Macron’s Coup

France’s new president doesn’t have many new policy ideas. But he’s still a political master.

Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron makes a statement during a press conference on June 8 in Paris.

Chesnot/Getty Images

This week, President Trump is in France meeting with the new French president, Emmanuel Macron. Despite being a former government minister and member of the French establishment, Macron left a Socialist administration to found his own “movement,” En Marche, and used it as a platform to win the presidency.*  His new party then captured a majority in the National Assembly. Macron did all this by promising to restore a lost French “destiny” but within the context of a stronger Europe.

On the eve of Trump’s visit, I exchanged emails with Cécile Alduy, a professor of French studies at Stanford University and the author of books about French right-wing nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and French politics. During the course of our exchange, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Macron’s rebranded image contains any substance, why Le Pen’s popularity has collapsed, and whether Macron’s tensions with Trump are responsible for some of his success.

Isaac Chotiner: What has surprised you most about Macron’s first several weeks as president?

Cécile Alduy: Macron has been a master of taking people by surprise from the very beginning. First, there was the launch of his movement, “En Marche!” in April 2016—no one thought it would take off and now it claims 375,000 (nonpaying) members. Then his run for the presidency on his own, and against the tradition of waiting for the incumbent president to declare himself. And finally his win.

But we should not have been surprised because, each time, what he did was follow the logical conclusion from a cold analysis of the state of French public opinion. French voters favored “change” and “renewal” in opinion polls for the 2017 elections: he delivered on that. Trust in traditional political parties had fallen to 14 percent of polled citizens in 2016—he built a movement [with a] “and left and right” [strategy] rather than follow partisan affiliations. As the new President, Macron continues to be full of surprises by delivering exactly what opinion polls have revealed but no one dare to actually do. People expressed a strong preference for authority and despised former President Hollande for confiding too much in journalists and being too “normal.” Macron imposes a grandiose scenography of his access to power, marching towards the Arch of Triumph through the Louvre’s courtyard on election night, then parading on a military tank on the Champs-Élysées upon his inauguration. People distrusted politicians and wanted new faces: He invested hundreds of newcomers who had never sought elected office before as candidates for the legislative elections, etc.

What still surprises me is that he manages to pull it off. He is a master of symbolism and manages to embody at once youth, renewal, and authority, yet he delivers policies that are nothing new but no one seems to call his bluff. For instance, his new labor reform bill is the continuation of Hollande’s policy—or rather of his own bills as Hollande’s former minister of economy, for instance. Yet there is a real “Macron-mania,” an adoration for anything he does or says.

He is starting to be referred to as a neo-Gaullist—a new version of the leadership and worldview of Charles de Gaulle. What exactly does that mean in 2017?

There are two different aspects of this comparison, an ideological one, and an institutional one. Commentators rightly note that recent political events—a profound renewal of the political personnel in Congress, the coalition of right and left personalities in a “movement” formed around a charismatic leader, the Socialists in shambles—had never been seen before except when de Gaulle came to power in 1958. So there is a valid historical parallel to be made in the political contexts between 1958 and 2017.

Macron also wants to embody a “Gaullian” (rather than Gaullist) presidential figure: an authority figure who is directly applauded and brought to power by the people (outside of any political party) and stands as a grand, dignified quasi-monarch above the cesspool of politicians’ bickering. But the adjective “neo-Gaullist” would imply a political positioning on the right side of the political spectrum, and an ideological position that favors France’s national independence from international organizations (de Gaulle pulled out from NATO’s integrated command and was suspicious of the European Union), as well an assertion of an independent foreign policy—and that is not the case with Macron.

It seems like you are saying Macron is preaching a nationalism that is very friendly to internationalism. Is that a fair characterization?

I would not call his political line nationalist nor nationalistic. Rather, he is invoking patriotism in a broader, more open manner. Macron wants to give the French their pride back, but he does that without targeting an enemy that would be the culprit of their current low self-esteem. It’s an “open to the world” brand of national feel-good pride.

It is quite typical of Macron’s brand of politics: his campaign is the victory of emotional politics—an appeal to emotions (“optimism,” “energy,” “desire,” “benevolence” are his keywords) rather than values or policies.

So at this point you don’t find anything substantive about his “new” politics?

It is of course early to assess the impact of Macron’s presidency. We should differentiate between his “politics” and his policies. The latter are a combination of liberal-minded cultural measures (maternity leave for everyone; a plan to reduce the gender gap in politics and the economy) and neo-liberal— this time in the sense of “laissez-faire”—policies on the economic front. Less taxes, especially for the top bracket and for investors and companies; less government; more “flexibility” on the job market, meaning easing negotiation at the company level without unions and fewer obstacles to firing employees. So, nothing new here.

In terms of his “politics”—the way he is waging power, organizing the decision-making process around him, and changing the ways of politicians for his generation—there will be something substantive when and if he delivers on his promise to make institutional changes to reduce the size of Congress, change the electoral system to better represent smaller political movements, and “moralize” the ways elected officials work with lobbyists or run into conflicts of interest. However, some of these changes will require a vote of both Congress and the Senate with a two-thirds majority—the bar is high. And the Senate is already stalling.

So far, what we have seen is an increase in the dominion of the executive branch over the Parliament, with a silent “En Marche” majority that is applauding every and any word spoken by the president. It is a real concern.

Do any of the existing political parties seem to have a response to him and En Marche!?

Surprisingly, the National Front has almost ceased to exist as a political voice of opposition. Marine Le Pen’s disastrous presidential debate, the National Front’s feeble numbers in the National Assembly, the inner divisions of the party have left them speechless and unintelligible. This is a shock: Only a year ago, Marine Le Pen was branding the National Front as the “First Party of France”—and rightly so, with record electoral successes in 2015 (28 percent). Now everything has to be built from the ground up again.

The Socialist Party is brain dead at this point: Its candidate Benoît Hamon managed to get the worst score in the whole history of the Fifth Republic with 6.5 percent of the votes, and only 31 Socialist candidates were elected to Congress—compared with 295 in 2012! The Republican Party is suffering from its usual woe: divisions and quarrels out in the public. The only force that has found a legible, strong public voice is the “France Insoumise” of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but it’s hard to tell how effective they can be to rally around other currents because of Mélenchon’s authoritarian tendencies.

How do you understand Le Pen’s collapse?

Marine Le Pen had been sailing in stratospheric spheres with high opinion poll numbers until January 2017. Her past successes in local elections, her good polling numbers, the abysmal state of the left and the right—all these elements gave great hopes to her supporters: “It’s our turn” was the spirit. Even if she did not win the presidency, they expected her to fare much better, and then get 50 or more representatives in Congress.

But Marine Le Pen crashed during the final debate with Macron: Her performance was abysmal, even in the eyes of her fans. She appeared aggressive, even frightening, and incompetent on the key subjects of her platform, such as the exit from the eurozone.

As a result, there was a drop in National Front voters’ turnout, at the very same time that Macron supporters rallied en masse, both at the presidential election, and afterwards for his candidates to the National Assembly. National Front sympathizers were demotivated to see all their efforts go down the drain in one pitiful public debate. Instead of being energized by Marine Le Pen’s historical position in the second run of the presidential election, they threw in the towel.

How big a story have Macron’s spats with Trump been in France, and how important are they to his success?

To put it mildly, Donald Trump has a rather negative reputation in France, across almost all the board (except maybe within National Front’s ranks). Macron’s back-and-forth with someone who is widely seen as an irrational bully gave a sense of pride to the French—something that is rare, and welcome. Macron appeared strong, manly, modern, and on the right side of history, all things that appeared as boding well for his capacity to stand his ground in the name of France on the international scene, in spite of his inexperience and young age. The subliminal message was that Macron was the “French Obama.”

Correction, July 14, 2017: This article originally misstated Macron left the Socialist Party to found En March. He was not a member of the Socialist Party at that time. (Return.)