Emmanuel Macron Embodies French Ambivalence

The president-elect owes his victory far more to the country's fear of Le Pen than to any particular taste for his own centrist politics.

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates on the stage at his victory rally.
French President-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates on the stage at his victory rally. (Christian Hartmann)

PARIS — Shortly after 10:30 on Sunday night, as the elegiac strings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony filled the darkened courtyard of the Louvre, Emmanuel Macron, France's president-elect, began a long, solitary march to the stage where he was awaited by a crowd of many thousands and a nation almost entirely uncertain of what to expect from its fresh-faced new leader. It is often said that the president of the French Fifth Republic is an elected monarch, and Macron indeed looked very much the young king, a bit stiff with awe and entirely alone but for the glare of a spotlight and a clutch of television cameras, there to capture his rehearsed solemnity and the nervous movements of his eyes.

His first order of business will be to prevent this lonesome spectacle from serving as an allegory for his presidency. Though he was elected by a vast margin over his opponent Marine Le Pen, the populist reactionary who leads the National Front party, Macron owes his victory far more to the country's fear of Le Pen than to any particular taste for his own centrist politics. At nearly 25 percent, abstention was up from the first round of the election and at a 48-year high, and 9 percent of voters cast blank ballots in protest, an all-time record. Macron won almost 66 percent of the vote, but this represented only about 44 percent of registered voters, and polls show that nearly half of these were motivated primarily by a desire to block Le Pen. Macron’s economic liberalism frightens most of the left; his social liberalism alienates much of the right; his Europeanism angers the extremes of both. (The fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth, or “Ode to Joy,” was selected for Macron’s grand entrance because, in addition to being lovely and optimistic, it is the official anthem of the EU.)

Speaking Sunday night, Macron offered “a word for the French who voted for me without sharing our ideas.” “I know that this wasn’t about giving me carte blanche,” he said, acknowledging that many had voted “simply to defend the Republic.” If he is to accomplish the economic and governmental reforms for which he has called, and to serve as more than a lonely figurehead, he will need either to convince these reluctant supporters to accord him a parliamentary majority in the legislative elections next month; or to convince whomever they elect to abandon partisanship and work with him in a coalition. Both of these outcomes are within reach, polling indicates, but neither is by any means a given.

Le Pen underperformed, having been expected to win as much as 45 percent of the vote but finishing with only 34. An almost comically bilious performance in a televised debate against Macron is thought to have cost her several points, and perhaps also to have undermine her efforts to lastingly dédiaboliser, or “de-demonize," the National Front. Her second-round campaign slogan was “Choose France,” and she sought to cast the election as a referendum on French identity and independence; in fact, it was a referendum on her. Still, Le Pen received more than 10.5 million votes, several million more than she or her party have ever won in any previous election, an “historic and massive result” that has made her the leader of the country’s de facto “primary force of opposition,” Le Pen told her supporters. The traditional parties of the left and right, which after losing in the first round of the election had called upon their supporters to vote for Macron, have “discredited themselves, and forfeited any legitimate claim to representing a force of change, or even credible opposition,” Le Pen said.

Her score augurs a “recomposition” of the French political field, she said a bit hopefully, with the traditional designations of left and right giving way to those of “patriots” and “globalists,” but the Front National must undergo a “deep renewal” in order to rise to this occasion. A change in name may be in the offing; some party officials, frustrated with the election result, have gone so far as to begin calling for Le Pen or her close advisors to resign. “For the time being, that's off the record,” one party official told Le Monde. "After the legislative elections, it won't be off the record anymore." The National Front is expected to win no more than a modest handful of seats in parliament. But it holds only two at the moment, and Le Pen's score confirms that, at the very least, the party will likely remain a center of gravity in French politics in the years to come.

Both the National Front and Macron may benefit from a divided right, with Macron drawing away moderates and the National Front attracting identity and security hardliners. Most prominent members of Les Républicains, the major party of the right, called upon voters to back Macron in the second round, and some have now been speaking of him in particularly admiring tones, angling, presumably, for ministerial appointments or for help with their legislative reelection campaigns. (On Sunday night, a handful of them shuttled between television sets, currying favor.) Other LR party leaders, fearful that the party might break apart, have firmly refused any alliance with Macron or any participation in his eventual parliamentary coalition. “I'm obviously in the opposition,” said François Baroin, the party official tasked with leading the party’s campaign for the legislative elections. His party’s candidate, François Fillon, won 20 percent of the first-round vote, he noted in an appearance on television station France 2, just 4 percent less than Macron and 1 percent less than Le Pen. If LR does not win a majority in parliament, it intends, like the National Front, to serve as the prime opposition to the president.

So too does Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the erudite and sneeringly self-regarding leftist who placed just behind Fillon in the first round, with slightly less than 20 percent of the vote. Mélenchon refused to call for his supporters to back Macron in the second round, though he also enjoined them not to vote for Le Pen. In an address Sunday night, he said: “The new president has been elected. Courtesy, and love for our democracy, demand that we duly note this, without dithering, and that we present him our best wishes. May our nation's sense of destiny inhabit you, Mister President, and may the thought of the misfortunate—without rights, without roofs, without work—obsess you. May France find its satisfaction. But better that we see to it ourselves.”

The Socialist Party, the traditional force of the left and the party of outgoing president François Hollande, has been squeezed by the rise of both Mélenchon, on its leftward edge, and Macron, on its right. It is expected to lose scores of seats in the elections next month, but has not yet adopted a clear line with regard to Macron, and those of its members who may wish to run under the auspices of his movement, En Marche!. The political landscape is fracturing; whether this will be to Macron's benefit or disadvantage remains to be seen.

Though En Marche! is only a year old, Macron has pledged to run candidates in each of France's 577 parliamentary districts, half of them politicians, half of them members of civil society without political experience. (Their names have yet to be announced.) This half-and-half approach is a gesture both to popular exasperation with the traditional political class and to the virtues of experience in leadership. Macron himself has never held elected office and exalts the virtues of private initiative, but he is also a former Economy Minister and a product of the same elite institutions that have traditionally trained the country's politicians and top public officials. During his campaign, detractors and supporters alike frequently joked that his favorite expression was “en même temps...,” or, “on the other hand...,” which, depending upon one's affinities, suggested either a willingness to listen and reflect, or an unwillingness to choose.

Since their revolution, at least, the French have been pondering whether they ought to think of themselves as a nation of insurrectionists with a pronounced taste for the status quo or rather as a nation of conservatives who occasionally spasm into rebellion. They have elected as their president a man who embodies this national ambivalence quite thoroughly. It is perhaps his prime appeal, but it will doubtless be his prime risk, as well: If he sets out to offend no one, he may succeed only in disappointing everyone, and thus find himself entirely politically alone.