PARIS—Emmanuel Macron, the political ingenue who seemed to come storming out of nowhere to win the French presidency in May, has now conquered the French parliament as well. After the first round of voting on Sunday his party, which didn’t exist until last year, is set to win an overwhelming majority of seats in the the National Assembly.
In an era when extremes of left and right have come to dominate the political landscape (take a look at the British elections), suddenly there stands before us a paladin of the extreme middle whose campaign slogan was unabashedly “neither left nor right,” and who now has an overwhelming electoral and legislative mandate for his five-year term in office.
After barely a month in power, Macron already has played the world stage and emerged a star: publicly taking the measure of Donald Trump with a death-grip handshake; cutting Vladimir Putin down to size by denouncing the Russian president’s favorite propaganda organs as just that. And here at home, the French are talking about “macronmania”—perhaps not entirely convinced by his “revolution,” but sharing a sense of optimism and excitement about their country’s direction for the first time in a very long time.
No doubt many in the United States wish they could find a man or woman, a movement or a party, that could galvanize and organize the insurgent center—speaking for people who are weary as hell of old faces and mad as hell that the fringes have taken power by exploiting fear, inciting inchoate anger, and embracing incoherent “populist” policies. Could those who want to make America sane again learn something from Macron?
Definitively yes. But the lessons are tough ones.
Obviously part of the strategy is to shed as much of the baggage of the traditional parties as possible. Macron had served as an advisor to French President François Hollande and for a time as his minister of economy, but early last year he launched what he called a “movement,” En Marche! (Onward), peeling off from Hollande and his hugely unpopular Socialist Party while advocating some of the same policies promoted by the center-right.
Following are some points that are perhaps less obvious:
You can’t create a dynamic new party without dividing and even destroying some of the old ones.
What we see now is that Macron has not only distanced himself and his newly formed La République en Marche party from the Socialist Party, he has crushed it altogether. While LREM and its allies are set to take up to 455 out of 577 seats in the Assembly, the Socialists will be lucky to get 30, and many of their most prominent figures, including erstwhile presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, failed to hold their seats at all.
The right-wing party currently calling itself Les Républicains may garner about 110 places, but it is deeply divided between those who want to fight against Macron, and those who want to work closely with him. Indeed, his chosen prime minister, Édouard Philippe, was until last month a Les Républicains stalwart.
And Marine Le Pen, the favorite of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump? Her National Front is racked by internal squabbles, and will not be a factor in the legislature, where it’s not expected to get more than five seats.
New faces are more important than new ideas.
The most revolutionary aspect of Macron is Macron himself: starting with his youth. At 39 he is the youngest leader of France since Napoleon Bonaparte. Add to that his considerable (some say astounding) intellect, clear sense of direction, and unabashed ambition, and the image is of someone who is hugely dynamic striding out of the stagnant morass of hoary political figures who’ve dominated the country’s political life for decades.
But Macron not only is not anti-establishment, he is the quintessence of the French meritocracy: a product of the very elite École Nationale d’Administration, known as the ENA, that has given France many of its presidents, more cabinet members than one can count, and also many leaders of industry and commerce. The networks of America’s Ivy League universities are nothing compared to “the enarchy.”
It is precisely because he is a fresh face but has deep roots in the old establishment that he hopes to be able to push through centrist policies like reforms of the labor code and the education system that the old guard, whether center-left or center-right, repeatedly failed to enact.
The old guard has to realize its time is past, and remain in the background while helping the new movement. (Take note, Clintons.)
Macron surrounded himself with very smart young technocrats. But among his promoters and patrons were some towering figures from past governments whose reputations had been tarnished for one reason or another over the years.
One of the best known, for instance, was Jacques Attali, a close adviser to President François Mitterand in the 1980s, who was put in charge of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development—then removed when it allegedly spent more money on its headquarters building than it did in the struggling countries of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. More recently Attali, on the rebound, headed a blue ribbon commission to look at ways to promote economic growth in France: and made young Macron, fresh out of the ENA, a key member of the staff.
From there, Macron went to work as an investment banker at Rothschild and sealed some very big deals, but there was never any doubt his ambitions were political, and after a couple of years President Hollande took him under his wing as an advisor at the Élysée Palace and made him economy minister. Macron’s enemies on the right and far right, like the now completely eclipsed Marine Le Pen, claim he is nothing but a successor to Hollande without the baggage of the Socialist Party.
Many members of Macron’s team at the economy ministry had worked with Dominique Strauss-Kahn when he was there. He subsequently was appointed head of the International Monetary Fund in Washington and in 2011 most analysts in France thought DSK, as he was called, would come back to win the presidential elections of 2012. But he was accused of a very ugly sexual assault by a hotel maid in New York and the scandals that grew out of that case effectively ended his political career. One close friend of DSK has told The Daily Beast that he has given Macron advice about economic policy. But he remained entirely invisible during the campaign, and almost certainly will stay that way.
Finally, an insurgent centrist has to have a firm idea, clearly conveyed, of what the center represents.
One of the striking aspects of Macron’s campaign was the tenacity with which he held on to basic ideas—rational mainstream ideas—even as political trends seemed to show masses of voters wanted to embrace extremes of right or left. He was navigating against huge headwinds after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Trump in the United States. But on issues like European Unity and climate change, economic reforms and security, he ignored the weathervanes and held his course.
All that said, as Macron settles down to govern, he’s not going to have an easy time of it. The abstention rate in the first round of the legislative elections was upwards of 50 percent, which is huge in France. Some observers blamed the beautiful weather, others fatigue after the fraught presidential campaigns. And some portray the abstentions as a sign of confrontations to come: this is a country where people often “take to the street,” and many an effort at reform—especially the kind Macron is proposing in the labor code or the education system—has been defeated by mass demonstrations and devastating strikes.
But Macron has shown before that he knows how to galvanize what some call the radical center, and it’s at least conceivable that “the street,” at last, will have met its match. If he does manage to govern as effectively as he campaigned, “radical centrists” everywhere may at last be able to take heart.