Heart on the left, when it's not on the right—Emmanuel Macron ©Bony/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Emmanuel Macron: candidate for a country at a crossroads

He is a French anti-Trump. But he is making the running
February 14, 2017

The French political scene is scattered with corpses.

Two presidents and two former prime ministers have been brutally ousted from the presidential contest. Nicolas Sarkozy believed French conservatives missed him—they kicked him out in the first round of their primaries. The sitting president, François Hollande, came to the obvious conclusion he stood no chance, and so at new year gloomily announced he wouldn’t run again. The French just shrugged. His prime minister, Manuel Valls, after pushing him towards the exit, resigned from Matignon, the PM’s residence to run on his own social democratic platform. But he lost the primaries to Benoit Hamon, a 49-year-old leftist who wants to create a new Republic based on an average income all round and a 32 hour working week. Alain Juppé, who had been a young right-wing prime minister in the 1990s, thought his time had come at last. So did pollsters. Their mistake: another former PM, François Fillon, a Catholic traditionalist who had always been looked down as a minor contender, won the conservative primaries on the basis of his integrity—only to be badly wounded, a few weeks later, by “Penelopegate,” a scandal over the payment of public funds to his wife and children. With a judge ordering that Sarkozy stand trial over a campaign finance charge, knives are now being plunged into even the corpses.

Just a couple of months from the presidential elections, all forecasts and basic rules of campaign politics have been proved wrong. One candidate is revelling in the shambles: Emmanuel Macron, who I profiled in Prospect two years ago (“Can this man save France?”, May 2015). At 39, the new wonder child of French politics is running high in the polls and now stands a serious chance of making it to the top Elysée job.

How to explain such a rise? Isn’t he too young, too inexperienced, having never run for elected office? What does he know about governance, having been an adviser to president Hollande and the economy minister in the Valls government for just four years? A middle-class upbringing, an alumni of the elite École nationale d’administration, isn’t he a typical product of the establishment at a time when the populist tide is supposed to be sweeping it away? Didn’t he work for a while as an investment banker with Rothschild, making very good money—a mortal sin in a country where other people’s wealth is always viewed with suspicion?

He is not even supported by an established political party—denouncing his “social-liberal”stance, the Socialists disavowed him when he resigned last summer to launch his own movement, “En Marche!”. It is this last weakness, however, that may prove to be a strength. Because Macron is not the prisoner of a political apparatus in a system where parties have long dictated the rules of the game, he looks fresh, pragmatic, free of the ideological overload which has paralysed the French left since Karl Marx. Accusing both main political families of being incapable of conducting the reforms the country needs and even of solving their own internal divisions, he believes the traditional divide between left and right has become obsolete.

Undeterred by the Trumpian turn in world events, he professes liberal views about both the economy and social concerns, stressing the deep structural changes the country needs. Because he is a product of the system—he says, in a neat inversion of the populist fashion—he knows how to change it from within. He does not want the populists of the far-right and the far-left to take advantage of the French fatigue with representative democracy. He knows he has to address the conflicting issues of globalisation, multiculturalism and national identity. Nor does he fall into the usual trap of blaming all evil on Brussels technocrats. While the chattering class discusses the collapse of the EU, he is the most pro-European candidate and has European flags welcoming visitors to his Paris headquarters. The EU, he maintains, is the only framework in which common problems can be tackled, and the British will endure the sour consequences of Brexit for a long time to come.

Trying to escape enemy fire as long as possible, Macron has not yet developed a full platform. Of course, his critics sneer, he doesn’t have any! He is just content playing with his good looks, his benevolent smile, his genial self-assurance—more of a guru than a political leader! Last autumn, he published a book full of cautious generalities—in France politicians have to put their name on a dust jacket to be taken seriously. He now promises to expose his programme in the coming weeks, rallying experts of all origins to work on it. In the meantime, week after week, huge crowds flock to his rallies.

Emmanuel Macron may well be gifted with that ultimate blessing in politics: luck. Who would have predicted a few weeks ago that the Socialist Party would in effect split up, its official candidate to the presidency openly opposed to the government still in place? Who would have foreseen François Fillon’s stumble after such a solid win in the primaries, his own political family so divided that no alternate solution could be found, pending of course the conclusions of the judicial investigation under way?

Swinging from the centre-left to the centre-right, quoting everybody from de Gaulle to Mitterrand, from Jaurès to Simone Veil, Macron is uniquely posted at the crossroads of voters’ uncertainties—all deadly tired of an establishment they deem out of touch with their varied concerns. However contradictory their expectations may be, they believe their blue-eyed hero can meet them.

A test of his performance, Macron is now targeted from all sides. Marine Le Pen, still leading in the first-round polls, hits at “the upper class banker, the money bag, the Brussels lackey,” well aware he might become her opponent in the second  round on 7th May. As an ultimate tribute to Macron’s rising status, Julian Assange and his usual sponsors promise to release damaging material about him. There are still 10 weeks to go until the French election. In politics, if the story keeps unfolding at its current pace, almost an eternity.