France’s Fifth Republic has often been described as an 
elective monarchy. Late last year, it witnessed its first abdication: President François Hollande, whose approval rating had sunk to the low single digits, announced that he would not be running for a second term in the elections this spring. Hollande is the first president of the Fifth Republic not to at least attempt to succeed himself. But the republican monarchy was in trouble long before its feckless incumbent, elected in 2012, acknowledged what everyone else already knew: His reign had ended long before he finally mustered the resolve to renounce the throne, which has always been wrapped in a certain mystique.


It was the poet Charles Péguy who wrote that “tout commence en mystique et finit en politique”—everything begins in mystery and ends in politics. The thought encapsulates the history of the Fifth Republic, which Charles 
de Gaulle created in his own image in 1958. The regime he founded would come to divide its executive function between a president vested with extensive powers and a prime minister responsible to the Parliament, which can be dissolved by the president at will.


Political scientists call this type of regime, with its divided executive, “semi-presidential.” For de Gaulle, reared on Catholic thought, it was something more: a division of the political realm into two distinct domains, the one sacred and mystical, the other profane and political. The sacred was reserved for the chef de l’État, while the profane was consigned to the chef du gouvernement. (In French, “State” is always capitalized while “government” is not, marking a clear hierarchy.) The prime minister’s role was to navigate rough political waters; the president’s, to walk on them.


No president after de Gaulle could fully sustain this mystique, least of all Hollande. Months before the 2012 election, a leading French political theorist told me: “Hollande singularly lacks the ability to incarnate the presidency.” Though “incarnate” is an odd word to hear in a political context, it epitomizes the underlying Gaullist theology: The chef de l’État must transcend the political parties while simultaneously dominating them.


Hollande, who spent much of his career immersed in day-to-day politics as leader of the Socialist Party, has never been capable of walking on water. One rival compared him, rather, to “the captain of a pedal boat.” Yet such facile mockery trivializes a failure that is more instructive if patiently analyzed rather than derisively dismissed. The upcoming election will turn on the question of why Hollande failed. Was it because he was not a good captain, or because he charted the wrong course—one that kept France tied to Germany at the center of the European Union and committed to the EU’s principles of free movement for capital, goods, and people?


As a navigator, Hollande was sure of his 
destination. It was the same one that the German Social Democratic Party had set for itself at Bad Godesberg in 1959: to reform capitalism rather than replace it. To get there, Hollande relied on two Socialist Party mentors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Delors. Mitterrand taught him how to conquer power; Delors explained what he could and could not do with it, given the rival or hostile forces with which he’d have to compromise—
notwithstanding the shrill insistence of voices both left and right that compromise is never necessary.


The young Hollande profited from Delors’s grasp of economic realities, but he faulted his economic mentor for failing to see what Mitterrand knew from experience. Writing under the pseudonym Cato in the early 1980s, Hollande remarked that Delors wanted “to do politics without getting his hands dirty.” Concerning what had to be done to reach the top, Mitterrand—nicknamed “the Florentine” for his Machiavellian cunning—was the better teacher. Hollande learned his lesson well.


Cato was not the only alter ego Hollande assumed as a young technocrat. In 1985, he co-authored a book under the pseudonym Jean-François Trans, in which he examined the need to “stabilize labor costs” and use “competition” as a “lever of social transformation.” Thirty years later, these ideas would shape Hollande’s economic policy, which one embittered critic of the president has derided as “supply-side socialism.”


A better term might be “neosocialism,” because it involves a range of policy instruments that include not only deregulation but also tax reform, investment incentives, and training initiatives. Shortly after taking office, Hollande commissioned a report from Louis Gallois, the former chief executive of the aerospace firm EADS. The report laid out a strategy for making French firms more competitive in the global market, and Hollande embraced it—unsurprisingly, given that it incorporated ideas he had learned from Delors and developed after hours while serving under Mitterrand.


A series of reforms followed, including a tax credit for businesses intended to promote competitiveness and job creation, and a so-called “responsibility pact” that granted further corporate tax relief. A robust if rather high-flown defense of Hollande’s neosocialist approach can be found in a book by Henri Weber revealingly titled In Praise of Compromise. The goal, says the Socialist ex-senator, was “to reorient production toward the industries of the future and high-value-added services, to promote a new growth regime, to transform our social models and defend our ideal of civilization.”


Compromise, as Weber correctly diagnosed, lay at the center of Hollande’s conception of his presidency. He sought to impose a compact with capitalism on a somewhat refractory Socialist rank and file, but he couldn’t do so openly, as his German counterparts had done at Bad Godesberg and again in the 1990s under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He could, however, count on the support of the Socialist Party leadership, the so-called “elephants,” for whom the need to compromise with capitalism was obvious. Many are graduates of the highly selective École Nationale d’Administration. These so-called énarques abound not only at the top levels of the state bureaucracy but also in corporate boardrooms, and there’s a time-honored tradition of padding back and forth between the public and private sectors—a practice picturesquely termed pantouflage (from pantoufles, bedroom slippers).


Business and political elites therefore speak a common language, although their enemies go too far in accusing them of groupthink. The shared tongue is more often than not a vehicle for vigorous disagreement about the many problems—chronic unemployment, declining exports, rising public debt, banking troubles, lagging investment, high levels of public spending, and slow growth—that have beset the French welfare state in the era of globalization, deregulation, and intensified international competition. But such disagreement is always bounded by a prudent respect for the power of the economic forces that the elite believes it alone understands and was ordained to manage.


The degree to which French Socialists
 like Mitterrand have accommodated themselves to a system of political power and analysis that their left-wing forebears dreamed of overthrowing may seem surprising. Superficially, one might be tempted to draw a parallel with the “neoliberalization” of the Democratic Party in the United States, which the author Charles Peters described as stemming from a recognition that it no longer made sense to “automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Peters’s “neoliberal manifesto” was published in 1982, the year after Mitterrand’s election. But the neosocialist turn in French elite thinking about economic reform originated decades earlier, after the end of the Second World War, and not with political strategists like Peters but within the state bureaucratic apparatus itself, which the French call l’administration.


Postwar recovery under conditions of scarcity called for the kind of centralized planning apparatus that had long been part of the socialist economic vision, which increased the importance of the administrative bureaucracy. With much of the old economic elite discredited by wartime collaboration, bright young administrators trained by elite schools rose rapidly to commanding heights. Many of them had participated in the Resistance, where they had acquired leftist sympathies to a degree unknown in previous generations of the administrative elite.


French neosocialists had thus become wedded to the state long before their party won power in 1981. But neosocialism is less a political strategy than a strategy of governance adapted to France’s statist political culture; hence, it’s a mistake to conflate it with neoliberalism. Elections change the people in charge of the state apparatus, but the apparatus has a policy mind of its own, as well as an inertia inherent in its self-conception as custodian of “the general interest.”


This Rousseauian concept implies a certain suspicion of democracy’s vicissitudes. The state’s top servants, believing that voters are often swayed by powerful but ephemeral passions, see their role as one of rationalizing the vagaries of popular emotion. François Bloch-Lainé, an exemplary representative of this postwar administrative ethic, described himself and his comrades as a “priesthood” sharing a “vocation of public service” and a “mystique of the state.”


There was a natural affinity between the Gaullist conception of the chief executive as a detached arbiter hovering above the contending parties, and the administrative conception of the government bureaucracy as the permanent rational core of state power. Over time, the political and administrative elites drew closer together. Énarques ran for office and worked for political parties, shedding their priestly aura in favor of the carnal pleasures of la politique.


The historian and philosopher Marcel Gauchet even goes so far as to suggest that Marxism’s emphasis on economic determinism encouraged the French Socialists who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s to believe that the social transformation they desired could best be achieved through shrewd state management of the economy. With Mitterrand in power in 1981, it became possible to think of the Gaullist state as an instrument for social change rather than for preservation of de Gaulle’s “certaine idée de la France.”


From Mitterrand, Hollande also learned
 about the seductiveness of ambiguity and the necessity of stealth. In 2011, he became the Socialist candidate by setting aside the reformist mask of Jean-François Trans and donning a different disguise. In a campaign speech at Le Bourget, he declared to a wildly cheering audience that he had but one true “adversary, the world of finance.” He also promised to renegotiate an unpopular treaty that his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, had signed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, which among other things limited France’s freedom to maneuver when it came to economic policy. The cautious, neosocialist Hollande had veered sharply to his left to pose briefly as an adversary of the system rather than a technocratic reformer. 


The subterfuge worked, but it created expectations that Hollande had no intention of fulfilling. Just as Mitterrand had turned to Delors, a former banker who had served under the Gaullist prime minister Jacques 
Chaban-Delmas before joining the Socialist government, Hollande turned to Emmanuel Macron, an énarque who had put his experience as an investment banker at the service of a reform commission organized by former Mitterrand adviser Jacques Attali at the behest of the neo-Gaullist Sarkozy. It was Macron who, first as a presidential staffer and later as minister of the economy, would flesh out the reformist program to which Hollande finally committed himself openly in early 2014, when he declared that he was in fact a “social democrat”—a president who proposed to manage capitalism, not replace it. Indeed, who could even imagine what replacement might mean? Having at last come clean about his true commitment, Hollande watched his approval rating plummet to a low of 4 percent by late 2016.


Ultimately, he had no choice but to capitulate. Hollande had clung to the hope that unemployment would eventually begin to drop, since this was the condition he had set on running for reelection; meanwhile, challengers for the Socialist presidential candidacy emerged from within the party. Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, two former ministers who’d been cashiered in 2014, threw their hats into the ring early, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls temporized out of loyalty to Hollande.


But the unkindest cut of all came from Macron, 
the 39-year-old wunderkind whom Hollande had described to two Le Monde journalists as his spiritual son: “Emmanuel Macron, c’est moi,” he said, echoing Gustave Flaubert’s remark about Madame Bovary.


Long after everyone else had taken Macron’s occasionally impudent expressions of independence from the man who had made him a minister as signs that he was preparing a presidential run, Hollande continued to deny that his protégé had political ambitions. But by the fall of 2016, Macron had turned the movement he called En Marche! (“Forward!”) into a personal presidential vehicle (the initials of the party’s name are also his, while the exclamation point suggests a rocket, a fitting symbol of the youthful candidate’s astonishingly rapid rise). Shrewdly, Macron chose to avoid the primary of the Belle Alliance Populaire, a name wistfully chosen by the Socialists to suggest that the winner might actually be able to unify the left as Mitterrand had done.


Macron thus became the candidate of the center. Conventional wisdom has it that a centrist can never win in France, least of all a centrist with only an embryonic party behind him. Conventional wisdom also holds that in this year of extraordinary populist and nationalist backlash throughout the Western world—with the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory illustrating the dangers of elite complacency in the face of angry electorates and soothing but misleading polls—a candidate with Macron’s background would be summarily rejected by “anti-system” voters. After all, Macron graduated from an elite school; amassed considerable wealth during his brief stint as an investment banker; worked as a consultant for governments of both the right and left while declaring himself independent of both; pushed for weaker market regulations and diluted job protections; defended the European Union; praised Angela Merkel for having “saved Europe’s honor” by accepting refugees; argued that protectionism is a recipe for economic decline; insisted that it would be good if more young people in France aspired to become billionaires; and told striking workers that the best way to afford a fancy suit like the one they jeered him for wearing was “to work.” Yet he has emerged as one of the two candidates most likely to make it to the second round, where he is expected to compete against the protectionist, nationalist, xenophobic, and EU-hostile Marine Le Pen, a politician who is in every respect his antithesis. This is the Macron paradox.


Macron’s strategy seems brilliant in retrospect, but he could hardly have anticipated the surprising rise and even more stunning fall of François Fillon, who in November 2016 defeated Sarkozy and Alain Juppé, the favored candidates, in the primary of the center-right Republicans. Both men had scandals in their past, while Fillon, having survived 35 years in politics without a hint of impropriety, ran as Mr. Clean, only to be sandbagged shortly after his victory by charges that he’d paid his wife and children nearly ¤1 million in taxpayer money for allegedly fictitious work. Having said that he would withdraw from the race only if he was indicted, Fillon reneged on that promise upon learning that he would be. He soldiers on, but his candidacy at this point looks unlikely to recover from the scandal.


Meanwhile, on the left, an equally surprising primary upset in January lifted Benoît Hamon above the favorites, Arnaud Montebourg and Manuel Valls. Hamon ran on an “ecosocialist” platform, embracing the notion that economic growth is not only more difficult to achieve today than in the past but is actually undesirable for the environment. Like Bernie Sanders in the United States, Hamon has attracted a young and enthusiastic following, but polls show him garnering no more than about 
13 percent of the first-round vote. He may even finish a dismal fifth, behind Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of the far-left France Insoumise.


Which brings us to the remaining
 contender in a race that seems to be narrowing to a two- or perhaps three-person contest: Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front. For Le Pen, Macron and Fillon are simply two sides of the same coin, the “happy face” and “ashamed face” of globalization. Neither neosocialist nor neoliberal strategies for managing global capitalism can work, Le Pen argues. Only the reassertion of national sovereignty can protect working-class jobs and halt the erosion of national identity due to the influx of immigrants.


Since taking over the party from her father Jean-Marie in 2011, Le Pen has purged it, at least on the surface, of some of its more unsavory elements. She has expelled the anti-Semites and neo-Nazi skinheads and attempted to recast hostility to foreigners as a defense of “republican values.” Rejecting the European Union is central to her economic-nationalist platform, and if elected she promises to hold a referendum on “Frexit” and take France off the euro.


Le Pen has also renewed the party’s leadership. In Paris this past January, I spoke with Sébastien Chenu, who oversees cultural matters for the National Front. Chenu was formerly a member of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (now the Republicans) and served as chief of staff to Christine Lagarde, the current head of the International Monetary Fund, when she was France’s trade minister. I asked him how difficult it had been to leave the mainstream for what many people still regard as a pariah party. The decision had not been easy, Chenu said, but he had entered politics as a follower of Philippe Séguin, a staunch nationalist among the Gaullists, and had gradually lost confidence as the party shifted to a more pro-European stance. He had also been disappointed by the strength of opposition among the Republicans to the Taubira law, which legalized same-sex marriage. The National Front’s relative friendliness to gays can be gauged by the prominence of Florian Philippot, a close political adviser to Le Pen. Like Chenu, Philippot—an énarque who was once a follower of left-wing nationalist Jean-Pierre Chevènement—quit one of the mainstream parties to join the Front, which proved not only ideologically congenial but also wide open to ambitious political talent.


The campaign is now in the homestretch, with 
Le Pen expected to top all of the other first-round contenders on April 23 with just over 25 percent of the vote, Macron to finish second with just under 25 percent, and Fillon to finish third with around 20 percent. In the second round, which will take place on May 7, all pollsters to date still have Le Pen losing to whichever of the other two emerges from round one, with Macron noticeably stronger than Fillon. But after the tumultuous experience of 2016, who still has faith in polls?


The numbers will, of course, fluctuate as the candidates elaborate their positions and participate in televised debates. There is major uncertainty about how Macron will fare: He has never run for office before or been tested in a head-to-head debate with Le Pen, who is a skilled retail politician and formidable debater. Economists may find her positions indefensible, but France is a country where Mitterrand famously crushed the incumbent, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, in a presidential debate with the quip “I am not your pupil” after the latter quizzed him about the exchange rate between the franc and the German mark.


For his part, Macron has capitalized on his fresh face and youthful charisma, but at times he seems too eager for anointment as France’s latter-day savior. At the end of his first major rally in Paris, he thrust out his arms in a Christ-like pose and turned up his face as if beseeching favor from on high. But which father was he imploring not to forsake him? To many, it seemed that he was looking neither to Mitterrand nor Delors, much less Hollande, but to former prime minister Michel Rocard, who had once galvanized the so-called “second left” not only with his brilliance but also with the sincerity of his commitment to both the modernization and moralization of the Socialist Party. Yet Rocard, who died last year, never made it to the Élysée Palace.


Come May 7, we will know whether Macron’s gamble pays off. If it doesn’t, he will probably move quickly to the private sphere. Macron’s unconventional approach to politics suggests that he is not a man to spend the rest of his years jockeying for position in section meetings and party congresses. If he can’t walk on water, he will ride in a limousine.


The nakedness of his political ambition may prove to be Macron’s fatal flaw in a year in which the mood in France has been described as one of dégagisme (“throw-them-out-ism”). But right-wing populism is not the novel force in France that it was in Britain during the Brexit vote and in the United States during the 2016 presidential election. Le Pen père and fille have been a national political presence for more than four decades. About them, there is no mystique: The politics of resentment is their only stock-in-trade. Macron’s mystique has taken him a surprisingly long way, but it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to make him this century’s successor to the general whose unique blend of cunning, chutzpah, and cheek twice saved France from itself.