Macron on the March in France

Macron on the March in France

Many voters share his belief that the current crisis requires a different kind of politics—but can Macron deliver the goods?


Emmanuel Macron courted the French electorate with the same uncanny combination of winsome charm, implacable will, and clever calculation that he drew on to woo his high-school drama teacher, who would later become his wife. To judge by his astonishing presidential run, and now by the substantial majority (308 out of 577 seats) that his fledgling party has won in the National Assembly, it might seem that he has made yet another remarkable conquest.

But that would be an exaggeration. The French remain wary of smooth-talking charmers, and the record-low turnout in the second round of the legislative elections on June 18 is but the latest indication that voters have not all swooned over Macron. They are not sure, in their heart of hearts, that they really want the change he has promised, which they suspect in any case will prove futile. Indeed, at the inception of his candidacy, the conventional wisdom was that Macron would lose precisely because he represented not change but rather more of the same: He was “Hollande bis,” his detractors charged, and because of outgoing Socialist president François Hollande’s extreme unpopularity, it seemed certain that the man he had once hailed as his “spiritual son” could not win.

Macron deliberately let his impatience show. To be sure of making an impression, he often spoke out of school, earning the occasional paternal rebuke. Undaunted, the young protégé proclaimed that he was not the president’s “servant.” So persistent were these seeming slips, so well contrived to create the image of a man who knew precisely where he would go, if only he could free himself from the fetters imposed by timorous superiors, that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they were calculated. While serving Hollande, Macron artfully painted (or induced the media to paint) a portrait of himself as his patron’s exact opposite: bold rather than cautious, frank rather than secretive, decisive rather than hesitant, steely rather than gelatinous.

Impatience has always been Macron’s hallmark, since long before he came into Hollande’s orbit. He left public service for a time when climbing the hierarchical ladder proved too slow. He subsequently quit the private sector, despite a rapid rise in the world of mergers and acquisitions, when President Hollande invited him into the inner sanctum of state power, first as a presidential adviser, then as minister of the economy. While still serving in the latter post, he began raising money for En Marche, the movement that would eventually become his presidential vehicle. And he began recruiting candidates to run under the aegis of the “presidential majority” months before his own victory was assured.

All things come to those who wait, particularly those like Macron who have won every preliminary heat in the race to the top. Still, biding one’s time is never pleasant. Macron’s demonstration that waiting might well be unnecessary proved attractive to others of his cohort already embarked on careers but less audacious in seizing the main chance. While former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s agitated exertions to persuade the French that greed is good earned him the sobriquet “Sarko l’Américain,” Macron’s lean and hungry look calls to mind a different kind of American restlessness, captured in the opening lines of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Like Augie, Macron was the “first to knock [and] first admitted” among his peers, and there wasn’t “any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.” This was a young man who would stop at nothing, and whom nothing would stop.

Googling the words Macron gendre idéal (“Macron ideal son-in-law”) yields numerous hits. The same cliché seems to have occurred simultaneously to many observers seeking to fathom the mystery of the young man’s appeal. You can see why your daughter might fall for such a fellow, the image suggests, but you can’t help wondering if she’ll end up miserable down the road.

If Macron made his elders anxious, he also worried his contemporaries, especially those less able to leap the hurdles that life put in their way. According to the polling firm IPSOS, Marine Le Pen of the National Front actually won a plurality of the votes in Macron’s age cohort, the generation that turned 30 just as the Great Recession devastated economies around the world. Le Pen garnered 29 percent of the voters age 35–49, compared with Macron’s 21 percent, which was nearly equal to the share that went to Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far left. By contrast, Macron led in the 25–34 category, taking 28 percent of the vote, compared with 24 percent apiece for Le Pen and Mélenchon. (As for the elder vote, the lion’s share went to the Republican candidate François Fillon, who led in both the 60–69 and over-70 categories.)

Do these numbers weigh against the idea that Macron was the candidate of a frustrated generation now in the prime of life but blocked by a stalled economy? A breakdown of the vote by occupational categories helps to clarify the picture. Macron did well with senior and middle-level managers, whereas Le Pen dominated among blue-collar and clerical workers.

Normally, management votes on the right, but this year Fillon garnered only 20 percent of their vote (compared with 36 percent of retirees, the group in which he ran strongest). Another thing to note about the Macron vote is that it increased with income: He led with 25 percent of the vote among those earning between €2,000 and €3,000 a month, and garnered an even larger share (32 percent) among those earning more than €3,000 a month. In other words, Macron triumphed by winning the top of the income distribution while remaining competitive with people roughly his own age, whose vote was split among the center and the two extremes. To quote the IPSOS characterization of this segment of the electorate: “Macron appealed to ‘optimistic’ France, to those who are doing reasonably well and who believe that the younger generation will do even better.”

Optimism—the optimism of the well-educated, well-fed, and gainfully employed—is what triumphed in France in 2017. But how can this be, when for years newspapers and magazines have preached that France is the “champion of pessimism in Europe” (as the headline of a Le Monde article put it in 2013)? Isn’t France the country whose best sellers in recent decades have included The Unhappy Identity, French Suicide, and The France That Is Falling? Wasn’t it in France that the wave of populist nationalism that brought us Brexit and President Trump was supposed to culminate in the election of Marine Le Pen?

One way to understand what happened is to note that in French politics, optimism has long come in two forms: revolutionary and progressive. Revolutionary optimism requires a belief in the possibility of wholesale change, in the ability to erase the past and create everything anew. By contrast, progressive optimism stems from the conviction that the problems that arise in the life of any society are best tackled one at a time, because trying to change everything at once only makes things worse. Historically, revolutionary and progressive optimism were conflated in the Third Republic (1870–1940), whose founders believed that they were continuing the work of the Revolution of 1789 when, in fact, they were incrementalist problem-solvers.

This year, it was the extremes that laid claim to revolutionary optimism: Restore national sovereignty, dump the euro, withdraw from the European Union, close the borders, and all will be well. Denouncing all this as hopeless utopianism, Macron—whose campaign manifesto bore the deliberately misleading title Révolution—preferred to present the country’s predicament as a series of discrete problems that could be circumscribed, analyzed, and resolved. He may have wished to perpetuate the venerable conflation of revolution with progress, but no one took the title of his book seriously, for he was clearly not a revolutionary but a “disrupter,” to borrow from today’s fashionable business jargon. He is not Robespierre, but a visionary entrepreneur of the sort admired in business incubators from Palo Alto to Berlin.

Quick to see an opportunity in the failure of the established political parties to meet the demand for politics as problem-solving rather than revolution, Macron organized a start-up to fill the need. As the journalist Mathieu Magnaudeix put it, he entered this “depressed market” like a “captain of industry” determined to build a “monopoly” capable of capturing the market share once claimed by those relics of the French political Rust Belt, the Socialists and the Republicans. His carefully designed, well-executed business plan impressed peers for whom the successful entrepreneur not only stands at the top of the social hierarchy but also represents the highest form of freedom. Others inhabit roles made for them; only the entrepreneur is free to define him- or herself.

With an eye to the frequent appearance of management jargon in Macron’s speeches, Cécile Alduy, an astute analyst of political rhetoric at Stanford University, observed that he appeared to be “selling a product” and had conducted “market studies to ask people what they want.” In her estimation, Macron is the political equivalent of that other genius of self-invention, Steve Jobs. And, like Jobs, Macron was drawn to the latest in high tech: He engaged the big-data firm Liegey Muller Pons to help him target precisely those electoral districts where his innovative political product would find the most takers. What his “customers” turned out to want was not so much substance as “style” or even “magic.” In answer to criticisms that he lacked a detailed platform, Macron insisted that it was “a mistake to think that a platform is the heart of a campaign.”

Substance still mattered, but it was secondary, because a perfectly decent “technology” could be brought to market and still fail if it found too few takers. Others had suspected the existence of a rich lode of voters in the political center before Macron: Former prime minister Manuel Valls had urged his Socialist Party to drop the “socialist” label, to no avail. On the right, Alain Juppé had tried to nudge crotchety Republicans toward the center, but most labored under the illusion that the greener pastures they sought were to be found not in the center, but on the far right.

Undeterred by the risk of being crushed between these two mastodons, Macron did not hesitate to position himself squarely in the middle. By claiming to take “the best” from both left and right, he appealed to those who believed that neither held an exclusive claim to virtue. Alone to seize the opportunity in the political center, Macron was the first to put together a package enticing to both camps. He thus reaped the first-mover advantage that accrues to innovators in every field.

Capitalizing on this, he then did what anyone with a dominant market share would do: He moved to create an invincible monopoly by absorbing the strengths of his weaker competitors. He raided the Republicans for a prime minister, a finance minister, and a budget minister. These were top managers in the Macron mold: young, dynamic, well-educated. Like the president, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe brings private-sector experience to the table. Complementing Macron’s foray into finance, Philippe once worked for Areva, a nuclear-power-plant manufacturer. The new executive team thus gleamed with a high-tech sheen.

At the same time, the president brought in older, more experienced hands from the center-left to assume responsibility for domestic security and foreign affairs, along with centrists to take charge of justice, European affairs, and the military. Again, the analogy to the business world is illuminating: Having just gone public, Macron Inc. has tried to balance dynamism and energy in its boardroom with experience and gravitas as it transitions from start-up company to mature player.

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Macron has taken all of his cues from the venture-capital playbook. In the days after his election, any number of stories called attention to his intellectual credentials, which are every bit as impressive as his business résumé. Macron studied with the Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar and worked as a research assistant for the even more eminent Paul Ricœur. Most telling for his political philosophy, however, was the pitch-perfect paraphrase that he offered (in an interview with the weekly magazine Le 1) of the work of the political theorist Claude Lefort, who argued that the execution of the king during the French Revolution had left an “empty place” that the political system has been struggling to fill ever since. Macron pointed to the importance of authority figures like Napoleon III and Charles de Gaulle in filling that void and explained that, after de Gaulle, “the normalization of the president left an empty chair once again at the center of political life. Yet this is a role that people expect a president of the Republic to fill.” Here was yet another gibe at his patron and predecessor Hollande, who had famously proclaimed his desire to become “a normal president.” More importantly, it is also a clue to Macron’s intentions.

Despite his inexperience, the new president imagines himself a figure of sufficient magnitude to fill the empty place left by de Gaulle. People have been drawn to Macron’s politics by his bold promise to fill this void—people estranged from politics by their sense that the established parties, in the grip of outworn ideologies and factional quarrels, can no longer even state clearly, let alone solve, the country’s real problems. In the words of the political analysts Elie Cohen and Gérard Grunberg, “Macron correctly diagnosed the inanity of political discourse and the [lamentable] state of the parties,” and therefore resolved to form his own movement rather than rely on an existing party organization.

This decision was key to his rise. It was a risk, but one worth taking because so many people had become convinced that the political parties were paralyzed by internal dissension. If the Hollande presidency had made anything clear, it was that the breach between the Socialist Party’s market-friendly and market-hostile factions could never be healed. It is nearly 20 years since the then Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, said “yes to a market economy, no to a market society”—yet the struggle over labor-market reform under Hollande convinced Macron that many who called themselves Socialists would never assent to the market or agree with Jospin that “the state cannot do everything.” With the party lost in vain quarrels over the precise elasticity of the term “socialism,” the reasons for slow growth and persistent unemployment could not even be discussed two decades after the issue had supposedly been laid to rest by Jospin.

On the right, meanwhile, the Republicans were similarly divided by dogmatic disputes over identity and sovereignty. Was Europe antagonistic or complementary to French identity? Did France remain a sovereign nation when it submitted to the directives of the European Union—directives over which it exerted considerable influence as a founding member of the EU? Such questions can be debated with theological subtlety in academic seminars, but the Republicans have to contend with the seduction of their electorate by the sirens of the far right, who wield the watchwords of “identity” and “sovereignty” as bludgeons.

What Macron saw was that many voters, tired of the endless bickering on both left and right, had begun to hope for a different kind of politics—a politics attuned to the modern world, which in Macron’s lexicon means attuned to the globalized economy of open markets and the free flow of capital, labor, and goods. When he transformed En Marche, his presidential vehicle, into La République en Marche (REM), the party through which he hopes to govern, Macron laid down two conditions that also reflect his understanding of modernity: The party ticket should maintain strict parity between men and women, and as many candidates as possible should be recruited from outside the ranks of elected officials. This proved to be another shrewd bet. In many districts, the REM candidate was relatively unknown, but it was enough to say “I’m with the president” to win. Voters shared Macron’s sense that the politics of the past few decades had become archaic and that modern conditions required a new kind of political effort.

Not all voters, however—in the end, the legislative elections merely confirmed the results of the presidential election before them. Macron’s party carried the prosperous optimists but left the other two-thirds of the electorate indifferent, if not downright hostile. Only in a two-round majority system like France’s could a party with the initial support of less than a third of voters take well over half of the seats in the National Assembly. Turnout in the first round was disappointing (just under 49 percent), and in the second round verged on the dismal (at just over 43 percent). Relative to the inflated projections that followed the first round, REM didn’t do as well as expected, with 308 out of 577 seats. Still, as recently as a month ago, no one thought the new party had a chance of obtaining even a bare majority, let alone a comfortable one—even more comfortable when you add the 42 seats allotted to the allied MoDem (Democratic Movement) party, led by former justice minister François Bayrou (who recently resigned, along with two other MoDem ministers, following allegations that their party had made improper use of parliamentary assistants paid by the European Union).

It is important to note how decisively the electoral system influenced the outcome. France’s white working-class voters are no less alienated than those in the United States, and Macron’s sympathy for finance and business is neither more nor less pronounced than Hillary Clinton’s. That he won by a landslide while she lost by a hair are matters of electoral mechanics and arithmetic rather than fundamental social health or debility.

In France, the opposition, though moribund, is not quite dead. The Republicans and their bloc will will have an estimated 136 seats, the Socialists and theirs 45, the far-left France Insoumise 17, and the National Front eight. These numbers don’t tell the full story, though: Macron’s army of optimists hit all these political formations with the force of a wrecking ball, breaking them apart along the lines described earlier. Many who’d held leadership roles in these parties failed to win re-election, opening up the possibility of internal battles to come.

Consider the National Front: Although Le Pen won a seat in the National Assembly for the first time in her long political career, her trusted deputy Florian Philippot was defeated. Within the party, Philippot is widely seen as the architect of the new line that has steadily increased the National Front’s vote share but failed to carry it over the finish line to the presidency. He has already come under fire from opponents who believe that Le Pen’s promise to withdraw France from the euro—urged on her by Philippot—was responsible for her defeat. Immediately after the presidential election, perhaps reading the handwriting on the wall, Philippot formed his own “Patriots” faction. He could split from the party if things become too uncomfortable in the wake of his parliamentary defeat. Similar uncertainty hangs over the other opposition parties as well.

The record-low turnout in the second round, coupled with REM’s failure to meet expectations, however inflated, should remind Macron, if he needs reminding, that his extraordinary luck could desert him at any time. A first sign that he has already heeded the warnings came on the day after the second round of the legislative elections, when he asked Richard Ferrand, his right-hand man during the campaign, to step down from the government to head the REM group in the National Assembly. This preemptive maneuver will limit the damage in the event that Ferrand, who is currently under investigation for alleged corruption, is indicted.

Now, in any case, the real work begins. Macronism remains to be defined. The president sold himself as the proponent of a “modernized” approach to politics, but the self-consciously modern has a way of quickly coming to seem old hat. Today’s “French modern” politics may soon look as dated as Danish-modern furniture does now. Those who abstained on June 11 and June 18 constitute a majority. Macron’s victory, while giving hope to those who share his optimistic outlook, has done nothing to dispel the gloom of those who stayed home. How they will choose to express their disappointment remains to be seen. There could be immense surprises in store.

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