Emmanuel Macron: A Sign of the Times?

On the eve of the first televised debate between the presidential candidates, one of the core enigmas of the presidential campaign thus far is that of Emmanuel Macron. Who is Emmanuel Macron? The search for the ‘real’ Macron has preoccupied journalists, commentators, political satirists and (rival) politicians in recent weeks, in more or less good faith. Does Macron represent the tardive manifestation in France of Blairite Third Way, as suggested by Arnaud Parmentier in Le Monde ? Or, on the contrary, as the specialist of the French right Gilles Robert contends, is Macron a contemporary version of the liberal, Orleanist right Or, more crudely, the representative of international finance, as maliciously portrayed by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in a not so strange convergence? Or quite simply the continuation of the (failed) Hollande presidency, the favourite frame of the LR candidate Francois Fillon? Elucidation via comparison and analogy is heuristically useful, but a fuller comprehension logically requires more time: it is still too early to describe and diagnose the ‘real’ Macron.

Macron is not a totally unknown quantity, of course. As deputy General Secretary of the Presidential staff from 2012-14, Macron was a key figure in the background, exercising a reputedly strong influence in relation to the social liberal turn of the Hollande presidency (lowering taxes on business via the Business tax credit scheme [Crédit d’impôt pour la compétitivité et l’emploi – CICE] of 2013) and the Business Pact [Pacte de Responsabilité] of 2014). As Minister for the Economy, Industry and Digital Policy, Macron associated his name with a complex law that aimed comprehensively to modernize and liberalise the French economy; that most of its more controversial measures (especially in relation to the professions and work regulations) were abandoned or diluted was more a testament to the stout resistance of the Socialist frondeurs than evidence of half-hearted intent. In August 2016, Macron resigned from his position at the heart of the Hollande administration to launch the risky venture of building his political movement (En Marche!, launched in April 2016) and standing for the French presidential election. At the very least, he is a political entrepreneur and a risk-taker.

Focusing on the individual qualities of the potential candidate is a necessary (though not sufficient) exercise. Understanding Macron requires adopting, or at least adapting, a framework for studying political leadership. Most models of political leadership involve some combination of personal qualities, positional strengths and weaknesses, and the wider environmental and cultural constraints and opportunities that help shape political leadership. Though the object of our analysis is not (yet) President, understanding Macron requires a combination of three levels of analysis: micro (individual), the meso- (institution) and the macro (European, international economy). The political constellation and the interaction of these three levels arguably places Macron in a strong position to win through to the second round and eventually be elected President

The presidential office is contested by individuals who bring potentially different styles, visions, sets of beliefs and capacities to the office. Not all of the candidates seek to win election to the presidency, of course. Of the 11 candidates qualified to stand in the 2017 presidential election, two, perhaps three might be considered as having a realistic chance of being elected President. The division of the left between Jean Luc Mélenchon and Benoît Hamon makes it unlikely that either the PS or the France insoumise candidate will win thorough to contest the second round; were Mélenchon to stand down in favour of Hamon that might change the situation and produce a genuinely exciting finish to the first round. But, at the time of writing, such an outcome seems unlikely. Of the three remaining ‘heavyweight’ candidates, no single poll has yet given Le Pen victory in the second round run-off, though most envisage her presence on the second round. In spite of recurrent difficulties, Fillon is still in the presidential race and has now definitively seen off an attempt to replace him as the LR candidate. The damage is likely to be lasting; but it is too early to write off Fillon for either the first or the second round. However, Macron currently appears to be benefiting from a favourable, though fragile, political constellation. Though there are obvious risks in his political positioning, does he articulate the micro-, meso- and macro- dimensions of successful political leadership better than the other candidates?

At the micro-level, we understand style to refer to the complex mix of preferences, beliefs, skills, values and practices of individuals in a potential leadership situation. There is an individual dimension to this; the leadership qualities of decisiveness, strength, resolution, risk-taking, vision and imagination are differentially distributed, irrespective of wider structural circumstances. Not even his fiercest adversary can contest the ability to take risks; giving up his position as Economy, Industry and Digital minister to launch himself into the risky venture of En Marche! demonstrated this. Resigning from the civil service (and reimbursing a substantial sum to the State) to be able to contest the campaign goes in the same direction. The personal style provides some substance to the demand for greater transparency. Does Macron embody the sign of the times? Quite possibly. He represents better than any other candidate the demand for a new generation. If elected President at 39 years old, Macron will be a few years younger than Tony Blair and around the same age as Matteo Renzi in Italy when he became premier. For all his efforts, however, the JDD-IFOP poll of 16-17th March suggests that public opinion remains somewhat unconvinced with Macron enterprise. His honesty is contested be more than half of respondents (52%, against 48%) but this might be read as a more general response to a question about the honesty of politicians. His presidential stature is rather more worrying. The survey suggest that opinion is sharply divided in relation to whether Macron has the stature to be President (48% for the proposition, 52% against), or whether he is capable of reforming the country (48% for the proposition, 52% against). The two potentially most difficult findings reflect a certain governmental inexperience: only 46% (against 54%) consider he is able to ensure the security of the population. And only 41% consider Macron to be close to the people; his background as a brilliant ENA graduate and his work for Rothschild leave the indelible image that Macron is a member of the French elite.

At the meso- level, Macron appears to have integrated and internalized the limitations of the presidential office: his recognition that, with 25% of the first round vote as a maximum, he would be unable (or unwise) to attempt to form a majority in his name was novel. Calling for a broader coalition of forces to support his action, and anticipating building a centre-oriented majority, bears reminiscences of President Giscard d’Estaing (1971-81). There are echoes of former President Giscard d’Estaing in other senses as well: a modernizing President who referred to the need to govern from the centre, in the name of two out of every three French citizens, yet whose activity was crippled by the lack of a firm parliamentary majority. Whether President Macron would be able to govern without a parliamentary majority (deprived of effective use of the pro-executive tools such as Article 49, clause 3 of the constitution since the 2008 constitutional reform ) remains to be seen.

Macron just might confound the bipolar logic of the Fifth Republic that has traditionally seen left and right contest the second round. His position is fairly close to that explicitly embraced by François Bayrou in 2002, 2007 and 2012 presidential elections (Bayrou logically rallying to support Macron). In 2007, Bayrou almost broke through to the second round, with 18.57%. One decade later, following two deeply unpopular presidential terms, Macron is on the cusp of going one better than Bayrou. Macron’s avowed disdain for party politics is both a strength and a weakness. Given the extent of the electorate’s professed distrust of political parties, such a message has an active appeal; Macron is rather more convincing than Fillon or Le Pen in this respect. The downside is the lack of a tested organization capable not only of mobilizing for an election, but providing a disciplined cadre of deputies to support presidential action thereafter. Not the least of the paradoxes is that Macron integrates the crisis of trust in parties into his own appeal. Escaping from the trap of the primaries, Macron is able to practice a form of triangulation (drawing on ideas from across the political spectrum) in a manner that it not available to his leading opponents, themselves bound by the logic of the primaries or well-established programmes. Macron’s eclectic programme, published in early March, was justified by the candidate in terms of actively mobilising citizens in its co-construction.

At the macro-level: Macron appears to have positioned himself clearly in relation to debates on globalization, modernization and economic reforms, in a manner that justifies Parmentier’s analysis that identifies broad continuities with the new Labour project of the late 1990s (economic reform married with social justice, a resolutely pro-European message, investment in education, emphasis on responsibilities and individual merit, challenging corporations that mar France’s economic success). Macron is the only candidate standing on an explicitly European integrationist ticket, calling for more effort to respect the terms of the Stability Pact and to adapt France’s economy. But how much of this is electoral rhetoric? Let us not forget that Macron was a highly interventionist Industry minister, notably in terms of frustrating the announced merger of SFR and Bouygues, or again interfering in operations of the Renault car maker (indeed, creating diplomatic pressures with Japan by raising the French State’s stake in the car maker). While Macron has a clear message in terms of economic reform, he is far less audible in terms of security responses or with respect to societal issues related to French identity and multiculturalism that play to the Fillon and Le Pen agendas. This might represent a risk; the other area of potential weakness relates to the funding of various promises such as the abolition of local taxes for most of the population, the introduction of a massive investment programme, the reintroduction of a form of national service and the introduction of new conditions for obtaining unemployment benefit.

The case of Macron raises the more general question of whether certain individuals are suited to certain types of setting. Does Macron represent the sign of the times, the candidate who embodies for many the qualities necessary to revive a stagnating polity and liberalise an under-performing economy? While the other main candidates mobilise their core electors for the first round, Macron is arguably alone able to articulate the potentially pivotal central space, an advantageous position in advance of the second round. Will he be able to withstand the rigours of the campaign that is starting at last to focus on the policy choices facing France and overcome the substantial first round barrier represented by Fillon? The waiting game is almost over.

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