The Rank Opportunism of Emmanuel Macron

The Rank Opportunism of Emmanuel Macron

The Rank Opportunism of Emmanuel Macron

How the French president stumbled into a legitimacy crisis.

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Regardless of how brilliant he is, Emmanuel Macron just didn’t understand,” Sébastien Nadot said of his former boss. “He’s a talented manager, who’s gone from opportunistic move to opportunistic move—and I’m not saying that in a dismissive way. I became an MP for [Macron’s party] En Marche out of opportunism too!”

Nadot was describing the Yellow Vest revolt in late 2018 from the government’s side of the barricades. It was the spectacle of a young president stumbling into a legitimacy crisis. Macron’s poorly planned gasoline tax had provoked a wave of social protests that would come to define his first, and perhaps only, term in office. But when Nadot sat down with me in April to discuss his brief misadventure as part of the parliamentary majority, I realized that his description of Macron as a political opportunist offers the chief explanation for the precarious position the president again finds himself in.

To win the April 24 presidential runoff against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Macron needs a swath of votes from across France’s ideological and social divides—divisions that he widened over the past five years. Another Macron majority at the voting booths would be a temporary grouping of people who look at each other with varying degrees of distrust if not outright hatred. For many of them, voting for Macron is the bitter price to pay to defeat Le Pen.

Macron may dismiss the term today, but a “republican front” is what the French traditionally call this electoral ritual, one that has recurred with declining enthusiasm since the far right began approaching power.  When Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, made it to the runoff in 2002, center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac trounced him by more than 64 percentage points. In 2017, running her second presidential campaign after inheriting the family party, Jean-Marie’s daughter lost to then-upstart ex–Socialist minister Macron by the still-considerable gap of nearly 34 to 66.

A lot rides on the single presidential debate on April 20, but whatever remains of the reflex-like rejection of Le Pen has been severely weakened. The erosion of opposition to the far right is perhaps best evinced by one revealing fact: France’s fifth presidential election of the 21st century is the third in which the far-right force has won a place in the runoff. Less than a week from the next vote, Le Pen now trails Macron by as little as 8 percentage points, according to Politico Europe’s Poll of Polls.

“I can’t pretend there’s a republican front when there no longer is one,” Macron told journalists at a recent campaign stop in northern France, claiming that he now plans to beat Le Pen by having the better and more popular political program.

There is a both a literal and a deeper message being relayed here. The first is a statement of the obvious: Le Pen and the far right are an immovable component of what is now France’s tripolar political field. Macron’s centrist bloc, gobbling up much of the traditional political class, is trapped between Le Pen to its right and the left-wing space, dominated in this election by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was just over 400,000 votes shy of beating out Le Pen and qualifying for the runoff.

“Macronism” is as much a political strategy as it is an ideology. It’s how France’s shrinking center has chosen to navigate this turbulent political realignment. In Macron’s 2017 victory speech, he claimed that the primary goal of his administration would be to make sure that people “no longer had a reason to vote for the extremes.” In fact, he has sought to reorganize political life around an opposition between himself and the far right. This positioning both feeds the right and allows him to portray himself as its only antidote.

Defeating Le Pen in this election is one thing. But Macron also hopes to get from this election the political capital needed to enact a reform program, which includes a plan to alter the retirement system. During a press conference in March, he announced that he would be seeking to raise the retirement age to 65 years—even higher than the 64 years proposed in 2019, which set off strikes across the country. Alongside that, he has called for adding work requirements to a key social welfare benefit, reorganizing the public school system, doubling-down on nuclear energy, and further cutting taxes.

This month, however, Macron has started to reverse course. With Le Pen seeking to take advantage of the economic anger against the incumbent, Macron has now evoked what he calls a “new method” of governing—implying, for example, that he will include unions and opposition parties in his decision making. In recent days, he has also claimed that he would be open to a referendum on retirement reform and that the 65-year figure was not a “dogma.”

In a speech in Marseille on April 16, Macron even announced that he would charge his next prime minister with the task of coordinating “ecological planning,” borrowing one of Mélenchon’s principal campaign planks. This statement is at odds with the “voluntaristic” environmentalism of individual responsibility that Macron has promoted since 2017, and which has France falling far behind its emissions reduction commitments.

One might hope that these represent sincere shifts, but trust in Macron is in short supply. Many voters to his left believe a second-term Macron, unable to seek reelection, would feel even less hindered by popular opposition and social movements. That a possible successor at the head the centrist bloc could be Édouard Philippe, Macron’s first prime minister, is also reason for pause. A figure from the old center right, Philippe launched the Macronist-allied party Horizons last fall, and his rise shows that the president’s political coalition is set to lean right, no matter how much Macron needs progressive voters in the short term.

But the pressure on Macron isn’t just coming from his left. In its April 13 editorial, the conservative daily Le Figaro lambasted Macron’s wavering on retirement reform as a sell-out to Mélenchon voters: “Stop backpedaling.… keep marching forward above all else.” Indeed, each and every overture to the left on Macron’s part, however superficial, risks enervating a conservative establishment.

Valérie Pécresse, the Républicains party candidate who won just 4.8 percent in the first round, announced that she will vote for Macron. Following on her heels, former president Nicolas Sarkozy also endorsed Macron on April 12, seeking to represent a wing on the center right that might be willing to join the Macronists. Yet, while the Républicains’ declaration disavowed Le Pen, it did not fully endorse Macron. The party is trying to balance those attracted to Macron and those who hope that his victory, without a clear successor or mandate, could mark the beginning of the crack-up of his coalition, freeing up space for a right-wing bloc independent of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

Yet 40 percent or more of the second-round voters will likely support Le Pen. There is little evidence of a right wing independent of the National Rally or whatever it morphs into after the election. Éric Ciotti, the hard-right runner-up in the Républicains primary held in late 2021 and a figure wooed by Éric Zemmour, announced that he would be voting—but not for Emmanuel Macron.

The old conservative establishment might like to think they deserve to dictate terms to Macron. But the truth is that not enough remains to Macron’s right that he has not already captured or that has not made its peace with Le Pen.

The remaining voters, and the possible kingmakers in this election, are on the French left. An Elabe poll released on April 13 suggests that of Mélenchon’s first-round voters, 35 percent intend to vote for Macron while 27 and 38 percent plan to either vote for Le Pen or abstain. An intraparty consultation of Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise released on April 17 confirmed the left-wing hesitation to support Macron. In a poll of about 215,000 party members, 33 percent said that they plan to vote for Macron, compared to the 38 percent who intend to submit a null ballot and the 29 percent who plan to abstain. Support for Le Pen was not presented as an option.

Macron is seeing the consequences of leaning into conservative culture war obsessions—the strategy he and his government chose to fend off the popular revolts over economic inequality and his reforms to the welfare state. In recent months, Macron’s cocksure interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has called for the dissolution of far-left clubs and media outlets—instigators, he has argued, of street violence and “police bashing.” Before a cherry-picked crowd of conservative academics and writers in January, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gave the introductory address to a conference on the imminent dangers to the academy posed by “gender theory” and “wokisme.” Then in March, Marlène Schiappa, sub-minister for citizenship, mingled with far-right publicists, politicians, and pamphleteers during a convention on civilizational values. Since 2017, Macron has confronted the far right on its own terrain and assumed that voters would follow him there.

The history of “Macronism” is in large part that of the creation of a political force, geared toward pursuing economic austerity and navigating the breakdown of the party system. Any of the idealism that may have existed in 2017 has been cast aside, subordinated to the political imperatives of preserving a centrist bloc amid the revival of the radical left and right.

By fall 2018, support for Macron was already eroding when Nadot told Prime Minister Philippe, “I have a feeling that things are about to blow up.” Philippe was on a tour of Occitanie, the region which includes Nadot’s constituency. Weeks before the eruption of the Yellow Vest revolt, Nadot and other En Marche politicians, especially those from rural areas, could sense growing tensions in their districts, spurred on by the announcement of a gasoline tax hike, new speed limits on country roads, and the axing of a subsidized job program.

Nadot was at odds with party leadership over the question of French arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But, as with other deputies who would eventually follow suit, his main sticking point was the total irrelevance—“subjugation,” as he put it—of representatives in the parliamentary majority. The party dismissed Nadot in December 2018 when he objected to the austerity-driven 2019 budget bill, which he said was out of touch with a public who wanted the government to address economic precarity and the environmental crisis.

“According to the Constitution, deputies vote laws, evaluate public policies, and oversee the action of government,” Nadot said. “A parliament reduced to a simple communications agency makes things quite comfortable for the executive.”

A handful of deputies have taken the same path as Nadot, migrating mostly to small parliamentary groups on the center left. “Those who are still in République en Marche have either been entirely converted to right-wing doctrine or are totally confused politically,” Nadot said. “The purge has been done. Those who are still there and consider themselves progressives are lying to themselves.”

Having worked in several ministries during François Hollande’s presidency, Émilie Cariou told me she had thought Macron “was the one…who would be able to represent French social democrats.” She likewise viewed the new force grouped behind Macron as a chance to avert the hardening of the Socialist Party on the question of Islam and secularism. “In 2017, Macron had a very open position on immigration, cultural diversity, and secularism,” she said. “Since then, he has entirely reversed on these questions.”

Cariou left the presidential majority in spring 2020 and cofounded the parliamentary group Nouveaux Démocrates, which consists largely of ex-Macronist deputies. Formerly the majority’s ranking member in the National Assembly finance commission, Cariou began to separate herself from Macron during his initial attempt to reform the retirement system in the winter of 2019–20. She said the government’s current reform project amounts to “a full-frontal assault against working-class people.”

Nadot, for his part, maintains that Macron “doesn’t have an ideological bone in his body.” Cariou would agree: “One day, Macron says that we need to tighten the purse strings. The next, he says we need to pour out public funds.”

Perhaps “Macronism” is just that: the latest thing that Macron has said.

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