Dear Partners in thought,
When I was attending the Chamonix Get Together, a micro-Davos, in September 2016 and talking to his former boss at Rothschild & Cie about his chances in the forthcoming Presidential elections, the old and wise banker told me that he had none as he had no money. Foregone conclusion. Next topic please. Nine months later Emmanuel Macron had redefined the French political landscape, destroying left and right, crushing an inept Marine Le Pen (after a TV debate to remember, beating Nixon-JFK hands down) and becoming the youngest French President of the Fifth French Republic. EM, the man who defied all odds, became one of the leaders of both Europe and the free world at a time when his victory put a major stop to populism globally and countered that of another unlikely earlier winner across the pond.
I would like to recommend you a great book written by Sophie Pedder, the Paris Bureau Chief of the Economist: “Révolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation”. SP’s book is interesting at two levels: i) it is not written by an actor but an observer of French politics, also and that is key, non-French and ii) the quality of The Economist and its relative objectivity makes for a more dispassionate view of EM and France today. She takes us on a journey to understand EM, the man, from his childhood, his rise through the traditional steps of French meritocracy, his trek to the heights of French power and unusual voyage for his likes into investment banking before coming back to work for President Hollande under different roles, culminating into Bercy, the French ministry of the economy and finance. We go through his unusually dashing and at times cocky personality among French technocrats and his ambitious quest to make a difference, leading to his throwing his hat into the biggest Gallic ring, with no army and no money but an unparalleled drive and self-confidence. It is an amazing trip into En Marche, his movement of “marchers” (walkers and not of the sleeping kind) and his unseen so far ability to mobilise a sleepy civil society to change an old country whose history made it a pioneer among leading nations though riddled with self-doubts, a post- WWII legacy of state interventionism and a feeling of decline started in 1940, which de Gaulle and others fought hard and unsuccessfully to fully erase. This book is very good and insightful also as it is, as the FT put it recently, “sympathetic but not starry-eyed”. If I may, I will then take care of the latter while remaining fair.
EM won the French Presidency against all odds and partly as the center right candidate of Les Republicans, François Fillon, so far a remarkable politician, mismanaged the political backlash of jobs for his wife and family when a member of parliament more than a decade before. Fillon lost what was his to win. In seizing the Elysée, EM reshaped the French political landscape by destroying or weakening the traditional parties. The Socialist Party, one of the two leading parties of the Fifth Republic, becoming only a shadow of itself, reflecting the dilemmas faced by European social democracy. Les Republicans, which is the grandchild or great- grandchild of the Gaullist (UDR), then Chirac (RPR) parties is struggling to find a line between a modernist Macron and his En Marche movement (even if the latter is not a party) and the Front National (now renamed Rassemblement National or National Rally) not feeling enough air or space to evolve, while the National Rally of Marine Le Pen seems to struggle to exist and is also revisiting the merits of political dynasties. The only opposition, mainly in vocal and rally terms, is only the Insoumis of fiery tribune Mélanchon who have no policy impact. Meanwhile many tenors of former parties on the center right and left like Bruno Le Maire (finance minister), Edouard Philippe (ex-Le Havre Mayor now PM) or Jean-Yves Le Drian (ex-Socialist leader of Bretagne and former defence minister under President Hollande, now running Europe and Foreign Affairs at Le Quai d’Orsay) have joined EM and his centrist, yet mildly right leaning agenda that fits the times of liberal democracy.
One should remember that the Hollande Presidency (2012-2017), that was largely a reaction to the abrupt personal style of the Sarkozy one (2007-2012), was defined as a time of confusion with decisions taken too late and being too weak. One year after EM’s election, there is a certain feeling of confusions within the ranks of the government with contradictory statements, delayed policy events and quasi-public feuds, all that can also be explained by the fact that many in the leadership are new to governing. The matter is centred on whether EM’s policy of reforms, that the electorate supports, should not be “rebalanced” through a “rééquilibrage” – the official EM answer being no – and whether EM is not distancing himself from the French, reforming for their well being but being impervious with a certain coldness, distance, even contempt. Some of EM’s advisers tell him to keep the eye on the ball, forgetting about perception, others tell him to change attitude and being closer to the French lest the reforms may derail through a lack of support.
EM is very bright and was “running” faster than anyone in France since age 16. He may suffer at times from the perception of an excess of “brio”. He also enjoys moving the lines and this not too subtly through what some see as provocation, the latter done on purpose. Enjoying authority (though not yet authoritarian), cynical, ungracious are words often mentioned and could easily slip into excessive arrogance, remoteness and scorn. Some observers actually believe that EM will succeed but that the French will not reward him, in a Giscard scenario 40 years before. The French like their leaders to be the best but dislike the first in the classroom (les “premiers de la classe”), reflecting many of the conflicted views French society has always had about power, money and politics. Many of the the French find EM a bit arrogant though they also wanted a leader to restore some dignity to the Presidency after a less than august Hollande and Sarkozy presidencies . They guillotined their king in 1793 but always wanted to get one back, loved Napoleon I and much later the Gaullist democratic Cesarism. Yet they are never happy, wanting one thing and its opposite, wanting their camembert and eating it too.
EM is not the son of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, the reformist President (1974-1981) looking for the ever elusive political center (as I wrote to the FT Editor who kindly published me before the first presidential round last year) nor he is the son of Michel Rocard, the once extreme left winger who turned out to be a social democratic reformist in the eighties, even if the young and aspiring leader worked for him. He is the son of none and sees himself as “Gaullo-Mitterrandien”, taking on the mantle of both de Gaulle and Mitterrand, the two most consequential French leaders of the Fifth French Republic since 1958. He is a King-President following to a great extent the first Napoleonic model, albeit in a democratic way and minus the wars of conquest. The French elected a block of granite, impervious to demagoguery and in many ways the opposite of the modern populist leader à la Trump. He does not speak to please his core electoral base, just to inform it about his policies. He can be too frank at times like in French Guyana when he told the locals he was not Santa Claus as the Guyanais were not children. There is little doubt that EM has a high opinion of himself though this may be a natural reflection of the view he holds of the French presidency.
Can EM reform France if he loses the trust of the French? Can he reform France if he does stay the two five year terms? Most political analysts tend to think that voters judge policies through people (not as much in the U.S. these days but it is another matter and it is indeed early days). If the French do not think EM understand them or have enough empathy for them, they may start believing his policies are indeed unfair. This feeling is compounded by EM’s “grand bourgeois” origins for most and his Fifth Paris Arrondissement Lycée Henri IV location where he did his pre-graduate “preparatory courses” and is indeed considered an elite Paris area (as an side mine was the nearby Sixth with College Stanislas, which leaders of the CAC 40 know rather well, so I relate to the feeling). We go back to the perennial questions, quite topical, these of populism, of the elite and meritocracy which are core topics these days and not only in France. Voters want to be led by the best and the brightest but somehow also resend the best, feeling they are looked down upon by those they chose to lead, unwittingly or not. In addition, this young (only 40) leader and his dashing, leaner JFK, good looks may irritate as when you reform France, it may be better to look like a monk.
EM’s first mark was probably in the international arena where he established himself as a leader and a promoter of the “France is back” slogan (the latter, incidentally, felt vividly by the French expatriate communities globally). However his foreign policy impact was not expressed in nationalistic terms (“America first”-like) but rather as a contributor to the renewal of the European Union via the strengthening of the French-German axis at a time when Angela Merkel was struggling domestically following the aftermath of her open door migrant policy of 1995. In addition to working on his EU renewal plans, EM scored initial wins in inviting President Trump to the July 14 Bastille Day military parade (prompting copycat ideas back in DC; one wonders if EM had invited DT to do something special on the Eiffel Tower…) and in inviting President Putin to Versailles, home of the French kings, thus conveying the respect that the Russian President-Tsar finds key for his country and is a motor of his policies. EM stated clearly that France was back and was ready to talk “to all parties”, thus cementing the main foreign policy stance of his presidency. Clearly subsequent developments, such as trying to use his good relationship with DT, to soften the trade war stances of the American President, did not always create positive results, even if EM seemed relentlessly trying to change the course of events. While America is retreating from its role of leader of the Western world, weakening that very world in the process, EM is focused on ensuring the EU can transcend its differences (largely borne out of the migration issues) and develop a new stage of its history. In doing so, EM is focused on the EU core (noyau dur) without naming it given its elitist (yet again) flavour and driving the relationship with a politically more unstable Germany at a time of increasingly more complex EU (Italy and across Central & Eastern Europe.) EM believes in blocs, using the EU as a way for France to “exist” but also to ensure the EU strengthen itself as there is no alternatives in a world increasingly led by other blocs, most of whom developing strong and with increasingly nationalistic agendas, be they first or retaliatory strikers. In short, EM is not a politician – he does want to reinvent a nation, that plays a leading role in a multipolar world, if I may partly borrow from SP.
Recent polls show that EM retains an 85% support among its electorate and secured 50% of losing rival François Fillon’s centre right electorate making him a strong political player in today’s France where his opposition is either fragmented or non-existent on the traditional left and right sides of the spectrum. His base is thus very solid and has grown in strength if it can be argued that EM’s centre looks shifting on its right given his economic programme and the perceived relative lack of focus on assisting the French in need, the latter which may be a by-product of his will to change France and make people more responsible individually for their destinies. The key goal for his base is that he reforms the SNCF (the French state railways), a traditional bastion of the most radical unions and the French Communist Party since WWII. Concerns, as seen in polls, are in the slower capability to explain his reforms, so focused he is on their implementation and a certain focus on the “well offs” as part of its “free and protect” master policy plan. To date, only a very tiny minority of his supporters are disappointed while the opposition, left and right, is still searching for a message. The last polls show 50% of satisfied, 33% feeling it is too early to say and only 17% disappointed. By all standards, a year after a major election, this result shows Macron to be right (no pun intended).
A question and some observations: We can have and need great leaders. Do we ever have great peoples?
Democracy needs strong leaders and weakness is not a desired attribute. Democracy needs to be strong, supported by the building blocks of Western liberal values and empowered by strong leaders.
Can we combine everything we want in our leaders? What features matter? Results or personality and style? (even core Trump supporters forget about a certain lack of dignity, personally and in the role, as long as they feel there are resuts, even if they may be short term and, some would argue, illusory). For my part, I believe that personality and style matter as true leadership is whole.
Warmest regards from the American Athens of the 18th century, Boston, the home of the bean and the cod Where the Lowells speak only to the Cabots And the Cabots speak only to God! (Many thanks, dearest Alec, mentor, fellow of the Charles river and symbol of why I believe in another America – for you and all of us).
Serge Desprat- July, 2018 (Prague)