Macron trounced Marine Le Pen, his radically anti-liberal opponent, at a moment when illiberalism was on the march across the West. Macron’s elevation permits us to reconsider our worst nightmares.

At a minimum, Macron represents a triumph of what in France are known as “republican values” — the equal value of each individual, free and truthful speech, above all the idea of a just and impartial state. For many voters, Macron was simply the available instrument with which to express a resolute refusal to accept Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, fear-mongering Front National. This passionate support of principle, rather than the candidate himself, might have been best expressed by Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate who got only 6 percent of the vote in the first round. In an editorial in Le Monde, Hamon informed his supporters that, despite the fact that Macron had conducted a campaign “as dangerously maladroit as arrogant,” its principles meriting a through repudiation, he was nevertheless prepared to distinguish between “a political adversary” and “an enemy of the Republic,” and vote for the former.

So France has defended its national values in a way that the United States, in electing Donald Trump, failed to do. But has it also opened itself up to the reforms that Macron has championed? The hope, at the very least, is premature. There is very little evidence that French voters have become more enthusiastic about globalization or the EU or painful labor reforms than they have been over the last decade, when they filled the streets to block workplace laws proposed by both the Socialist president Francois Hollande and the conservative Republican Nicholas Sarkozy. Many commentators give Macron little chance of assembling a legislative majority in next month’s elections for the National Assembly without which he will have trouble governing. (See this able recitation of the conventional wisdom in Foreign Affairs: )

But this is the first day of spring training, and we should be looking for signs of hope, not futility. A poll released a few days before the election predicted that Macron’s self-created political movement En Marche! would take 249 to 286 of the 577 seats. Macron’s forces would essentially absorb the Socialist Party, whose representation would shrink to between 28 and 43. That would be an astonishing realignment, eliminating the institutional party of post-war France and the home of virtually its entire intellectual class, and substituting for it a party that did not exist until April 2016, when En Marche! was founded. If that happened, the feverish comparisons to Napoleon that I heard from one Macron insider might not be so very ridiculous.

The French are so deeply torn between fear of a globalized future in which they are quite sure they will lose, and the desperate hope to escape years of deadlock, that one can easily imagine either outcome. Laurent Bigorgne, head of the Montaigne Institute, a think tank in Paris, told me that Macron just might be the Moses who could lead France into the Promised Land of the 21st century. “Macron,” Bigorgne told me, at the iconic Cafe de Flore where French sources have been meeting journalists for generations, “is part of a very small club of French people able to cope with globalization, who can explain to the French how we can gain the benefits of globalization.” Bigorgne pointed me to a 2016 survey that found that 89 percent of respondents considered English fluency a critical attribute of an ideal president of France — a higher fraction than for any other qualification, including political or administrative experience. For a country so much worse than its neighbors at speaking foreign languages, this implies an almost painful yearning to swallow national pride and join a globalizing world.

You have to wonder how many secret Macronistes there are out there, wavering between fear and hope, between ideology and opportunity. The French distrust of capitalism is no myth. Mathieu Chaigne, a former pollster and the author of France En Face, a recently published book about French attitudes towards the state, said to me, “The French remain crypto-Marxists in their hearts. They’re convinced that if something is good for companies, it’s bad for workers. The win-win does not exist.” Chaigne pointed out that polling on the modest 2016 labor reform known as the loi Khomry found that 70 percent thought it favored corporations, and 15 percent thought it would boost employment. The groups did not overlap.

But they want an English-speaking president. And they voted for one. The French may stereotype themselves too much. Renaud Dutreil, the chairman of the luxury behemoth LVMH and a key Macron supporter, argues that French hostility towards the European Union, which Le Pen did everything she could to exploit, has very little to do with British-style Europhobia and a great deal to do with the dismayed sense that France has been evicted from its rightful place at the heart of the continent. “The dream,” he told me, “is to have Europe, but a French version of Europe. Germany is the accountant, taking care of the economy, and France is the leader for political and moral values.”

The idea that France doesn’t matter very much any more is intolerable to the French. And Macron says, “We can matter again.” What really is Napoleonic about Macron is his restlessness, his passion for movement, his sense of destiny — and the way he has wound France itself into his own ambitions. In his campaign book, bluntly titled Révolution, Macron writes, “For as long as I can remember, I always had this. … conviction that nothing is more precious than the free choice of your action, the pursuit of a project that you set out, the realization of your talent, whatever it is.” It was this calling, Macron writes, that made him enter politics, that made him “sensitive to the injustice of a society of rules, statutes, castes, of a social scorn where all conspire — to what result! — to prevent personal fulfillment.” He makes himself sound like Lucien Rubempré, Balzac’s provincial. Yet Macron has conquered from the word go. Despite a perfect record of individual success, he has managed to convert the fires of personal ambition into a political program to free his fellow men from the fetters of his caste-bound society.

Political leaders don’t attract followers prepared to march off a cliff by publishing a list of sound proposals (perhaps the one thing about politics that Bill Clinton never explained to Hillary). They need music; they need metaphor. Emmanuel Macron is, as everyone notes, a technocrat, a pragmatist, a difference-splitter. Yet he understood the imperative of metaphor deeply enough to place it well ahead of policy in his campaign. Macron’s metaphor was simple, and it was summarized in his party’s name: motion. You could hear it in every speech. Here, for example, is Macron before a vast crowd in Marseille last month: “It’s now been more than twenty years that that the right and the left, in a back and forth which has become a habit, have divided the affairs of the nation between them. …It’s twenty years of obstruction of the country.” By contrast, he cried, “What we’re working together to do is true renewal, at all levels. Renewal of faces, renewal of practices, renewal of thoughts.” Change, go, new: that was visceral Macronisme.

Macron did, in fact, have a program, though he held off delineating it until his metaphor had done its work among the multitudes who had always considered politics a waste of time, as well as among disgruntled supporters of the Socialists and the Republicans. It was a canny program, designed to subtly insinuate the win-win idea among voters to whom it was foreign. Can France afford to keep its 35-hour workweek when Asians were toiling six days a week? Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left La France Insoumise, defended the law as a sacred prerogative of the French worker; Francois Fillon, candidate of the Republicans, insisted that the French needed to work 39 hours, as they had in the past. Macron said: Everyone is wrong. Work rules, including hours, need to be determined in negotiations between firms and workers, as they are in much of the capitalist world, and not in negotiations between the state and the major unions. Such a system would offer employers flexibility without intrinsically disadvantaging workers.

Macron’s economic policy would not have looked out of place at a “Third Way” conference during the era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. He wants to invest 50 billion euros over five years in a new program of lifelong job training, on green technology, and on the modernization of health care, agriculture, public administration and infrastructure. He wants to reduce corporate and capital gains taxes as well as taxes on wealth and on housing, while promising possibly notional savings by slowing the growth of health insurance costs, reforming unemployment insurance, mildly shrinking the vast public sector and introducing digital technology to the state. He wants to pry some of the regulatory barnacles off the ship of state — for example, by making it cheaper and easier to get a driver’s license, which can take a year and cost 3,000 to 4,000 euros, preventing young people of modest means from taking a job far from a small-town home. (As finance minister, Macron broke the state’s transportation monopoly by allowing private companies to offer inter-city bus service.)

Listening to Macron and his supporters, you could almost believe that the new president has discovered a magical way to make an omelete without breaking any eggs. It is not so. In the first round of the elections, a majority of voters chose a candidate of the left or right who did not believe in free markets. Liberalism remains a dirty word in France. And so does the private sector. Bruno Cautrès, a scholar at the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po, pointed out that Macron’s plan to push labor decisions to the level of the firm would run headlong into a fundamental tenet of republicanism: “No one will accept that just because you live in a different place, you won’t have the same rights, and the same duties, as someone elsewhere.” What’s more, he added, “There’s a lack of trust in the good will of the patronat” — the bosses. “People don’t trust their workplace or their company, especially in the small firms.”

Macron has a plan to circumvent opposition, though for someone who touts the virtues of the grassroots, it’s not a very democratic one. Early in his tenure, during his first summer in office, he plans to ask the Assembly for the right to issue an ordinance voiding the 35-hour week and leaving the private sector to determine a range of labor conditions. This will provoke tremendous opposition and require a near-majority in the Assembly, but unions can not organize mass protests during the summer holiday, and Macron hopes that by the time of the rentrée, in early September, the new rules will have become irreversible. That’s a lot to count on.

Macron’s tenure will rise or fall on whether, as Cautrès puts it, he can “lift some blockage that people feel will never change,” above all youth unemployment, which now hovers around 25 percent and seems immune to all treatment. But the economy was only one of the twin poles of the campaign; the other was national identity. The 35 percent of French voters who went with Le Pen share a belief that national identity is under assault from immigrants, refugees, bureaucrats in Brussels and elites in Paris. Macron’s election will vindicate their fears every bit as much as Le Pen’s election would have confirmed the deepest anxieties of cosmopolitan liberals. Macron is their antitype — a banker, a product of France’s elite schools, a secular liberal, a globalist. There is no middle ground on these existential issues. And Macron has not pretended to occupy one. He was the most unapologetically pro-European of the eleven candidates in the first round, arguing that France needed to draw closer to Germany, and to help establish a new body inside the EU that would set policy and pool funds for nations in the Eurozone. In Révolution, he writes, “We have confused sovereignty and nationalism. I’ll say it: the true sovereigntists are the pro-Europeans.”

That “I’ll say it” is an implicit acknowledgment of how far out of step Macron is with his own citizens. He believes that if France starts playing by EU rules — for example, by reducing its deficit — it can resume its rightful position of leadership in Brussels, and thus push for needed European reforms and mollify French nationalists. It needs to be said, at the very least, that no one would take so brave and unlikely a position save out of genuine conviction. Macron is no calculating cynic; he has argued, convincingly, that Europe did a terrible job of preparing for the flood of refugees that began in the summer of 2015, but he has also said that France must accept its share of refugees and do everything necessary to integrate them in French society. He has refuted Le Pen’s insistent claim that France should lock up everyone on its list of terrorism suspects, known as Fiche S. And in the aftermath of the Christmas market attack in Berlin, he took to the pages of Le Monde to stoutly defend Germany’s open-door policy to refugees and to insist that “the solution lies in protection, not in closing ourselves off, in a stronger European cooperation and not in an ineffective national retort.”

When another terrorist attack strikes France, as it is bound to do, President Macron will have to combine outrage with admonitions that effective police and intelligence work will protect the nation more effectively than dragnets and emergency laws. He will have to hope that the French will not be scared out of their wits — that they cherish their lives too much to surrender them to fear. It’s worked so far, but barely.

It is hard to imagine that a 39-year-old man who has never held elective office, who has led a charmed life that has brought him wealth, station, and now power, can navigate through these rocks and lead his nation out of the whirlpool in which it has been spinning around and around for long years. Renewal, of course, is the work of the young, as both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama could attest. Macron lacks the seductive charm of the one and the twice-born irony of the other. He is a solemn and very sententious young man. Perhaps, however, this is what the French want from their leader. “He’s in the presidential mood, like De Gaulle,” says Laurent Bigorgne, the think tank director, who has known Macron since university days.

At times, when he writes about France, this young ex-banker does strike an almost Gaullist note. He seems to have been born old. “As a Frenchman,” he writes in Révolution,” “I think that our destiny lies in renewing the thread of that history which has seen us, for a thousand years, maintain an incomparable place in the community of nations. France is loved for the ranks she holds. … She is herself, strong and proud, when she holds that rank. She is always ready to do so. It is only a matter of reconstituting her forces. We are already there.”

Photo credit: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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