France is entranced by Macron. Can he build on a faultless start?
New president has sent the country’s morale soaring – but he must turn words into action
French president Emmanuel Macron with British prime minister Theresa May and US president Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Sicily. Macron has received praise internationally for his dealings with foreign leaders. Photograph: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images
In less than a month, the election of Emmanuel Macron has transformed France for the better, though there’s an underlying anxiety that pride in the young, handsome, brave and articulate leader could be dashed, that newfound belief in a better future could recede like a mirage in the desert.
The statistical institute INSEE announced on Tuesday that the country’s morale has reached its highest point since August 2007. At the same time, another poll indicated Macron’s movement, La République En Marche, is likely to win an absolute majority in legislative elections on June 11th and 18th.
This state of mind has been labelled “Macron mania” or “Macronitis”. The former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve calls it “beatitude”. French media routinely describe Macron’s performance as “faultless”.
A retired judge told me Macron is wise beyond his years because he has listened to older people; his grandmother, his wife Brigitte, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. “From the first day, he acted as if he had always been president,” a landscape gardener remarked. “He’s the best thing to happen to France since Gen de Gaulle,” a visual artist said. “Can he walk on water?” I heard a radio presenter comment.
Laurent Joffrin, the director of Libération newspaper, calls Macron “the international cherub”.
As a student of philosophy and political science, then investment banker, presidential adviser and cabinet minister, Macron studied the mysteries of power for more than a decade
At a press conference on Monday, Macron courteously but firmly put Vladimir Putin in his place. “Please study this example of leadership,” the former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul tweeted, addressing himself to Trump. “You could do the same thing when you meet Putin this summer.”
The moderate US Republican Ana Navarro tweeted, “Imagine a courageous, intellectually curious, unifying, serious, truth-telling leader . . . Yes, Macron has me suffering Acute President Envy.”
“It must be nice to have as your nation’s leader a vertebrate who can look a sonofabitch in the eye. And is not, of course, beholden,” tweeted David Simon, the creator of the US TV series The Wire.
Macron has turned French politics upside down. He may do the same in foreign policy.
Trump’s louche relationship with Putin’s Russia and offensive remarks about Europe, particularly Germany, have combined with Brexit to create a vacuum. Macron and Merkel form a “power couple” who could realise de Gaulle’s dream of une Europe puissance. Macron says he is determined “to re-knit an efficient multilateral system”.
As a student of philosophy and political science, then investment banker, presidential adviser and cabinet minister, Macron studied the mysteries of power for more than a decade. He wrote a lengthy essay on Machiavelli. While he believes ideology to be essential, he is not naive.
Trump, Putin and the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, all of whom he met in recent days, operate through “power relations”, Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche. “I don’t mind. I don’t let anything slip by because that’s the only way you make yourself respected.”
At their press conference, Putin said he and Macron had not discussed Russian interference in the French presidential campaign. Macron corrected Putin immediately, noting that he had brought the subject up when Putin telephoned to congratulate him on his election. “I am a pragmatic person. I told the president what I had to say . . . When I have said things once, it is not my habit to go back over them.”
Macron’s solemn threat of military reprisals against the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons, his public contradiction of Putin and his condemnation of Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik as “lying organs of propaganda” were a stunning signal that the tradition of langue de bois (“wooden tongue” or meaningless verbiage) in French political discourse is over. Henceforward, politicians who blather on will look hopelessly old-fashioned.
‘Labyrinths of Power’
Macron served for five years on the board of the intellectual magazine Esprit because he wanted to participate in a revision of French political thinking. Le Monde has just published large extracts of his article on The Labyrinths of Power from the spring 2011 issue.
Due in large part to media pressure, Macron wrote, politicians live in the short term. But the country’s problems require long-term solutions. The knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to pass another law, few of which are followed through, “as if the moment of the announcement equalled action”.
There is, Macron continued, “a divorce, or at least a hiatus, between political discourse and action”. Politicians comment on everything but “at the same time produce the justification of their own limits and incapacity: constraints from Brussels, existent policies . . . ”
Macron wields symbols of authority to compensate for his youth
Macron’s writings for Esprit and his book Révolution constitute a plea for the restoration of political responsibility, “permanent deliberation”, vision – which he calls ideology – and authority.
“Real authority means not letting the order of things be imposed by those who assail us,” Macron said last September. “We must remain masters of our own clocks, of our principles, and not abandon them . . . To establish real political authority . . . one must reach a consensus in clarity, not twilight compromises.”
Macron has spoken of the “emotional void” left by the French regicide. He does not want a return to monarchy, but “a new form of democratic authority founded on a discourse of meaning, a world of symbols, a permanent determination to look towards the future, anchored in the country’s history”.
Symbols of authority
Macron wields symbols of authority to compensate for his youth. On the night of his election, he walked slowly across the courtyard of the Louvre, former palace of the kings of France. On inauguration day, he rode up the Champs-Élysées, standing on the back of an army command car. He led Putin through the Gallery of Battles at Versailles, where 30 huge paintings recount French military victories from the Middle Ages until Napoleon.
Public perception is an important first step. But if Macron is to confirm his faultless start, he knows he must be true to his own analysis, and transform words into action, symbols into reality.