Macron Shouldn't Misinterpret His Mandate

The royal aspirations of France’s new president

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a press conference.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a press conference. (Christophe Petit Tesson / Reuters)

In July 2015, 10 months before launching his campaign for the presidency, France’s then-economic minister Emmanuel Macron gave an interview in which he reflected on what was missing from French politics. “That absence,” he said, “is the figure of the king.” The French, he argued, had never “fundamentally wanted the king to die”; the Terror, the revolutionary period that saw the beheading of royals like King Louis XVI, “dug an emotional, imaginary, and collective void” that, with the exception of the “Napoleonic and Gaullist moments,” democracy had failed to fill.

Nearly two years later on May 7, Macron walked alone across the spot-lit Napoleon Courtyard at the Palais de Louvre after being declared the winner of the presidential runoff against Marine Le Pen. When he reached the stage, the crowd cheered over the triumphant strings of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. He stood at the center of the courtyard, the palace lit up behind him, and delivered a clear message: He would fill the void at the heart of political life. “I won’t let anything stand in my way,” he declared from his podium. “Our civilization is at stake.”

One week later, on the way to his inauguration, Macron cruised down the Champs Elysée standing in an open-top camouflage army jeep surrounded by cavalry, a stark departure from the civilian limousine used by most presidents. When he arrived at the 365-room presidential palace, he took another slow, solitary walk along a 60-meter red carpet, exuding the singular authority of a king. Hollande met him at the door; from a distance, he resembled a butler.

Even before Macron’s victory, presidents in France had long been referred to as “elected monarchs”—such is the power granted them by the Fifth Republic. And sure enough, no sooner had Macron won than left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose popularity has plummeted since Macron’s victory, called on his supporters to mobilize against the “new presidential monarch.” Faster than anyone expected, the 39-year-old Macron had fulfilled the promise of The Banker Who Wanted To Be King, the title of a biography of the new president published last year.

Since his victory, Macron has wooed the public with an attack on Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles, and drew new fans with his firm handshake with Donald Trump. The handshake, Macron told the Journal du Dimanche afterwards, was “not innocent. ... One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones … I don't let anything go.” (Reports suggest that the aggressive gesture and tough talk that followed may have motivated Trump to take America out of the Paris climate agreement. Pettiness begets pettiness.)

Such theatricality from Macron may, for a time, boost his stature on the world stage and cosmetically filling the void. But when the focus shifts to his domestic policy, particularly his economic plans to deregulate the economy, Macron’s royal posturing will do little to stem the resistance that is expected to rise against him. Securing a powerful majority in today’s legislative election will be an important first step, with some polls predicting a historic landslide. Yet a majority won’t, in itself, pacify his opponents—namely the left: the labor unions and their workers. Macron plans to plow ahead, regardless.

Where others may have recoiled from France’s monarchical infatuation, Macron looks set to embrace it. “I am a warrior. I am a fighter. I have a willingness to act that is consuming me,” he told BFM TV in April. He has already said he will seek to extend the state of emergency for another five months, initially imposed in November 2015 in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris and extended five times since. He has also declared his readiness to rule by presidential decree, bypassing parliamentary democracy, “for the sake of speed and efficiency.” He knows first-hand the costs of such a strategy, however. In 2016, Hollande forced through unpopular labor reforms, with Macron’s support, sparking months of sometimes-violent civil unrest and strikes.

With the legislative elections—the third and fourth rounds few are looking forward to—Macron hopes to secure a loyal parliamentary majority that could help obviate such blunt measures. As promised, his candidate list is evenly split between men and women. Over half of them come not from politics, but from “civil society”—which, for Macron, largely seems to mean prosperous, white-collar professionals: private-sector managers, venture capitalists, lawyers, and lobbyists. In keeping with his support base, there’s not a single worker from heavy industry and very few office employees, despite the fact that they represent half of France’s working population.

As Macron’s party, République En Marche, lacks the generous state funding of the more mainstream parties, he will rely, he boasts, on the footwork of his 250,000-plus army of volunteers. Again, however, the reality is less inspiring than the rhetoric. His campaign’s success reportedly relies less on the oft-invoked small contributions from the public (a la Bernie Sanders) as much as a coordinated funding spree from the finance sector. This was laid bare in a remarkable investigation into Macron’s fundraising campaign by Mediapart, France’s much-acclaimed digital newspaper, drawing on leaked emails from his inner circle.

If Macron is to govern unburdened of the need for compromise, he will need a minimum of 289 of the 577 representatives in the National Assembly. Current projections suggest En Marche could take as many as 350 seats, although pollsters are also aware that, with so many new candidates (and not just from Macron’s camp), the outcome is far from certain. For a fledgling party filled with political novices, even 250 seats would be an impressive achievement. But Macron knows this is not enough.

With the Socialist Party set for another round of political annihilation, Macron recognizes that the Republicans are his chief opposition. He is determined to lure their traditional supporters to his side. To that end, he named rising Republican Edouard Philippe, a self-described “man of the right” as his prime minister. Philippe was a close political ally of Alain Juppé, one of France’s most-popular politicians and, until his surprise defeat to Francois Fillon in the party’s primaries last year, a favorite for the presidency. The reaction to Philippe’s appointment suggested that Macron’s strategy was an inspired one. The day after the appointment, 173 politicians belonging to the Republicans and the Union of Democrats and Independents, France’s other center-right party, signed an open letter calling on their parties to “take the hand extended by the President of the Republic.”

Yet there is a sense on the left that they will not see a second hand extended their way. While Macron waxes lyrical about being “neither left nor right” and espouses a spirit of sensible compromise, he is focused on the necessity of his pro-business fiscal reforms, which are anathema to the left. Reform, for him, appears to mean little more than slashing market regulations with a promise, as he puts it, to “liberate energies” in the French economy. Corporate taxes will be reduced from 33.3 to 25 percent. Safeguards on the 35-hour working week will be relaxed; zero-hour contracts will rise. All this, to create “flexibility” for the French workforce.

In a positive step, unemployment benefits will be extended as a universal right, even for the self-employed and salaried workers who decide to resign. But job-seekers will be forced to accept their second job offer—having to surrender their unemployment benefits either way. On the final page of policy in his manifesto, Macron finally makes clear his ambition to cut 60 billion euros in public spending. “There can be no effective policies without fiscal responsibility,” the document explains.

Macron has taken every possible step to ensure the smoothest possible implementation of these reforms. On May 23, he arranged back-to-back meetings with various trade-union chiefs and business leaders. He has continued to flaunt both his stamina and his seriousness that these reforms will be passed, whatever it takes. He will implement them “without hesitation,” he has said, and won’t be “deterred by any obstacles.”

Ahead of the legislative elections, Macron claimed that he captured the second-largest majority in the history of the Fifth Republic. But about that mandate: He won the presidency with the lowest voter turnout in 50 years, along with a record number of abstentions and blank votes. Macron took 16 percent of the working-class vote in the first round, one of the lowest scores of any previous president. Indeed, in the second round, more members of the working-class abstained (32 percent) than voted for him (30 percent). Hardly a ringing endorsement. Moreover, polls found that a vote “against Le Pen” was the main motivation for around 45 percent of his voters on May 7. One poll revealed that a remarkable 61 percent of his voters did not even want him to gain a parliamentary majority. He misinterprets his mandate at his peril.

Should Macron prove unable to address the sufferings of “forgotten France,” however, his reign could be short-lived and hot-tempered. Regardless of spin, in the absence of a parliamentary majority or spurred on anyway by reckless impatience, it is hard to see how economic-reform-by-presidential-decree could produce anything other than a President Marine Le Pen in 2022. Even in resounding defeat on May 7, she doubled her party’s share of the vote from 2002, its last second-round outing. She will become an increasingly credible alternative if Macron’s reforms alienate a new round of voters.

The wave of resignation and ambivalence that carried Macron to victory could easily turn against him, sweeping a very different kind of president to power, and liberating a very different set of energies. The void at the heart of French politics would take on an even darker shade. In a sense, it would be a very regal ending. Après Macron, le déluge?