Joy rang out in Europe. The triumph of Emmanuel Macron in the May 7 French presidential election inspired a torrent of front-page effusions from the Brittany to the Elbe. “Well played,” gloated Libération, in tune with Le Figaro’s hallelujah to “Victory on the march.” “France marches into a new era,” echoed the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Slapped across Monday’s Tageszeitung, “Ouf!” captured a prevailing sentiment of relief. Cries of “Thank you, France!” issued in Spain and elsewhere; “France defeats radicalism,” read the headline of the Madrid daily El País. “A turning point for Europe,” as la Repubblica proclaimed, “Macron’s victory: for France and for Europe,” in the words of the Il Corriere della sera. Across the channel, the Financial Times relished a win for “globalism over populism.” “France stems tide of the populist revolution,” reported the Independent.
Similar reactions were charted farther afield. “The French presidential runoff transcended national politics,” wrote a Paris correspondent for the New York Times, in the paper’s inimitable style. “It was globalization against nationalism. It was the future versus the past. Open versus closed.” Hope flickered from France, beacon in seas still churning over the shipwreck of elite consensus in Britain and the United States; “the Brexit-Trump wave has broken in the West,” exalted a former national security adviser to Barack Obama, adding that “[f]or those worried about how to defeat Russian/Wikileaks [sic] meddling in elections, the French showed us: vote against the person they’re helping.”
Amid this jubilant cacophony, a few dissonant notes sounded. The vulgarity of Macron’s election-night fête contrasted with a lack of enthusiasm in the streets of Paris. Prior to the hero’s arrival, his soundtrack Ode to Joy, supporters braving the night air to assemble at the Louvre were treated to a belly-dancing show and American pop: “You’re fucking delicious / Talk to me, girl.” A spirit-lowering scene, culminating in a curt, uninspired speech by the president-elect. As bikini-clad performers gyrated to a DJ set in front of I.M. Pei’s pyramid, police in the east of the city brutally cracked down on an antifascist protest march. Riot cops and gendarmes teargassed and kettled demonstrators, arresting more than 100, a firm reminder of the ongoing state of emergency. “The world is watching France,” Amnesty International had announced at the beginning of this year. Civil liberties, the NGO warned, curtailed by warrantless house raids and targeted repression of French Muslims carried out under the emergency law, have now reached a “tipping point.”
With 66 percent of the popular vote, the new president could claim a resounding victory, outperforming polling estimates. Throughout France voters rallied to the En Marche! (EM) eponym, who performed especially well in high-income urban areas—his tally reached 90 percent in Paris, and handsomely surpassed 80 percent in Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Lyon. Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN), at one point breaking 40 percent in polls, collapsed after her cack-handed performance in the televised debate on May 4. Projections for the FN candidate promptly sank to 34 percent, matching the final score three days later. Macron won a majority of voters in every age category, every socio-professional group save manual laborers, and all but two of France’s 102 administrative departments. Reasons enough, it might be thought, for satisfaction.
Yet cracks marred the veneer. In 2002, the only other occasion on which the French far right appeared in the second round of a presidential election, Le Pen’s father was routed. Large-scale mobilization against the FN delivered an unprecedented victory to the incumbent Jacques Chirac, his 82 percent landslide earning comparison with Enver Hoxha’s People’s Republic of Albania. At the time, the French elite could bathe in contentment, praising the victory of a republican front and recalling the glories of interwar antifascism. Fifteen years later, no such united front would take shape. Nor was support for the FN, nearly doubled, the sole cause for concern. By some measure the most striking feature of the 2017 run-off was a surge in the number of blank and spoiled ballots—11.5 percent of the total, a record figure and more than twice that clocked in 2002. Together with historic levels of abstention, the highest in almost half a century, this defiant protest left the winner of the election with a mere 43.7 percent of registered voters, a desultory share in the face of his anathematized, fumbling challenger. Of those who did turn up at the polls for Macron, less than half (41 percent) expressed support for the candidate, as opposed to the desire to see his opponent defeated, and an even smaller fraction endorsed his program.
However cheering Le Pen’s defeat, it offered little cause for complacency. Caution chilled the mood. “[W]hile it’s only natural to be relieved,” intoned the director of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, “this is no time to get complacent . . . the triumphalist narrative that is already taking hold in the aftermath of the French elections is understating the populist threat to liberal democracy.” The icon of New Labour himself, reveling in a godsend for “all of us, who believe in progress through making globalization work,” acknowledged the “hard slog” that awaited France’s new leader. First-round results had forecast the challenge ahead: narrow margins—the top four candidates were all within 5 percentage points—seismographed a fracturing political map. Almost half of voters had opted for candidates who questioned France’s sacred duty to the European Union and Central Bank. Disquiet roiled the bourgeois press and political class in the wake of the vote on April 23. Momentarily grateful to have averted a runoff between the FN and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed (FI), bien-pensant commentary soon changed tack, obsessing over the possibility that abstention on the left might throw the second round to Le Pen.
Beginning in early April, Mélenchon’s steady uptick in the polls had been greeted with undisguised horror by the French media and centrist establishment. Content through the winter to ignore his bid, when not drawing unflattering comparison with the program of the Socialist (PS) Benoît Hamon—altogether more reassuring with respect to the democratic bastions of EU and NATO—the press would soon turn en masse to arraign the FI leader for his megalomaniac, even totalitarian leanings. Quickly the portrait emerged of an autocratic personality, admiring of dictators in Latin America, sympathetic to Russian president Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, armed with a dangerously unrealistic economic agenda and a demagogic command over his followers. “Maximilien Ilitch Mélenchon” would bring disaster to France, exhorted Le Figaro; under the spell of this “French [Hugo] Chavez,” the country risked falling into such calamity it would be obliged to “import cheese and wine.” Enthusiasm for the would-be despot’s campaign was yet another piece of evidence for the mounting global menace of populism. Not only was Mélenchon guilty of abetting the ascent of the far right by bleeding voters from the center: his movement was in profound ways indistinguishable from the National Front. “In both cases,” as a journalist for BFM TV averred, “what you have is a rejection of the universal laws of the economy.” With respect to Europe, Le Monde’s Brussels correspondent agreed, “Le Pen, Mélenchon: même danger.” Éric Marty, the literary scholar and editor of Roland Barthes, wailed that both candidates “stigmatized” Macron for his lucrative career in investment banking: such “class racism” was itself a form of “fascism,” Marty warned, and class struggle itself—as conclusively demonstrated by Michel Foucault—but an outgrowth of “race war.”
The outcome of the first round of elections, in which Mélenchon arrived in fourth place with 19.6 percent, a percentage point shy of the right-wing Republican (LR) candidate François Fillon, did nothing to calm nerves. While Mélenchon enjoined his supporters “not to make the terrible error of voting for the FN,” his refusal to herd them into the En Marche! tent elicited an outpouring of condemnation. Politicians, journalists, pundits, and intellectuals deplored this failure to fall in line behind the Macron operation, seized on as proof of nihilistic indifference if not full-fledged approval for the Front. The celebrity economist Thomas Piketty, whose swollen, tremulous public interventions were rare highlights of Hamon’s doomed campaign, was reduced to insisting that the greater Macron’s margin of victory the more leverage the left would command—a surreal contention refuted in a stroke by mention of the name Chirac.
Two days before the May vote, this effluence climaxed in a heavily publicized “Republican Forum against Abstention,” held at the Maison de la Chimie in Paris’s 7th arrondissement. Organized by psychoanalyst Jacques-Alain Miller and the unsatirizable Bernard-Henri Lévy, pasionaria of Tripoli, the event attracted a bevy of the French ruling class, from socialites and academics to Socialist ministers and eminences of the governmental right. Members of the public could buy access to this civic jamboree for 20 euros at the door, a fee graciously halved for students and the indigent. “Tonight,” Lacan’s son-in-law informed the audience thus gathered, “we are going to make a breakthrough; we are going to crush the Mélenchonist abstainers.” “You understand,” his collaborator Lévy affirmed, “the moment is solemn.”
The hysteria was confounding on its own terms—presumably those truly concerned about non-voters would have opted for persuasion, rather than costive chastisement. Yet it was the hypocrisy of the rump PS that truly bewildered: as one party grandee after another declared for Macron in the first round, dead-enders had defended Hamon’s hopeless candidacy on moral grounds, flouting arguments for a strategic vote and courting the risk of a runoff between Le Pen and the scandal-dogged, extremist Fillon. Mere hours after Hamon’s quietus (on 6 percent) not a few of these same figures would be heard lecturing pompously on the hard truths of democracy and the exigencies of political realism.
In the end, worries proved unfounded. A majority of Mélenchon’s voters cast ballots for Macron, only a negligible fraction (7 percent) transferring their vote to Le Pen—half the figure predicted in final polling. More significant, some 21 percent of those who turned out for Fillon in the first round plumped for the National Front in the second, reflecting progress made by the far right among French Catholics. Abstention, though a partly ambiguous phenomenon, was nonetheless up five points from 2012. Collectively with ballot-spoilage, non-participation accounted for more than a third of the electorate, putting non-voters well ahead of FN supporters (22 percent). The spike in null ballots can be read as a clear “non, merci” to the instrumentalization of antifascism orchestrated by the moribund PS. A strategy of playing up the FN bogeyman to blackmail and marginalize the non-Socialist left, cynically pioneered by current party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, may have seen its day.
Weak turnout and protest voting further confirmed first-round prognoses of a transformed electoral scene. Since early spring, observers of French politics agreed that the country was drifting toward political crisis. Failure of either the PS or LR to advance to ballotage, a historic first, flagged a wider breakdown of the established order. A sweeping process of decomposition and recomposition is underway. The upshot of this dynamic will become clearer after the mid-June legislative elections. But some preliminary conclusions can be drawn.
“Finally, the time for clarification has come.” So spoke former Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls on the evening of the first-round vote, in which his party’s candidate received a humiliating single-digit score. Valls, like outgoing president François Hollande and a cohort of other senior PS figures, had arrived at this insight well before voters went to the polls, publicly endorsing Macron’s new centrist formation. “It’s the end of the road,” Valls noted, presaging the dissolution of the party refounded by François Mitterrand in 1971. The creation of the modern PS, from the wreckage of the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO), had followed a comparable electoral defeat—its candidate in the 1969 presidential election, Gaston Defferre, having been trounced on barely 5 percent. In the wake of this debacle, French Socialists embarked on an ambitious phase of institutional and ideological creativity. Clubs, discussion circles, and think tanks flourished in the years of reformation, brought to baptismal font at the summer ’71 Épinay Congress.
Today, a renaissance on this order looks improbable. The catastrophic Hollande presidency, leaving behind it a bruised and diminished party apparatus, catalyzed long-standing divisions. Heading toward the June elections, the PS appears likely to split three ways, with a right-wing contingent bidding for collaboration with Macron’s movement; a camarilla under Cambadélis’s leadership wrestling over what attitude to adopt toward the president and his government, headed by LR MP Édouard Philippe; and left remnants grouped around Hamon and Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, both aiming to establish new formations that would appeal to the Greens (EELV) and smaller parties of the left. Whether any of these initiatives can succeed is open to doubt. The PS legislative program, unveiled on May 9, attracted criticism for abandoning central tenets of Hamon’s campaign platform, including bold ecological measures and stipulations defending French labor law. Valls, the most visible of the Macronist contingent, found himself treated with contempt by the new president, whose handling of this sinister character has been among his most attractive accomplishments. The ex-premier’s intention to defend his seat in the Essonne on the En Marche! ticket was disavowed by Macron, who has denigrated his onetime cabinet colleague as a “traitor” for his treatment of Hollande. After consultation, EM decided not to challenge Valls in his fiefdom; but the foiled supplicant has publicly registered the lack of “magnanimity.” “Hollande is malicious,” he whined, “but within certain boundaries. Macron is malicious but he has no code, hence no limits.” An assessment that augurs ill for future dealings.
Hopes in a “raspberry left,” uniting Hamon’s wing of the PS, the EELV, and the French Communist Party (PCF), appear unpromising for the moment. The fortunes of any left opposition hinge on Mélenchon’s movement, which offered one of the chief surprises of the election season. Demonized by serried columns of the media, the former Socialist senator recorded the greatest success for the non-PS left since the 1970s: his share was almost double that attained in 2012 (from 11 to 20 percent), an increase of 3 million votes. France Unbowed reversed a decades-long trend by rivaling the FN with working-class voters and the unemployed. Most impressively, Mélenchon outdid the Front with the youngest cohort of voters, winning the support of 30 percent of those aged 18 to 24. He did exceptionally well with French of North African descent (37 percent), a persecuted population that had largely voted Hollande in 2012. In regional terms, the FI imposed itself in the Nord and the Pas-de-Calais, traditionally left-wing redoubts conquered by the National Front, and produced outstanding results in the old Communist strongholds of the Paris banlieue. Meanwhile, in the south, Mélenchon made inroads among Socialist voters alienated by the serial betrayals of Hollande.
What comes next for Mélenchon’s movement depends in large part on its ability to win over the rest of the parliamentary left. The FI leader himself has declared his candidacy for a Marseille seat held by a PS incumbent, stating simply, “I do not want to weaken the Socialist Party, I want to replace it.” To do so, France Unbowed will require support from other formations, above all the PCF, to negotiate joint agreements to stand down in close-fought constituencies. At stake are not only ideological but financial considerations. Public financing for political parties in France is awarded in part on the basis of performance in legislative elections and the number of parliamentary seats obtained: each vote cast in the first round is worth around 1.60 euros per year. For newly created organisms like FI and Macron’s EM, this funding constitutes a powerful incentive to hegemonize the greatest possible percentage of the vote. Discussions between the FI and the PCF have accordingly revolved around Mélenchon’s proposal for a shared program and pooled financing, which the Communist leadership has so far rejected. Absent a national accord, FI contenders will be left to establish ad-hoc local agreements with PCF and EELV candidates. The ability to conclude such arrangements will weigh heavily on the parliamentary promise of the insoumis.
Legislative gains are no less important for the National Front, presently embroiled in judicial investigations over the misappropriation of public and European funds. Denied parliamentary representation commensurate with its popular vote, thanks to the majoritarian bias of French electoral law, the FN has long looked in vain to strike alliances with other parties. Attempts to create an umbrella organization, free from the stigma associated with the far right, have come up short. Le Pen’s disappointing result against Macron has also cast sharp light on contradictions within the FN. No sooner had the result been reported than Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was heard on the radio regretting the “disgraceful failure” of his daughter’s bid and lambasting her advisor Florian Philippot, architect of defeat. Behind this family squabble lay persistent unease over the direction taken by the party since its 2012 leadership transition and the turn inaugurated by Le Pen fille, who gave new emphasis to social and economic issues and took a hard line against the EU and the single currency.
These positions are at odds with a substantial part of the Front’s base, which favors an admixture of social conservatism and neoliberal economic policy and sees its interests potentially jeopardized by leaving the euro; as the campaign reached its end, Marine Le Pen’s tergiversations on the latter score hinted at the ambivalence of the Front’s Europhobia. The party’s inability to make significant gains with lower-income left-wing voters told against this strategic wager. Geographically, the party vote hewed to existing patterns, concentrated in the post-industrial north and the southeast of the country. Relative stagnation along the Mediterranean littoral was cause for unease. The party leadership appears increasingly polarized between representatives of the southern strongholds, pushing for retrenchment on traditional topoi of bigotry and laissez-faire, and those like Philippot who hope for continued headway in working-class regions and outreach to other Euroskeptic, sovereigntist elements. Jean-Marie Le Pen has made noises about an electoral cartel with Civitas, a fringe Catholic outfit, to pit candidates against the FN this June. His granddaughter, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, is not seeking reelection to her parliamentary seat in the Vaucluse, and has spoken out of late to praise Sarkozy’s former advisor Patrick Buisson and the MP Laurent Wauquiez, stalwarts of the LR’s right wing. Philippot, for his part, has proclaimed the creation of a nebulous cell within the Front, dubbed Les Patriotes, ostensibly to shore up Marine Le Pen’s leadership and guard against compromises over Europe. Party nabobs openly hanker for his expulsion.
Which flank of the National Front prevails will have consequences in turn for the mainstream right. Fillon’s upset victory in the November 2016 LR primary looked to be a repudiation of the party’s moderate wing. Alain Juppé, former prime minister under Jacques Chirac and once the expected 2017 candidate, gambled unsuccessfully by attacking his opponent’s extreme views on Islam and abortion rights. For many observers, Fillon’s win demonstrated the limits of a centrist strategy that had elsewhere left the party vulnerable to challenges from the FN, eager to poach traditionalist Catholics. The party’s right favors competing with the Front on its own terrain, if not frank entente; in the second round, a number of senior figures either refused to endorse Macron or sided squarely with Le Pen. The ambivalence of Sens commun, a grouping that cohered in the 2013 protests against the legalization of gay marriage and backed Fillon’s candidacy, did not go unremarked. Had it not been for a litany of financial peccadillos, Fillon himself might well have managed to bypass the FN leader to square off against Macron. As it happened, the election outcome furnished no resolution to the Republicans’ internecine conflict. Initial statements reflected readiness to turn the page on the presidential fiasco, and in particular to soften the hard edges of Fillon’s economic agenda, which promised regressive taxation and deep cuts to the public sector. But anticipations of re-centering will be tempered by Macron’s encroachment on party moderates, powerfully advertised by his choice of the Juppéiste Philippe for prime minister and the inclusion of two other LR politicians in the new government. Caught between the FN on their right and Macron’s EM on their left, the Republicans are set to navigate an uninviting strait.
Such is the field of battle as seen by the defeated. What of the victor? Macron’s achievement, however qualified his popular support, cannot be gainsaid: lacking any experience of elected office, Macron assembled his campaign machine in scarcely more than a year, amassing some 13 million euros without benefit of an existing party apparatus or public financing. Private-equity managers, bankers, and CEOs flocked to the investment banker and erstwhile minister of the economy, who began his fundraising operation while still in public service at Bercy. Seasoned hands from BNP Paribas and HSBC lent their expertise to the candidate. His operation, modeled on a Silicon Valley start-up, bubbled with franglais volapük: no staffers but helpers (“el-pair”), propals rather than program, efficiency and horizontality overseen, of course, by the boss.
The media offered a friendly audience. From the moment of his resignation from government, at the end of August 2016, Macron enjoyed adulatory coverage from a brigade of print and television personalities, the consensus so deafening as to invite concerns over press freedom. Peevish critics marveled at the candidate’s ties to Patrick Drahi—majority owner, following a takeover approved under Macron’s ministerial supervision, of the conglomerate that owns France’s most popular cable news network (BFM TV) as well as Libération and L’Express—and Xavier Niel, proprietor of L’Obs and Le Monde (having acquired the daily with no small thanks to his friend Macron, at the time supposedly an unpaid advisor to the paper’s shareholders). L’Obs, L’Express, Libé—once esteemed outlets of the New Left, long since given over to renegacy and squalor, the trio vied to lavish praise on the En Marche! leader. “He’s the man,” the editor of L’Express raved, “who best incarnates the spirit of reform, with modernity, in today’s France.” “He’s adored in the best parts of Paris,” confided Niel, adding that “[w]hat I like about Emmanuel is his liberal, voluntarist side.” Claude Perdriel, the media tycoon who sold L’Obs to Niel in 2014, marshaled his economic weekly so candidly to praise of Macron—special guest at a “start-up summit” organized by the publication in April, two weeks before the election—that journalists submitted a formal protest.
Had the franchise been restricted to editorialists, the young banker would have swept to office outright. Vexingly, it was necessary to recruit voters to Macron’s “neither left nor right” agenda. Not unduly enamored with the blessings of democratic suffrage—“being an elected representative is a career path that belongs to another age,” he opined in September 2015—the candidate was uneven on the stump, and his penchant for banality and trimming earned ridicule in the March 20 debate, a raucous affair that featured all eleven qualified candidates. Yet the proof was in the eating: Macron’s first-round victory (on 24 percent, 3 points ahead of Le Pen) testified to the resonance of a meticulously calibrated message. Appealing to the right wing of the center-left and the centrist wing of the right, he carried nearly half of those who had voted for Hollande in the 2012 first round and more than a third of voters who had preferred Nicolas Sarkozy or the center-right politician François Bayrou (himself enlisted in Macron’s 2017 run). The class composition of the En Marche! vote was unambiguous: upwards of 80 percent of managers and university graduates voted EM in the second round, compared to 40 percent of workers; with abstention factored in, less than a third of the working-class vote went to Macron—38 percent voted for Le Pen and 32 percent abstained.
Since the early 1980s, moderate conservatives and centrist social democrats in France have dreamed of a coalition of the “wise,” in the words of PS eminence Jacques Delors. Michel Rocard, another Socialist dignitary and—like Delors—spiritual father to both Macron and Hollande, conceived of a “big bang” that would remold the left, freeing it of a reliance on truculent proles that had long entailed compromise with the Communist Party. The trickle of working-class votes to the FN has comforted this enterprise, allowing the champions of a modern left to dismiss their old voting base as incorrigibly racist and chauvinist. Successful in its ambition to humble the once proud PCF, this faction came up short in reshaping the electorate to its taste. With Macron’s election, reveries of a new “bourgeois bloc” may have at last been realized.1 Oriented around a nucleus of left-leaning public-sector executives and the most educated, cosmopolitan fraction of the right-leaning private-sector, such a constituency suggests a possible solution to the contradictions that have cleaved the established parties: it frees the center-right from its reliance on lower-income private-sector employees, anxious to protect welfarist entitlements against wholesale neoliberal assault, and allows the center-left finally to bid adieu to the working class.
Whether Macron can firm up a coalition on these lines remains to be seen: his ability to do so depends in part on taking advantage of fissures on the right. The agenda, at least, is plain. Viewed from the stockyard heights of capital, France quivers with fat still to be cut. Churlishly disparaged in early months of the campaign for his lack of a program, the president has advanced an impressively coherent plan of action: an arctic blast of budgetary austerity (a word Macron prudently shuns, in favor of euphemistic references to “medium-term structural deficit imbalance” and the like) to bring France into compliance with European guidelines; deep cuts to public-sector employment; a reduction in corporate tax rates; and demolition of French labor law—making good on Hollande’s progress in this direction—to be pushed through over the summer by means of executive ordonnances, extending the retirement age and punishing the unemployed who balk at accepting jobs generously offered to them. Cosmetic pledges of investment in renewable energy, retraining, and vocational education sweeten the chalice.
Ministerial picks, publicized last Wednesday, extinguished lingering left-liberal fantasies: the Republican MP and belt-tightening authoritarian Bruno Le Maire, newly named minister of the economy, mans the parapets of an unmistakably rightist government. Le Maire’s LR confrère Gérald Darmanin oversees the budget; together, they will make good on Macron’s vows to slash the fiscal deficit, zeal that has extracted worried notes from the otherwise admiring Financial Times. As was the case for his predecessor, Macron’s scope for action will be tightly constrained by opinion in Germany; happy statements following a May 15 meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel (Macron’s first foreign visit, as it was Hollande’s, twenty-four hours after his investiture) are no guarantee that even the French president’s modest aims for Eurozone reform will be tolerated in Berlin. But hope springs eternal. Anxieties provoked by criticism of European fiscal politics during the campaign have been soothed. “Finally!” exclaimed Euro MP Sylvie Goulard, newly named defense minister and author of Europe for Dummies, marveling at her candidate’s coronation. “Finally, Europe and France reconciled!”
On the home front, media contentment still reigns. The glossy ecstasies of winter and early spring have given way to more meditative, reverent treatments—philatelists of French liberalism swoon at the intellectual pretensions of the banker prince, whose squibs for Esprit and slapdash campaign book, mordantly titled Revolution, captivate scholarly attention. Already in the summer of 2015, a weekly founded by Macron’s millionaire patron Henry Hermand devoted an issue to “Macron: the philosopher-politician,” with the essayist Alain-Gérard Slama reassuring readers that the then minister—who twice failed entrance exams to the École normale supérieure, gilded portal to a French academic career—deserved to be considered an “honorary normalien.” Any obstacles to hagiography have since crumpled. A representative recent round-table on the public radio channel France Culture tackled the philosophical roots of “le libéralisme macronien,” with participants sparring over whether this rich current of thought draws its sources from the 19th century—John Stuart Mill, say, or the alternative homegrown traditions of François Guizot and Benjamin Constant—or if it isn’t still more up-to-date, nourished by such titans as John Rawls and Amartya Sen. Paul Ricoeur, of course, presides: candidate Macron made hay of his youthful stint as a research assistant to the austere phenomenologist, to whom he attributes the insight that “it isn’t necessary to be an expert to reflect on a given subject,” among other pearls of wisdom; an American admirer has ventured that Macron owes to the philosopher not only his “recognition that there are no simple solutions” but also the revelation that “[w]hen we make a promise, we pledge fidelity to the one for whom it is made.” However debasing for their authors, such paeans equally fail their muse: the scale of Macron’s accomplishment is not to be found in his “thought,” a slurry of cant and cliché fully gestated by the turn of the 1960s, but on the Kampfplatz of political struggle. Here, further tests await.
Over the past months, it has been commonplace to draw comparisons between the current conjuncture and that of 1958, founding year of the French Fifth Republic. At moments of political disorientation, when parliamentary rules of the game are called into question, historical analogies serve an important practical function: precedents are summoned to restore intelligibility to the field, reinstating familiar types and modes of action. But these efforts also divulge subtler indices of continuity and discontinuity.
Born out of the collapse of France’s postwar constitutional regime, sapped by the tasks of colonial counterinsurgency and toppled in a military coup d’état, France’s present-day regime owes much to its founder, Charles de Gaulle. It was de Gaulle who put in place the institutional framework that governs the country today—a Constitution that disempowers the legislature in favor of an overweening executive, ratified by a 1962 referendum that introduced direct election of the president; highest office invested with extraordinary emergency powers and extrajudicial authority; an elevation of unelected experts and senior civil servants over parliamentary representatives; and an olympian, decisionist style of rule. Intervening decades have witnessed if anything an intensification of these trends. A feeble 2008 reform notwithstanding, the French head of state enjoys a sovereign prerogative unequaled anywhere in the capitalist heartlands, well in excess of his counterpart in Washington. Hollande’s bellicose reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2015 reminded those forgetful of the presidential function’s perquisites. Article 49.3 of the 1958 Constitution, a measure permitting the government to ram through legislation despite opposition from the National Assembly, was employed by the Socialist leader to pitiless effect in enacting his 2016 reform of the French Labor Code, legislation taxed with insufficient radicalism by Macron, who seeks to finish what Hollande started by eliminating lingering “blockages” en route to the entrepreneurial nirvana of hassle-free layoffs and part-time toil.
As in ’58, the eighth president of the Fifth Republic confronts a confused political situation, in which old alignments have dissolved and the new have not yet congealed. Then, too, the atmosphere was clotted with denunciations of the “system” and the parties that had ruled France under its old regime. Once his return to power was legitimated in a September 1958 constitutional referendum, de Gaulle saw to it that the political formation created by his partisans for the upcoming legislative elections would not be a party at all, but rather a “popular movement” or assembly, neither right nor left but a “centrist” tool for imposing “balance” and administrative efficiency. The electoral contest that November resulted in an unprecedented parliamentary shake-up: 344 of the 475 incumbent candidates were defeated, and a full three-quarters of MPs elected to the lower chamber without previously having held a seat. Thanks to a new electoral law, which abandoned proportional representation in favor of a two-round majoritarian system, the Gaullists of the Union for the New Republic (UNR) acquired parliamentary representation out of all proportion to their share of the vote; at the same time, a hammer-blow was dealt to the Communists, since 1945 the largest party in France. With a percentage point less of the first-round vote, the UNR collected more than 200 MPs compared to a mere 10 for the PCF.
In the first elections under the Fifth Republic, all contenders had to adapt to the anti-systemic rhetoric of insurgent Gaullism. Even the established parties feigned contempt for “professional politicians,” and candidates took pains to emphasize their non-parliamentary credentials: badges of experience metamorphosed into unwonted slurs. Elected representatives, once proud republican guardians of the people’s will, rushed to disavow their tenures at the Palais Bourbon. But if the Gaullist vision of executive power and majoritarian rule have survived intact, anticipations of a rupture with political professionalism remain unfulfilled. Indeed, the decades since de Gaulle’s departure from office have seen a dramatic rise in the proportion of MPs who have devoted their professional lives to politics. Valls, Hamon, and Fillon are sterling examples, but even the most obstreperous anti-establishment formations do not escape the trend: Marine Le Pen, who portrays herself as a lawyer, has spent most of her adult life in the apparatus of her father’s party; the same is true for Le Pen’s husband, Louis Aliot, who ran for office with the FN before even completing his law degree.2
Macron, of course, made contempt for political professionalism a key campaign tactic, vituperating against the parliamentary “caste” and vaunting his “political immaturity” as a positive asset. And indeed, before training his sights on the presidency the 39-year-old had never run for office. But a glance at his curriculum vitae is enough to prove the fatuity of the pretense: a more thoroughbred representative of France’s hated “system” could hardly be imagined. Setting out from the highest echelon of Parisian secondary schools, Macron’s march through the institutions testifies at every step to cunning and ambition, his embarrassing denial at Normale Sup’ a rule-proving exception: from Lycée Henri-IV to the École nationale d’administration, via the Paris Institute of Political Studies (“Sciences Po”), onward to the upper reaches of the state bureaucracy before landing at Rothschild, only to return to public life as a senior presidential staffer, and then minister. Even by the hermetic standards of the French ruling class, the trajectory impresses. Bluster about parliamentary malfeasance dissimulates a more lucid appraisal of the devaluation of political capital, depreciating steadily since the early 1960s as the claims of technocratic expertise gained purchase and private-sector salaries surged. Dissatisfaction with the political establishment, abundantly justified in itself, serves here as a buckler deflecting real estimation of the systemic balance of power.
Whatever its motives, criticism of politicking bodes to be as instrumental in the June 2017 contest as it was in the first legislative elections of the Fifth Republic. Of 577 sitting MPs, more than 200 have attested they will not seek reelection; the 2014 law restricting politicians from holding multiple offices, entering effect for the first time this summer, has moved many deputies to fancy better prospects at the local or regional level. It is entirely possible that more than half of the lower chamber elected on June 17 will consist of first-time MPs.
La République en marche (LRM), as Macron renamed his movement on the morrow of victory, has loudly advertised its quest for renewal of the political sphere. The definitive list of 522 candidates announced in the third week of May—another fifty or so constituencies have been left uncontested, pursuant to arrangements with tractable PS and LR contenders—are claimed to model the wholesome virtues of so-called civil society, emblematized by competence, efficiency, and a take-care-of-business attitude, as opposed to the musty, fatalistic routinism and ideological blinders accompanying parliamentary sinecure. A closer look at the LRM stable reveals a less than resolute commitment to novelty: the roster is studded with PS veterans, along with a contingent from Bayrou’s Democratic Movement (MoDem). When LRM released its amateurishly prepared initial count, the MoDem leader—furious at first over the underrepresentation of his followers—lashed out against a “[r]ecycling operation for the Socialists,” a “giant washing machine” for laundering the disfavored governing party. In fact, of the names so far announced, about half are non-politicians, and only a small fraction consists of returning MPs. Above all, Macron’s “civil society” has a strongly marked class orientation. According to analysis carried out by investigative journalists at Mediapart, the largest share of non-politicians on the LRM ticket is comprised of the prosperous: private-sector managers, captains of industry, “start-uppers,” lobbyists, and other white-collar professionals, including a number of self-described “coaches” (nutrition, life, career development, et cetera). Not a single worker appears. Among the more colorful personalities are Bruno Bonnell, a tech entrepreneur who starred in the short-lived French version of The Apprentice; Fields Prize winner Cédric Villani, who spearheaded a May 1 petition calling on fellow mathematicians and scientists to “vote Macron to block the way to fascism”; Jean-Michel Fauvergue, until this March the commanding officer of RAID, France’s elite anti-terrorism police force; and female rejoneador Marie Sara, “queen of the bullring.”
All indications suggest that the June elections will issue in the biggest legislative turnover in more than half a century. Polling numbers do not exclude an overall majority for LRM; failing that, Macron and Philippe can expect friendly collaboration from the center right, especially over economic reforms, on which pleasing harmony reigns. The first president of the Fifth Republic, it is remembered, did not himself command a majority in 1958—the entropic force of the executive, dramatically reinforced four years later, handily sufficed to govern.
“On principle I never telephone,” de Gaulle is recorded having said, “and nobody, ever, summons me to the instrument.” Macron—who intends to ban the use of cellphones by French schoolchildren—keeps two of the devices on hand, ceaselessly texting his sycophants. Much else separates the two men. The leader of the Free French, whose June 18, 1940 radio broadcast from London is hallowed as the primal act of resistance against German occupation, despised the venality and cowardice of the national bourgeoisie: a “bastardized,” antipatriotic class that had “forfeited any sense of the State, the Nation, and the Patrie.” Even the unctuous Hollande felt compelled to pay some homage to this attitude, disclosing in a 2007 TV appearance, “I admit it, I don’t like the rich.” Five years later, the former First Secretary of the PS had to revisit this “too-quick” ejaculation—hard-earned wealth was perfectly acceptable, candidate Hollande found, it was only “indecent richesse” that discomfited. His successor is blithely free of such hang-ups. Macron, as Frédéric Lordon has observed, should be taken seriously when he denies that he is hostage to the forces of capital: he is their fleshly incarnation.3 This is not perforce a disadvantage: like Donald Trump, Macron gained advantage from presenting to voters something like his true self, scorning excessively pious concessions to the benighted.
Yet in a crucial respect Macron has positioned himself to embody the disinterested, regalian posture of France’s wartime icon. For de Gaulle, the French executive—uncrowned head of what is habitually described as a republican monarchy—derived his authority, in the profoundest sense, from the wellspring of military power. Brought back to the head of state by a coup d’état, successively challenged over the bloody finale of the Algerian war by putsch and pronunciamento, the General was keenly aware of the fragility of civilian control and his role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. If Macron, the first president of France never to have completed military service (abolished twenty years ago), has few enough of his illustrious predecessor’s attributes, his impatience to aureole himself in combatant valor has been all the more arresting. The investiture ceremony of May 14 was pregnant with militarist symbolism, beginning with a drilled promenade along the red carpet through the courtyard of the presidential palace, in time with the second movement of Cyprès et Lauriers, a marching hymn composed to celebrate the victory of French forces in 1919. For his protocular ride up the Champ-Élysées, the fresh-faced sovereign dispensed with the conventional limousine in favor of a camouflaged Renault VLRA command car, preferred jeep for French Army missions in Africa. After pausing to light the flame of tribute to France’s war dead at the Arc de Triomphe, the president proceeded to the Percy military hospital in Clamart, where he commiserated with soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Mali.
Armed might is not of symbolic interest alone. Since 2008, the number of French overseas military operations has ballooned; the tenuous position of some of France’s African clients, the rippling effects of social upheaval in the Arab world, and perceived reticence on the part of the US administration under Barack Obama combined to encourage geopolitical adventurism on the part of Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande. The secular decline of French economic power vis-à-vis its neighbor across the Rhine is an additional factor; frustrated by their diminishment within the Franco-German duumvirate, France’s rulers perceive in military power-projection a compensatory boon.4 Finally, the massive deployment of soldiers to mainland France (between seven and ten thousand at last count), under the provisions of the ongoing state of emergency, is a subject of concern in Paris. Thankless urban policing duties have been poor for morale in the army, preoccupied by questions of pay and interservice rivalry, and ardent for more prestigious assignments abroad. Polling conducted by Ifop points to increased support for the FN across the security state— majorities of the armed forces, gendarmerie, and police are all now thought to vote for the far right.
As a candidate, Macron did not neglect military opinion; General Jean-Paul Palomeros, retired Air Force commander and senior NATO staff officer, has been a faithful spokesman. The En Marche! leader, Palomeros has testified, is “suffused with his role as head of the armed forces,” praise seconded by a host of expert advisers. On questions of policy, the new president has been more discreet. He pledges to increase military spending, per Washington’s demands, and to maintain in effect indefinitely the onerous, counterproductive état d’urgence. A proposal to reintroduce mandatory national service has generated contempt in military circles, unenthusiastic about the cost and additional burden on manpower already stretched thin. Periodically critical of the interventionism displayed in recent years, notably over Libya, Macron is close to Gérard Araud, French ambassador to the United States and leading light of French neoconservatism. “I’m a man who likes discussion and complexity,” the candidate explained when pressed on the subject. His choice for the ministry of foreign affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian—Hollande’s outgoing minister of defense and cherub of military contractors Dassault and DCNS—signals continuity. On Friday, May 19, Macron and his minister of the armed forces (as the defense ministry has been renamed, reverting to Gaullist usage) Goulard paid a visit to French troops stationed in Mali as part of Operation Barkhane, a military campaign launched four years ago that the new French president has promised to prolong and intensify. Emblematically, Macron did not deign to stop over in Bamako, instead flying directly to the French base in Gao, where his Malian counterpart traveled to meet him. Like his predecessors, the current occupant of the Élysée looks poised to treat France’s former African colonies as his own backyard.
Unchecked in its use of force abroad and lording over parliament at home, the presidency constructed by de Gaulle discloses a paradox by the very fact of its predominance. As the executive’s institutional power has steadily accrued, his ambit for real maneuver has shrunk: global economic pressures and European integration together have set in place hard limits on France’s autonomy. Escapades in the Levant and the Maghreb do not obscure the uncontested fact of French fealty to the Atlantic Alliance, officiously enshrined by the 2008 decision to rejoin NATO integrated command. President Macron’s schemes for the Eurozone—closer fiscal integration, banking union, shared budget—are explicitly predicated upon the introduction of harsh domestic austerity measures; whatever the case, he can be expected to await the results of German federal elections in September before unfurling his full reform agenda. Meanwhile, the French labor movement readies for a hot summer.
Faced with de Gaulle’s capture of power in 1958, much of the French left made an epochal misjudgment: believing the General to be a dictator or worse, the Communists and their allies denounced him as a mere puppet of the “most reactionary elements of big capital,” “opening the door to fascism,” in Georgi Dimitrov’s canonical 1935 formulation. Clearer sighted were those like the Italian Communist Lucio Magri who identified in the president a mediating figure, a Bonapartist leader owing his return to the inability of the French bourgeoisie to set aside petty fractional interests and act to preserve the dominance of the class entire. Acquiescence to decolonization, an independent course vis-à-vis the American hegemon, and encouragement for Third World nationalist movements all confirmed de Gaulle’s idiosyncratic daring.
During the recent election, a dissident chorus maintained that a Macron presidency would pave the way to power for the National Front in five years’ time. “Macron’s project,” Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon asserted in March, “is a springboard for the FN.” If the left remains divided, another term of competitive deflation and sinvergüenza erosion of workers’ rights and welfare may push the disaffected toward the far right. In 1958, the Stalinist leadership of the PCF mistook capitalist modernization and reform of the state for the unmediated dictatorship of finance and a stepping stone to fascist takeover. It would be ironic if six decades later, under a young, dynamic, forward-looking leader, France were to vindicate the crassest theses of the interwar Comintern.
Macron, of course, bets otherwise. If his gamble pays off, a likelier historical analogy may once more suggest itself in the first president of the French Republic. A year older than Macron when elected, Napoleon’s nephew brought an end to the squabbling of parties and factions and heralded an extravaganza for financiers, reigning over two decades of martial pomp and propertied ostentation. France’s new ruler should be so lucky.
Bruno Amable, “Majorité sociale, minorité politique,” Le Monde diplomatique (March 2017): 3. ↩
Julien Boelaert, Sébastien Michon, and Étienne Ollion, Métier: député, Enquête sur la professionnalisation de la politique en France. Paris: Raisons d’Agir, 2017. ↩
Frédéric Lordon, “Macron, le spasme du système,” La pompe à phynance (blog), Le Monde diplomatique, April 21, 2017, http://blog.mondediplo.net/2017-04-12-Macron-le-spasme-du-systeme. ↩
Claude Serfati, Le militaire: Une histoire française. Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2017. ↩