In France’s Election, ‘There’s No Single Coherent Challenger on the Right’

Macron’s revolution failed to materialize. Here’s why he’s likely to get a second chance.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
France's President Emmanuel Macron at a political gathering in the Paris suburb of Poissy on March 7.
France's President Emmanuel Macron at a political gathering in the Paris suburb of Poissy on March 7.
France's President Emmanuel Macron at a political gathering in the Paris suburb of Poissy on March 7. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

On April 10, Emmanuel Macron will stand for reelection in the first round of France’s presidential vote. Macron entered office in 2017 promising to transform his country, above all its economy. At the center of his platform was a mission to make France more entrepreneurial and dynamic.

The latest polling suggests he’ll win another five years as president. But has Macron achieved his revolutionary economic ambitions for France? What’s the underlying philosophy that’s guided him? And, given the right-wing voices dominating the discourse, is France more conservative than we think?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

On April 10, Emmanuel Macron will stand for reelection in the first round of France’s presidential vote. Macron entered office in 2017 promising to transform his country, above all its economy. At the center of his platform was a mission to make France more entrepreneurial and dynamic.

The latest polling suggests he’ll win another five years as president. But has Macron achieved his revolutionary economic ambitions for France? What’s the underlying philosophy that’s guided him? And, given the right-wing voices dominating the discourse, is France more conservative than we think?

Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze.

What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.

Cameron Abadi: What exactly is Macron’s ideology? He’s not a social democrat. He’s not traditional European Christian democrat. So what’s left? Any precedents from history that come to mind?

Adam Tooze: So yeah, Macron’s hard to place. He doesn’t easily fit within classic models of European social democracy, for sure. But if you want to really get into Macron’s mind, there’s a great article in Foreign Policy by Blake Smith that appeared earlier this year which tries to locate him against the thinking of the philosopher Paul Ricœur and the political precedent of Michel Rocard, who was one of the people who shepherded neoliberal policies into government in France under the previous socialist president, François Mitterrand, in the 1980s. And they have in common that they’re basically on a migratory path from a kind of nonconformist leftism in the 1960s to a kind of reconciled acceptance of the inevitability of global markets and global market pressures in the ’80s and ’90s. Macron, after all, given his profile, could have been a rather bloodless technocrat. And instead, he positively affirms the role of ideology and that he sees the role of politics in giving meaning to the entire business of modern governance and the carrying on of economic activity.

What exactly the positive intention here is a little bit harder to define. He knows what he’s against. He’s against civil war. He’s against, you know, the alienation of the famous banlieues of France, the suburban housing developments. He wants France to own its own history and to come to terms with it. And those are all very vague things, though, and in practice, so much of Macron’s governance has amounted to a rather aggressive, authoritarian, almost assertion of the power of the state, be it against the gilets jaunes protesters in 2018 or over COVID. I mean, one can’t really detach this, I think, from the social base which he serves. And given the way in which the French electoral system works, he only needs, after all, to come first or second in the first round of the election. And then after that—since he’s almost certain to face an obnoxious, far-right politician—he carries the day with left votes. And so his core constituency is a kind of impatient, upper-middle class, educated, technocratic group, really, for whom he represents a vision of a modern France. It has a touch of leftism about it, I think, in that residual sense that it’s about reform, it’s about modernity. It’s also Atlanticist in its emphasis.

CA: Macron came into office promising big change—specifically, a revolution in economics. Has he fulfilled that promise? Has he changed France’s relationship to its own economy?

AT: Yeah, I mean, the French are as addicted to this talk about revolution as the Americans are, perhaps even more so, especially if you come from the republican side of politics like Macron. I mean in practice, though, French political economy is very tough to shift. But it’s been the labor market that’s really the core of the Macronite vision.

He has this vision, I think, of France needing to work more, people to get off, you know, their sofas and get into the labor market. There’s this sort of energetic, impulsive drive to drive people into the labor market, and there have been some numbers that point in that direction. So the share of prime-age French workers in employment has risen from 64 to 67.5 percent. Again, not a revolution, but a move in Macron’s direction. A surge in self-employment. So folks not registering entire complex businesses, but simply registering themselves as self-employed from a regular number of about 20,000 registrations per month before he came into office to more like 60,000 today. So that’s some sort of trace of this entrepreneurial ideology.

And in the election, he’s doubled down. I mean, he’s used his commanding lead in the polls to radicalize his message, in a sense. He’s now threatening—or promising, depending on your point of view—to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65, to further slash taxes, to unify the welfare benefits system so as to incentivize, quote unquote, people going back to work.

CA: Macron has also had this other branch of his ambition focused on the European Union and making it into a more effective economic entity. Has he had success there?

AT: Yeah, this was initially a story of disappointment, because he came in as the great hope for Europe, right? He gave this famous speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, and his buzzwords were things like, you know, “l’Europe qui protège,” “the Europe that will protect.” And then he waited and he waited and he waited for an answer from Berlin, from Angela Merkel’s last government. And it never came. And so there was this sense that, as it were, the Macronite promise of a new Europe was a busted flush.

But then COVID hit. And in the first couple of months of the COVID crisis in March and April 2020, there was this sense that Europe was circling the drain again. But then there was this breakthrough brokered between Paris and Berlin, with key members of the Macron team at the very forefront of it, that opened the door then to the agreement on Next Gen EU, the new program on common borrowing and investment. And I think, to that extent, you have to say that he has proven a dynamic and quite effective force in changing the balance of European politics and exploiting the crisis that COVID presented to drive Europe in a new direction. Again, his language on sovereignty and strategic autonomy, which once upon a time seemed rather outré—when Europe did finally move against China along with the Biden administration in 2021, all of Europe ended up speaking a kind of Macronite vocabulary. So I think over the long haul, he has proven certainly the most influential French politician in Europe for a long time.

CA: The top three candidates aside from Macron are basically anti-establishment populist figures, but they’re quite different from one another. On one hand, you have Éric Zemmour, who combines high culture appeals to French history and elevated language about protecting the integrity of French culture from outsiders. And then, alongside that, you have Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left, who are more trying to appeal to the economically left behind. Is this a potentially lasting split in types of populism: a down-market style of populism that focuses on economics and then a more upmarket version that’s focused on bourgeois anxieties?

AT: I think that’s broadly speaking correct. I mean, but the crucial words you haven’t uttered in that description is race. And what Zemmour really does is to split the racist vote between the more lowbrow and the more highbrow versions, and that’s profoundly damaging to Le Pen. Because previously she was able, as it were, to rally a broad social spectrum around an anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic position, and now that camp is split. Meanwhile, Zemmour and [Valérie] Pécresse, the more centrist conservatives, split the bourgeois conservative vote amongst themselves. And so it’s really a well-nailed, ideal setting for Macron, because really there’s no single coherent challenger on the right. And from Mélenchon and [Yannick] Jadot, the Green on the left, he has nothing to fear anyway. And their votes in large proportion will end up switching to Macron in the runoff when he most likely faces Le Pen.

CA: Is France just a more conservative country than people would think? We have Macron, who’s basically center-right, and three of the other four main candidates are types of conservatives. Should we feel comfortable just thinking of France as a conservative country?

AT: I mean, the French themselves have coined this phrase “droitisation,” which is the “rightification” of French politics. And that, I think, indexes the fact that for French intellectuals, at least, this is a dismaying and surprising development. And the position of the left is, you know, historically weak at this moment. But I think it’s also worth saying that all things are relative. And when you say Macron is a center-right politician, you’re not applying the standards of United States politics today. I mean, this is somebody who’s tough on COVID, who favors nationalizing the electricity company—all the better to drive the energy transition. So we’re not talking about the GOP here. And, furthermore, France is no outlier. I mean, in fact, in a recent comparative poll, both the U.K. and, most of all, Italy come out far ahead of France in terms of the right-wing shift in public opinion. According to polls in Italy right now, the three right-wing parties would get over 46 percent of the vote. And of those, one of them, the Fratelli d’Italia is a, you know, it’s a lineal descendent of fascism.

CA: So maybe the point here is that Europe as a whole is more conservative than Americans are inclined to think.

AT: I think that’s absolutely true. There really is a broad and solid group of conservative parties, some of which are really, very right-wing, that are very important, notably in Italy and the U.K.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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