France – President Macron’s political leadership: The personal dimension

One of the core enigmas of the 2017 presidential campaign related to the personality of Emmanuel Macron. Who is Emmanuel Macron? As the real prospect of his election drew nearer, the search for the ‘real’ Macron preoccupied journalists, commentators, political satirists and (rival) politicians, in more or less good faith. Did Macron represent the tardive manifestation in France of Blairite Third Way, as suggested by Arnaud Parmentier (2017) in Le Monde? While there are some obvious similarities, Blair framed his leadership within one of the established parties, whereby Macron came from outside the existing party establishment. Or, on the contrary, as the specialist of the French right Gilles Robert contended, was Macron a contemporary version of the liberal, Orleanist right, an adept of political and economic liberalization (Richard, 2017)? 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 François Fillon?

Even before his election as President, Macron was 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 a political leader 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. Understanding Macron requires a combination of three levels of analysis: micro (individual), the meso- (institution) and the macro (Europe, foreign policy, international economy). The political constellation in 2017 and the interaction of these three levels arguably placed Macron in a strong position to win through to the second round and eventually be elected President. In his management of the first eight months of his presidency, a mode of two or three-level bargaining has described well his pursuit of his presidential goals and ambitions. Three-level bargaining is used to refer to the interplay between political persona, institutional position and external constraints and opportunities. The theme will be developed more in the next blog. There is at least a heuristic value in combining levels of analysis if we are to understand Macron’s activity as President. In this first of three blog entries dedicated to Emmanuel Macron, and cognizant of the interactive relationship between levels of analysis, I focus on the personal dimension of his leadership.

Macron’s personal qualities are understood and valued insofar as they inform a broader political persona. Insofar as we integrate personal variables, these play themselves out at three levels of abstraction: personal attributes, symbolic attributes and representative attributes.

This first level of analysis is, inevitably, second-hand. But it is valuable, insofar as it disseminates representations that circulate and that are more or less tolerated and organized by the individual himself. A stream of books and articles on Macron were published in and around the 2017 presidential election. These ranged from the hagiographical (Besson, 2017), through the psycho-biography (Fulda, 2016), to the philosophical (Couturier, 2017), or the instant or contemporary historical approach (Jeanneney, 2017; Prissette, 2017 ; Debray, 2017 ; Bourmaud, 2017) and the first attempts at conceptualization and understanding (Debray, 2017). Personal qualities are not intrinsically valued in our account, unless they contribute to the style of governing. In the case of Macron, there is an argument that Brigitte, his spouse, played an important role in the overall political enterprise and that Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron formed a coherent political household, akin to that of the Pompidou family at an earlier period. It was certainly the case that the foreign media were obsessed with Brigitte Macron, who developed her own office within the Elysée, signed a transparency charter, setting out her role and responsibilities, and cultivated her image as a promotor of the liberal arts and various good causes.

At the level of personal traits: 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 to be able to contest the campaign goes in the same direction. Some common themes that emerge from a rapid analysis of the above works are Macron’s personal qualities of determination, resolution and brilliance, coupled with the adjective of the killer with a penchant for vertical forms of governing. The downside was the diffusion (in early surveys, at least) of the image of a rather arrogant, distant and elitist individual.

The personal dimension of Macron might also be understood at a level once removed, or a second level of abstraction. His personal background is interesting insofar as Macron appears as a typical representative of the French elite, having studied at the elite Sciences Po and the National School of Administration (Ecole nationale d’administration – ENA). Rather like former President Pompidou, Macron also spent a period of time working in the private sector, for the Rothschild bank. In a JDD-IFOP poll of 16-17th March 2017 before his election, only 41% considered Macron to be close to the people; his background as a brilliant ENA graduate and his work for Rothschild bank leave the indelible image that Macron is a member of the French elite. This representation is treated in a more nuanced way in some accounts. Abel insists on the fact that the young Macron studied for a higher degree in philosophy at Nanterre University and worked as editorial assistant for the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, a reference that underpins the cultivated image of Macron as the President-Philosopher, or, again, as the avid consumer of highbrow literature (Abel, 2017; Mongin, 2017).

A rather different line of enquiry – a third level of abstraction – relates to whether Macron embodies the sign of the times, the candidate who best crystallized the confused and contradictory ethos of a particular epoch. The focus here is not so much on individual qualities, as on the representative function vested upon him. The first claim is that of generational renewal: he represents better than any other candidate the demand for a new generation. Elected President at 39 years old, Macron was a few years younger than Tony Blair and around the same age as Matteo Renzi in Italy when he became premier. Second, Macron’s election symbolized the running out of steam of the traditional left-right cleavage in French politics. Macron was elected President while riding high on the rejection of party and contesting the validity of the left-right cleavage. For Taguieff (2017), Macron was both actor and subject of the withering away of the old cleavage of left and right, and the embodiment of a new one, based on an openness-closure division within French society. For Bigorne and colleagues, Macron is the symbol of the decomposition and recomposition of the French political system, a transformative position partially instigated by Macron himself.

Third, Macron’s election was symbolic of a generational renewal and an overhaul of political personnel. There was a symbolic rejuvenation and major change of political personnel, characterized by the arrival en masse of new deputies with no political experience, of activists with no experience of political activism and professionals trusted to manage the affairs of their sector. Macron’s avowed distrust of parties was expressed by a preference for rule by experts and professionals, reflected in the composition of the Philippe government itself. Some prominent examples include Muriel Pénicaud, Minister for Employment (former head of Human Resources in the Danone firm), Jean-Michel Blanquer, Education Minister (former President of the HEC business school) and Agnès Buzin (a practicing doctor who became Minister for Health).

All of this adds up to an appreciation of style. We understand style to refer to the complex mix of preferences, beliefs, skills, values and practices of individuals in a potential leadership situation. In terms of Macron, there is some tension between two prevalent frames in the literature: that of the transformative leader, in the framework popularized by James McGregor Burns (1978) and the equilibrist or museum curator (inherent in the campaign theme of ‘en même temps’). In her analysis of ‘the ten words that best characterize Macron’, Darrigand prefers Transformation to that of Revolution (though ‘Revolution’ was the title of Macron’s successful 2016 book). Transformation refers to the ambitious programme of gradual reforms, the cumulative effect of which is to transform society. Transformation is most definitely preferred in the Macron lexicography either to Revolution (a utopian vision removed from reality and producing dystopian outcomes), or to Reform (a negative truism, associated with disillusion on account of the failure of successive governments to reform French society). It is progressive and pragmatic. Transformation is viewed by Macron as a form of correction of past errors, of unblocking the numerous blockages of French politics, society and economy and liberating energies, while protecting the weakest in society. In this sense, transformation can tie into the en même temps slogan, popularised and chanted by Macron supporters during the 2017 campaign.

En même temps can be read first as a campaign slogan – rather like Obama’s Yes We Can. The literal translation – ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ – might be subject to confusion, however. It can imply an equilibrist, between left and right, the traditional positioning of the centre in France. Identifying itself as between left and right, the French centre has traditionally been squeezed between the Scylla of anti-Gaullism and the Charybdis of anti-Socialism, with a tendency for the centre to drift towards the latter position. The rallying of historic centrist François Bayrou in February 2017 put Macron’s flagging campaign back on track; the debt to the traditional centre was acknowledged by the freshly elected Macron, who rewarded Bayrou with a major position in government and ensured that the MODEM was generously endowed with winnable seats in the June 2017 parliamentary elections (at which the MODEM elected 51 deputies). But renewing with a certain legacy of the French centre is only a small part of the Macron story. En même temps can also imply a transformative leader beyond left and right, consigning the key ideological cleavage drawn from the French revolution to history; the ‘old’ system condemned by Macron and supporters is roundly rejected, both in terms of the mutually exclusive ideological frames it embodies and the parties it produces which feed on maintaining ideological exclusivities for instrumental partisan advantage.

Third, en même temps can be understood as left and right. In this third synthesis, left and right provide inspiration, ideas and talented people on which a modernising President should draw. The historical precursors are General de Gaulle in 1945 and 1958, Prime Minister Rocard in 1988, even President Sarkozy in 2007: on each occasion, political leaders attempted to draw in the best talents from across the political spectrum. The political leader is likened to the curator of a museum, classifying the contributions made by left and right and drawing in the best talents, ideas and political programmes from wherever their provenance. These three positions – centre, central, custodial – are not identical, however, and imply a permanent process of adjustment (between social protection and economic liberalisation, for example). Macron’s New Year address to the French on 31st December 2017 implied that the economic reform agenda of the first eight months would be counter-balanced by a more protective and social approach in 2018.

Finally, en même temps ought to be read as a coded attack on the legacy of his predecessor Hollande, the former President accused of being unable to make firm decisions, of hesitating, of fiddling while Rome burns, while Macron’s central position is portrayed by supporters as openly embracing the best talents and ideas in a problem- solution logic. For Taguieff (2017), Macron’s success lies in the capacity to embody opposites: to be centrist and radical; to be courteous and ruthless; to appear as politically correct and anti-system. The key question is whether the equilibrist can put into effect a process of transformation. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s old dream of representing two of every three French people ran into determined opposition and ultimately failed. The Macron experiment deserves closer empirical observation, which will be the subject of the next post.

References

Abel, O. 92017), ‘Paul Ricoeur et Emmanuel Macron’, Etudes, Septembre, 4241, pp. 47-57;
Besson, P. (2017) Un personnage de roman, Paris : Plon, 2017
Bigorne, L., Baudry, A. & Duhamel, O. (2017), Macron, Et En Meme Temps, Paris : Plon.
Bourmaud, F.-X. (2017) Emmanuel Macron – Les Coulisses D’une Victoire, Paris : L’archipel, 2017.
Burns, J.-M. (1978) Leadership, New York: Harper Collins, 1978.
Couturier, B. (2017), Macron : un président philosophe Paris : Editions de l’observatoire.
Darrigand, M. (2017), ‘Emmanuel Macron en Dix Mots’ Etudes, 4241, pp. 21-32, September.
Debray, R. (2017) Le nouveau pouvoir Paris: Editions du Cerf.
Fulda, A. (2016) Emmanuel Macron, Un Jeune Homme Si Parfait Paris : Plon.
Gaetner, G. (2017) Les 100 Jours De Macron Paris : Fauves Editions.
Jeanneney, J-N. (2017) Le Moment Macron – Un Président Et L’histoire Paris : Seuil.
Mongin, O. (2017)‘Les lectures d’Emmanuel Macron’, Commentaire, 159, pp. 519-523.
Parmentier A. (2017) ‘Macron, la troisième voie’, Le Monde 3rd March.
Prissette, N. (2017), Emmanuel Macron : Le président inattendu, Paris : First.
Richard, R. (2017)‘Ce que l’histoire de la droite nous apprend’, Le Point, 9th March.
Taguieff, P.-A. (2017) Macron : Miracle Ou Mirage ? Paris : Editions de l’Observatoire.

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