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Macron Has Changed France’s Political DNA

One year after his election, it's clear Emmanuel Macron isn't just a president — he's a liberal man of providence.

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Felix Eboue Airport of Cayenne, in French Guiana, on October 26, 2017. (RONAN LIETAR/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron at the Felix Eboue Airport of Cayenne, in French Guiana, on October 26, 2017. (RONAN LIETAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The French are not a constitutionally enthusiastic people. “Surtout, pas trop de zèle,” the diplomat Talleyrand famously advised — above all, moderate your zeal. Just over a year after the French elected Emmanuel Macron president in a rare bright spot for Western democracy, they have found innumerable reasons to think ill of him: He doesn’t care about the ordinary citizen, his policies favor the rich, he trifles with the norms of democratic consultation.

Yet you can’t spend time with the novice legislators of Macron’s La République En Marche! party, as I just have, without catching the contagion of hopefulness. These mostly young and technocratic supporters of a young, technocratic president have come of age but retained their fervent optimism about the liberalized future Macron promised in the 2017 campaign. They really believe that, say, better vocational training will deliver France from economic stalemate. “In two or three years,” Gaël Le Bohec, a 40-year-old En Marche! legislator from Brittany, boldly predicted, “the French will be able to choose their own professional training and use that to help find a job. People will see that France is back.”

That is not the story you have likely been reading in the newspapers, either French or American. The French are said to be taking to the streets en masse to protest Macron’s planned reforms of the railroad system, universities, and labor laws. And they have been taking to the streets — the manif is the French national sport. But the demonstrations have been unimpressive by historical standards. A protest late last month meant to attract all left forces managed to bring only 31,000 people into the streets in Paris, according to the most likely accurate estimate. The protests have not been disruptive enough to prevent Macron from ramming through a controversial revision of French labor laws. He is now preparing a second stage, involving unemployment insurance, the reorganization of apprenticeships, and the reforms of vocational training to which Le Bohec referred.

What’s more, recent polls show that three-quarters of the French support his plan to end the special treatment that has allowed railway workers to retire in their early 50s, and to prepare the SNCF, the national train system, to compete against private firms, as is the case elsewhere in Europe. Macron is on the verge of winning this battle: The Senate has just approved his reform program, and it could be finalized as soon as next week.

It is true that the French in general — as opposed to the faithful and eager legislators of En Marche! — have kept their zeal under wraps. In one recent poll that asked respondents to rate their satisfaction with France’s president on a scale of zero to three, 52 percent chose zero; another 16 percent chose one. In another survey, 24 percent described themselves as optimistic about their own future, and 43 percent as pessimistic. Macron’s favorability ratings hover in the low 40s.

But those numbers still put him ahead of his two immediate predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Holland, at the same stage. Both failed to make serious headway against the French syndrome of high unemployment and modest growth, themselves the symptoms of a rigid labor market and government spending exorbitant even by European standards. (Unemployment has hovered around 10 percent in recent years, with youth unemployment above 20 percent; of the country’s GDP, about 56 percent is devoted to public spending.)

Macron’s poll numbers are also better or no worse than those of U.S. Presdient Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister Theresa May, to name some of the major Western leaders still standing. Western publics are so disgusted with politics that Sarkozy bitterly claimed in a recent speech that “modern democracy destroys leadership.” What Macron is demonstrating so far is that a democratic leader can, in fact, lead even in the face of a surly public. One very important cause of the crisis now besetting liberal democracy is the failure of major democratic governments to deliver the sense of possibility for which voters clamor. Macron just might help revalorize democracy by showing that it can deliver the goods.

Macron enjoys an advantage that few Western leaders now have: a powerful, unified parliamentary majority. The legislative elections held after the presidential election gave his En Marche! party 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. His caucus constitutes a kind of giant troop of loyal, eager, obedient Boy and Girl Scouts.

The ones I talked to identify deeply with their leader. Most seem to have viewed politics as a self-enclosed profession best avoided as one pursued a “normal” life in the private sector. Dominique David, 55, who ran a public relations firm as well as a company providing vocational training to people with disabilities in Bordeaux, said that she had convinced herself that traditional party politics could not change France. She had voted for Sarkozy, whom she saw as an “homme providentiel” — a man of providence — but then watched one reform after another disappear in the face of the usual French resistance. She explained her frustration with the kind of down-home metaphor that must have charmed voters in 2017. “I have four children,” she said, “and when you decide to put them to bed you say, ‘Goodnight, hugs,’ and that’s it. If you put them to bed and then you come if they cry, they’ll never go to sleep.”

In the course of an hourlong conversation, David never mentioned social issues, foreign affairs, or burning moral questions. She talked about budgets and taxes and market reform. She described Macron’s plans to connect apprenticeships to jobs as a “Copernican revolution.” She had tried to create an apprenticeship program in Bordeaux but had been shot down by local government officials. Macron, she said, “is motivated by the idea of doing.” When he puts the kids to bed, they’ll stay there.

That is not, to be sure, a particularly democratic metaphor. Macron has a penchant for what the French call “verticalité” — top-down governing. He has been accused, fairly, of treating his caucus as a sort of opera claque, instructed to applaud his accomplishments on cue, but it is equally true that by behaving in a manner that is personally irreproachable — unlike his most recent predecessors — and by demonstrating a thoroughgoing mastery of his job, he has left little space for dissension, much less defection. (His chief of staff, Alexis Kohler, has, however, just been accused of influence peddling.)

It is often said of the late former Prime Minister Michel Rocard, perhaps the most revered figure on the center-left, that he understood the need to bring others along with him in the name of social cohesion. Macron’s idea of consultation is making people feel heard before he goes ahead and does what he plans to do, as he did when negotiating with unions before unveiling his labor law reforms. That is not undemocratic, but it is high-handed. Macron seems to revel in his “Jupiterian” reputation, but he might ultimately exhaust voters’ tolerance for pitched battles. The French, it is often noted, are fond of revolutionary tactics carried out in the name of preserving the status quo.

Macron is probably less endangered by being seen as the youthful reincarnation of Charles de Gaulle than by the view that he is a “président des riches,” a term of derision that began to stick to Macron after he eliminated much of France’s “wealth tax” at the same time as he raised taxes on retirees. Macron has, in fact, increased social spending in such crucial areas as education and support for people with disabilities; he has sought to stake out a new space that is “neither left nor right,” as he said during the campaign. That’s one reason why the young technocrats like him. But many French, Cartesian to a fault, remain deeply attached to the old categories even as they rail against them. One must be either left or right, and Macron, despite his Socialist Party pedigree, is now seen as a man of the right.

Another trap lies in Macron’s own campaign promises, for he had vowed to put France at the center of a far more coherent and coordinated Europe. That was a brave pledge at a time when many European voters had risen in open revolt against Brussels; now that virulent nationalism has seriously weakened Angela Merkel and put a populist government in power in Italy, Europe’s chief goal in the next few years will be survival. The most likely threat to Macron’s future, however, would be if he succeeds in dosing France with his tough medicine — and then the country doesn’t stage an economic recovery. In that case, he will probably become the country’s third consecutive one-term president.

It is prudent nowadays to bet on unexpected bad things rather than unexpected good things — just think of Hillary Clinton and Brexit. Nevertheless, Macron is still looking like France’s true man of providence, the leader who brings liberal reform to a country that hates the word “liberal.” The French care very much about how they are seen in the world. This young, handsome, immensely gifted leader is France’s answer to Barack Obama, though of course the analogy carries with it the suggestion of impossible hopes and disappointed expectations. Laurent Bigorgne, the director of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris think tank, observed, “It’s the first time in 10 years that the French have a reason to feel proud of the president. He speaks English, he hasn’t had a scandal, he has a wonderful relationship with his wife.” It’s not clear that Americans can say any of those things about their president.

About the Author

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit." @jamestraub1

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