It is painful to recall the hosannas that commentators across the world were singing following Emmanuel Macron’s rise to the French presidency. After Brexit and the Donald Trump election, here was a dynamic, youthful leader who seemed capable of driving back the swelling tides of reactionary populism. Chemi Shalev wrote in Haaretz that Macron’s victory “gives hope to hitherto despondent lovers of democracy and decency everywhere.” Arthur Goldhammer, the leading English-language commentator on French politics, argued in Foreign Affairs that it “has given the Fifth Republic, which many had thought to be in its death throes, a new lease on life.” As late as last April, Politico was titling a story “How Emmanuel Macron Became the New Leader of the Free World.”
Yet, after a fourth consecutive weekend of escalating protests by the Yellow Vest movement, Macron now seems to be hanging on by a few frail threads. These protests have seen thousands of people arrested, three people killed, and massive street violence. Last weekend, armored vehicles rolled down Parisian boulevards, while major tourist sites and businesses shut their doors. Macron has attempted to calm the situation. Last week he repealed the gasoline-tax increase that sparked the protest movement. Monday, in a short and somewhat wooden televised speech, he promised an increase in the minimum wage, tax cuts for workers and pensioners, and other benefits for low-income employees. It is too early to know whether these concessions will have the desired effect. They remind me of King Louis XVI offering concession after concession to the burgeoning reform movement in 1789, but in each case many weeks too late, after anger had flared and the demands had ratcheted up. But even if the protests do begin to diminish, Macron’s popularity is unlikely to recover for a long time. He has been gravely, perhaps fatally wounded.
How did things get so bad, so fast? After all, France is not in the grips of a depression, or even a recession. While unemployment is high and economic growth anemic, the figures have not changed dramatically since Macron’s inauguration. His party, La République en Marche, which he created over two years ago, controls an absolute majority of the National Assembly, and the opposition remains fragmented. The conservative party Les Républicains and the Socialists are both in disarray.
In the end, the tragic fault lies both with Macron himself and with a political and cultural elite of which he is, in many ways, the pure product. To be sure, the protests did arise in large part in response to economic precariousness and pain. For French people who live outside of major cities, dependent on their cars and surviving on low incomes (average gross household income is about $30,000 per year), an increased tax on gasoline that already costs more than twice what it does in the United States is no small matter. But what clearly counted just as heavily for the Yellow Vests was the contempt they perceived as coming from Macron and his government. The president who imposed the new tax in the name of combating climate change was the same one who last year abolished the “solidarity tax” on the wealthy. It was the same one who overhauled the French labor code, making it easier for employers to fire workers. And it was the same one who summoned the two chambers of parliament to hear him speak in the splendor of the royal palace of Versailles.
It was, in short, a president who not only seemed systematically to be taking from the poor to give to the rich, but to be doing so in an intolerably disdainful manner. And Macron’s initial silence in response to the protesters did nothing to disabuse them of this perception, leading both their numbers and their demands to increase sharply. By now, many of the Yellow Vests are calling not only for large-scale redistributive economic measures well beyond what Macron has conceded, but for major political reforms as well, including allowing for direct popular legislation through referendums. (Many are also demanding Macron’s resignation).
The protesters’ perceptions are not entirely correct. Emmanuel Macron is not a contemptuous plutocrat. He is rather something that France’s elite educational and political systems specialize in producing: a person with very little life experience beyond elite institutions, who has a largely intellectualized approach to government. He is a smart man, with some genuine insights into the history of his country and the role of the presidency. But he has little sense of how to accomplish the long, hard slog of governing, or of what to do when people resist falling in line with his elegant theories. He has an abstract compassion for the poor and working classes but little real sense of their lives, and seems puzzled by their anger. His speech on Monday marked the first time in his presidency when he spoke with any real empathy about the plight of the poor and working class.
France’s social elites reward intellectual sophistication in a way that their American equivalents decidedly do not. In France, the ability to discuss literature, art, and philosophy opens doors. Some of the most selective educational institutions in the country include “general culture” on their entrance exams, and ambitious young French students will devote themselves to studying for these all-important tests.
Macron, the son of well-off doctors from the provincial city of Amiens, fits this pattern to an exaggerated degree. According to the campaign book he wrote for the 2017 election, portentously called Revolution, he spent his childhood “in books, somewhat removed from the world.” He had early dreams of literary glory. When a teenager, he wrote a never-published novel about the Spanish conquest of Latin America. His first university degree was in philosophy. Whereas American politicians invite scandal when they inflate their war records, Macron was accused of exaggerating the role he played as assistant to the eminent philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He wrote Revolution without assistance, and in its most eloquent passage, he mused that the “secret, intimate paths of literature” reveal the world’s true depths, whereas in daily life we only graze its surface.
By most accounts, Macron’s temperament has remained bookish and earnest. He is not the sort of person one can easily imagine letting loose, laughing uproariously, getting drunk, using slang. As president, he publicly chided a teenager for calling him by the nickname “Manu.” But he is tremendously intelligent, refined, and polite, and has always showed a particular talent for casting himself as the perfect protégé or surrogate son. The Socialist politician Julien Dray once jokingly called him un dragueur de vieux—a pick-up artist specializing in old people. As the journalist Michael Kinsley once wrote of Al Gore, he is “an old person’s idea of a young person.”
To rise to a high-elected position in most countries, someone like Macron would need to develop at least some skill in dealing with the rough-and-tumble, glad-handing, deal-making side of political life. With his professorial mien, the American politician that Macron most resembles is Barack Obama. But even Obama had to spend considerable time learning how to interact with actual voters, from his first campaigns for the Illinois State Senate to his obligatory treks through the small towns of Iowa and New Hampshire. The French system, by contrast, sheltered Macron from this side of politics almost entirely, allowing him to rise mostly on the basis of his apparent brilliance.
His career path, once he put aside his ambition of becoming a philosopher, took him first to the ultra-competitive École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA), alma mater of a high percentage of France’s political elite, now including four of the six most recent presidents. Macron finished near the top of his class, thereby winning a place in an elite corps of civil servants. He spent four years in government, and then another four as an investment banker for the Rothschild & Cie Banque. Along the way he acquired a long string of mentors with powerful positions in finance, business, and politics. Most important was President François Hollande, who in 2012 named Macron to a key position on his staff. Just two years later, without Macron’s ever having run for election, Hollande made him minister of the economy, industry, and digital affairs. Macron served in this role until late August 2016 when he resigned and began his presidential run. As with Trump, the presidency was his first elective office. But if Trump saw his election as a sort of giant episode of reality TV, Macron treated his own more as the ultimate competitive French entrance exam.
In the course of his ultra-rapid ascent, Macron never acquired much of a political ideology. He sought out his surrogate fathers across the broad political center, and while many of them belonged to the Socialist Party, the party itself mostly abandoned doctrinaire socialism over 30 years ago. Macron himself is notoriously attached to the phrase “en même temps” (“on the other hand”), insisting on seeing the different sides of every question. During the campaign, while advocating neoliberal reforms of the labor code and the tax structure, the former banker also promised retraining programs for people who might lose their jobs as a result, and the preservation of a strong social safety net. He expressed his admiration for Scandinavian social-welfare systems.
His education gave him considerable policy expertise (much more than most American politicians have), but Macron is not really a technocrat. In keeping with his literary background, he is actually something of a political romantic, again in a very French vein. In an interview during the campaign, he said (turning on its head a well-known line from the writer Charles Péguy) that “politics is mysticism.” In Revolution, he declared that for France to succeed, “the solution is in ourselves. It does not depend on a list of propositions that will not be acted upon. It depends on just one thing: our unity, our courage, our common determination.”
More specifically—and this is where Macron’s political thought rises above banality—he thought he knew how to bring about this coalescence. In a remarkable interview that he gave in July 2015, shortly before resigning from the Economy Ministry, he referred to the execution of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution. It also gives all too good a sense of his intellectual style: “In democracy, there is always a form of incompleteness, because democracy does not suffice for its own needs. In the democratic process, and in its functioning, there is an absence. In French politics, this absence is the figure of the King, whose death, I believe fundamentally, the French people did not desire. The Terror left an emotional, psychic, collective vacuum: The King is gone!”
He clearly believed that national coalescence could only take place around the figure of a commanding and unifying leader.
This was hardly a new idea in French history. A long string of French writers and politicians have embraced it, starting with Napoleon Bonaparte, who himself was something of a bookish, awkward, brilliant adolescent who benefited from an elite public education. Charles de Gaulle explicitly designed the presidency of the Fifth Republic as a kind of elective monarchy, with presidents who were supposed to float regally above the political strife (it didn’t work out that way, of course). Macron has not hesitated to play the king and make the political intensely personal. His much-mocked official presidential portrait showed him posing at a Louis XV–style desk with two smartphones and three books, including de Gaulle’s memoirs and The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s novel of outsized ambition. He deliberately chose the members of his cabinet from across the political spectrum, so that their principal point of convergence was himself, rather than any shared party line.
What Macron failed to realize is that the sort of quasi-regal authority he aspired to can’t simply be acquired with an election. If France’s kings commanded such authority—and they often did not—they did so because of their hereditary right, reinforced by religious and political ritual that had accreted over centuries. If Napoleon commanded such authority, it was because, while still in his 20s, he had won some of the greatest military victories in French history. If de Gaulle commanded such authority when he founded the current republic in 1958, it was because of his stature as the heroic leader of Free France during World War II. Macron has no such record to fall back on.
This is all the more true in Macron’s case because his election was the result, in great part, of some astonishingly good luck. In the first round of the presidential election in 2017, he benefited from a corruption scandal that badly damaged his principal conservative opponent, and from the weak and divided state of the French left. In the second-round runoff, he faced the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who ran on a crude nationalist platform and whose party has a well-deserved reputation for racism. One poll taken just before the runoff suggested that 53 percent of his voters chose him primarily to keep Le Pen out of the presidency.
But then Macron benefited from an amendment to the French constitution, which passed in 2000 and makes the terms of the president and the parliament the same: five years each. Since 2002, each presidential election has been followed immediately by a parliamentary one, with the newly victorious candidate’s party enjoying an enormous advantage (the amendment was in fact introduced to produce this result, and to prevent a situation where a president had to govern with a prime minister from the opposition). In 2017, Macron’s newly created La République en Marche swept to a crushing parliamentary majority. Combined with the paeans from commentators around the world, it was enough to give Macron, who had won election at the astoundingly young age of 39, a case of disastrous overconfidence.
The result was a series of miscalculations. The most fundamental of these was his decision to focus initially on neoliberal reforms—loosening the labor code, abolishing the wealth tax—without his promised worker-retraining programs and a strengthening of the social safety net. He clearly hoped that the reforms would spur economic growth long before he had to face the voters again. At the same time, though, he squandered his popularity through a series of embarrassing missteps. He fell into a needless squabble with the military brass, leading to the resignation of France’s highest-ranking general. He invited widespread criticism by trying to create a formal position of “first lady” for his wife, and also for spending some $31,000 on cosmetics in his first three months in office. He drew ridicule for his comment that he wanted to govern in a “Jupiterian” manner (for months afterwards the press routinely referred to him as “Jupiter”).
Long before the Yellow Vest protests, all of these mistakes fed the populist anger that has, in fact, by no means subsided in France. It is worth remembering that in the first round of the presidential election just 20 months ago, Le Pen and the left-wing populist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon between them received over 40 percent of the votes, despite their association with policies that most of the electorate found extreme, including, for both, possible French withdrawal from the European Union.
Until this fall, Macron did not confront a major crisis, thanks in large part to the unprecedented weakness of the previously dominant parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. Although his poll ratings dropped precipitously, he managed to enact his labor code and tax reforms without stirring the sort of major protests and strikes that had torpedoed earlier governments that had attempted similar moves (especially that of Prime Minister Alain Juppé in 1995). He successfully pushed through reforms to the national railroad. He could not have been entirely oblivious to the popular anger that was building, but he largely chose to ignore it. It must also be said that the French academic and media elite did not do a very good job of reporting on this anger. It is staffed, after all, by people much more like Macron than like the Yellow Vests. Their salaries are low by American standards, but they live in major cities and do not have to sacrifice meals to keep their cars running. They care much more about the European Union and climate change than about the price of gas.
The French have been here before, many times. The country’s political history is replete with episodes of aloof elites challenged by episodes of popular rage that they could not foresee. As an aristocratic survivor of the French Revolution, Count de Ségur, wrote in his memoirs: “We were walking on a carpet of flowers, and failed to see the abyss underneath.” Sometimes these episodes of rage have sputtered out indecisively, and this could still happen with the Yellow Vests. Sometimes they have blown up into a destructive firestorm that left the country scorched for years to come. And sometimes they have burned more constructively, casting a light that led the country to abolish harmful privileges and to move toward greater equality and human dignity. The real danger today is that the protests might, in the end, clear the way for a reactionary populist to take power in the next presidential election (or even earlier). Macron’s tragedy is that despite all his intelligence and learning, and all the considerable goodwill he attracted after winning the presidency and parliament with a brand-new party at age 39, he could not see this coming.