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Après Macron, Le Déluge

The French president's aloofness is a personal failing that could soon produce a historic catastrophe.

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James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he visits Chanel's Metiers d'Art workshops at le 19M, the building which houses around 600 artisans, in Paris, on January 20, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he visits Chanel's Metiers d'Art workshops at le 19M, the building which houses around 600 artisans, in Paris, on January 20, 2022.
French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he visits Chanel's Metiers d'Art workshops at le 19M, the building which houses around 600 artisans, in Paris, on January 20, 2022. CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Five years ago, when I was in France on the eve of the presidential election, I found a country in the grip of the momentous. Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old Napoleon in a navy suit, had come from out of nowhere with his message of national renewal through liberal reform. His chief adversary, Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right National Front, seemed to pose a direct threat to France’s principles of secularism and tolerance. Right-wing populism, storming across the West, had already registered shocking victories in the form of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Millions of French citizens who did not believe in Macron’s market-based politics, including my own social democratic friends, nevertheless voted for him in order to save French democracy. Macron’s thumping victory over Le Pen, by 32 percentage points, felt like an almost heroic reaffirmation of French republicanism.

I was in Paris again last month, and with the first-round vote approaching April 10 the mood was distinctly anti-climactic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Macron’s showy if hollow efforts to mediate the crisis, had pushed the generally unpopular president’s approval ratings up to the low 40s, and his new challenger on the far-right, the flamboyantly xenophobic and Russophile Éric Zemmour, had flatlined. No serious challenger had emerged to Macron’s left. The president appeared to be coasting to victory without even bothering to campaign. Macron’s reelection would confirm hopes that the worst was over—at least in Western Europe. The election of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz as German chancellor, as well as the continued popularity of the technocrat economist Mario Draghi in Italy, seems to argue that the tide of illiberal populism that began with the 2015 refugee crisis has crested.

That’s if Macron wins. Just in the last week, the mood has shifted yet again. Macron’s lead over a suddenly resurgent Le Pen has shrunk to 5 or 6 percentage points as the French feel the bite of inflation. Anxiety is suddenly the order of the day. As Édouard Philippe, Macron’s own former prime minister, gloomily observed, “Marine Le Pen can win.”

Five years ago, when I was in France on the eve of the presidential election, I found a country in the grip of the momentous. Emmanuel Macron, the 39-year-old Napoleon in a navy suit, had come from out of nowhere with his message of national renewal through liberal reform. His chief adversary, Marine Le Pen of the extreme-right National Front, seemed to pose a direct threat to France’s principles of secularism and tolerance. Right-wing populism, storming across the West, had already registered shocking victories in the form of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Millions of French citizens who did not believe in Macron’s market-based politics, including my own social democratic friends, nevertheless voted for him in order to save French democracy. Macron’s thumping victory over Le Pen, by 32 percentage points, felt like an almost heroic reaffirmation of French republicanism.

I was in Paris again last month, and with the first-round vote approaching April 10 the mood was distinctly anti-climactic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Macron’s showy if hollow efforts to mediate the crisis, had pushed the generally unpopular president’s approval ratings up to the low 40s, and his new challenger on the far-right, the flamboyantly xenophobic and Russophile Éric Zemmour, had flatlined. No serious challenger had emerged to Macron’s left. The president appeared to be coasting to victory without even bothering to campaign. Macron’s reelection would confirm hopes that the worst was over—at least in Western Europe. The election of Social Democrat Olaf Scholz as German chancellor, as well as the continued popularity of the technocrat economist Mario Draghi in Italy, seems to argue that the tide of illiberal populism that began with the 2015 refugee crisis has crested.

That’s if Macron wins. Just in the last week, the mood has shifted yet again. Macron’s lead over a suddenly resurgent Le Pen has shrunk to 5 or 6 percentage points as the French feel the bite of inflation. Anxiety is suddenly the order of the day. As Édouard Philippe, Macron’s own former prime minister, gloomily observed, “Marine Le Pen can win.”

Le Pen is not closing the gap because of a new spasm of nationalism—quite the contrary. It has been Zemmour, not Le Pen, who has publicly embraced the “great replacement” theory, which holds that elites are intentionally encouraging nonwhite immigration in order to make white people a minority. (Such is the vehemence of France’s Trumpian right that even Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the traditional conservative Les Républicains party, declined to repudiate the theory.) Zemmour has argued that Islam itself poses a threat to Western civilization; he would permit Muslims to remain in France only if they eliminated all outward signs of their religious identity, possibly including their names. Le Pen has offered a pointed contrast by saying that she does not “intend to attack Islam, which is a religion like any other,” only “Islamist ideologies.”

Zemmour was the threat that launched a thousand fevered essays. He has faded because, as Gilles Paris, a political correspondent for Le Monde, put it to me, “he ran the wrong campaign.” The furies of 2015 have faded, if hardly disappeared. Immigration, Zemmour’s obsession, ran fourth in a recent poll of voters’ concerns, way behind purchasing power and slightly behind health care and climate change. Le Pen, who has proved herself a far more skillful and agile politician than she appeared to be five years ago, picked up on concerns over inflation during the fall and has hammered away at the subject ever since. And she has put her friend Vladimir Putin in the rearview mirror: Le Pen emerged from a meeting with Prime Minister Jean Castex over France’s Ukraine policy saying that she stood with Macron. Zemmour, with admirable if self-destructive consistency, at first refused either to condemn the Russian president for the attack on Ukraine or even to welcome Ukrainian refugees.

That is not to say Le Pen, or her renamed National Rally party, has changed her spots. She remains the French version of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, whom she regards as her beau ideal. She would, if elected, institute a “national preference” that would systematically discriminate between immigrants and French citizens in blatant violation of both the French Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Yet Le Pen has succeeded in “de-demonizing” herself and her party, as she herself puts it.

Zemmour has demonstrated that the constituency in France for a strictly civilizational politics is large enough and fervent enough to terrify elites but much too small to elect a president. Le Pen has mixed a cocktail that is more complex—and therefore perhaps more dangerous. Once Macron’s La République En Marche posted its platform, which called for such unpopular measures as raising the retirement age and establishing a U.S.-style work requirement for welfare recipients, Le Pen joined leftists such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France Insoumise, in attacking the program as heartless. (Zemmour is a small-state conservative who has no problem with such mandates.) She is calculating that in the second round, where she and Macron will almost certainly square off, leftists who are disgusted with the liberal president will defect to her party. They won’t if they regard her as a fascist, as they would have in 2017; that’s where the de-demonization may work its magic.

The strange thing is that Macron hasn’t really failed, at least by his own lights. In his first years in office, he blunted the issue of terrorism by enacting harsh legislation that made some emergency measures permanent and gave the government the power to close radical mosques. Though widely blamed for draconian measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, Macron is now credited with formulating a 100 billion euro recovery program. He has adopted a resolute posture toward Putin after first insisting that “Russia is a European country” whose geopolitical aspirations Europe had to take into account. And his program of labor market reform, tax cuts, and strategic investments led to real employment gains without jeopardizing France’s zealously guarded social welfare system.

Yet neither has Macron succeeded. He has not converted the French to his market-oriented “start-up nation” ethos. The French were never seduced by his odd combination of youthful energy and monarchic grandeur. Thus, he had no reserves of popularity to draw on as prices began their inexorable rise across much of the world. Macron now finds, like U.S. President Joe Biden, that a leader can’t get much credit for spurring economic growth or reducing unemployment when voters are angry over inflation.

The French haven’t actually liked any of their presidents since Jacques Chirac, a Bidenesque old pro who stepped down in 2007. A number of years ago, I heard Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, complain that a fragmented and polarized public no longer afforded democratic leaders sufficient legitimacy to govern effectively. The theory doesn’t really hold water—think of Angela Merkel—but it does feel true of France. The French, who enjoy their lives, distrust change and make reform almost impossible, and then blame their leader for the impasse.

Yet Macron has made matters much worse for himself by behaving as if what the French really want is the reincarnation of Charles de Gaulle. He founded his party as an exercise in 21st century bottom-up politics, with members meeting in local caucuses to formulate policy proposals, but he has governed through personal authority in a manner the French have not seen since the time of Francois Mitterand, 40 years ago—and De Gaulle before that. Macron has used the war in Ukraine as a pretext for a version of Jimmy Carter’s “Rose Garden strategy,” insisting that affairs of state preclude him from descending into the scrum of the campaign. He remains, as ever, a remote, “Jupiterian” figure with a gift for grandiose stagecraft but not for human contact.

Macron may well be out of joint with his own people. Yet choosing an illiberal and possibly undemocratic leader instead would constitute a terrifying experiment. Let us hope that, as in 2017, enough French voters ultimately conclude that liberal democracy, for all its flaws, is the only path to a decent future.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, 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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