On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron became the youngest leader of France since Napoleon. A handsome, young man whom his fans credit with saving the Republic from Marine Le Pen, he is the French establishment’s most flattering self-image. That’s an opportunity and a danger.
It is easy enough to say how it happened. He was the alternative to Marine Le Pen and the widely detested Front National. She represented the most concentrated form of populist nationalism. Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron said all the right and reassuring things to the French and European Center and Left. He was for strengthening European institutions. He defended abortion. When he suggested that some kind of sanctions or punishments be meted out to Hungary and Poland for violating fundamental European values with their migrant policies, he was taking up the fight that Angela Merkel dares not take up herself, lest she further weaken a suddenly fragile European alliance.
Emmanuel Macron is something of a cipher as well. Like Donald Trump, his first election campaign ended with him swiftly becoming president. But unlike Trump, Macron was basically unknown to his countrymen five years ago. A frustrated liberal reformer in François Hollande’s Socialist government, Macron ran as the leader of his own movement, En Marche! (Forward!), which barely qualifies as a political party. He received the elite fonctionnaire formation at the École nationale d’administration, and was quickly put on an ambitious track among members of the state’s Inspection des Finances. He also did some work in investment banking between jobs. He was a man from the inside, but he was an outsider to elective politics. A man who could make the system work. Or not.
And this is why many fear that Macron’s failure would mean the final discrediting of the establishment in the face of populist challenge. He will have difficulty commanding majorities in France’s national assembly. French people may not be ready to elect the Front National, but they are clearly unhappy with their sluggish economy and troubled or despairing about their nation’s failure to assimilate Muslim immigrants and their descendants. His liberalizing ideas for the French labor market are likely to inspire resistance on the left and right.
And Macron will have to take on a larger portfolio of issues than merely the French economy. His advisers admit that, prior to mounting his campaign, he’d had little interest in foreign policy beyond what could be practiced in Brussels. “He hadn’t made any particular statements on China or on Russia. He hadn’t identified himself as being from a values-based or a realpolitik school,” said François Heisbourg, chairman of the council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in an interview with Politico. “He came with a low base of knowledge and no biases.”
And yet, France has real foreign policy to conduct. Outgoing Socialist president François Hollande had committed the French to fighting ISIS and to seeking some resolution to the civil war in Syria. France and its political class is deeply implicated in the unrest that mars the African country of Gabon, unrest that could lead to civil war. And France is the major power supporting governments in Chad and Mali that are trying to resist Islamist subterfuge.
Macron was a man from the inside, but he was an outsider to elective politics.
All these are good reasons to worry, but Macron may become a more interesting figure than even his supporters credit. Marine Le Pen’s best line of the campaign was her assertion that France would be ruled by a woman in any case. Either herself or Angela Merkel, through Macron.
But Macron may prove more independent. Though he has criticized Brexit and said he wants the United Kingdom to pay a full divorce bill, he is likely to become a voice for moderation as Europe debates Brexit. He has no illusions about financial institutions relocating to Paris from London post-Brexit; financial institutions simply don’t trust the neutrality of French regulators. The deep ranks of French workers in London’s financial center constitute Macron’s most significant political and fundraising base. During his campaign, Macron referred to London as the sixth largest French city in the world, owing to its sizable population of ex-pats. Macron’s position on Brexit matters because this political separation will be negotiated not by the European institutions, but by the 27 heads of state in the Union.
If he has the determination, Macron can lead France into the position Britain now vacates within the EU, standing for a European Union that is economically liberal, and not tilted so precariously in favor of Germany and maintaining its high employment. In fact, for the sake of the French economy and the European Union as a whole, he must.