The Napoleon complex

10 Sep 2017

In the four months that have passed since his accession to the Elysée, Emmanuel Macron has marked out his presidency with characteristic style. The start-up president rules the French republic with a kind of energetic authority virtually unknown to modern French politics, a million miles from the uninspiring, consensus-based leadership of his predecessor. However, despite his apparently revolutionary approach to the presidency, Mr Macron’s methodology is deeply rooted in French political history.


Within his own party, La République En Marche! (which formally replaced the original En Marche! movement), Mr Macron holds utterly uncontested power. He has achieved this by tying his name to the party to such a degree that they are effectively indistinguishable. Mr Macron set up the party, appointed himself as leader and carried it to an unprecedented victory in the election. By marrying the character of Emmanuel Macron to the En Marche! campaign (note the shared initials), he portrayed himself as the natural-born figurehead of a sweeping political movement. Even his critics have admitted that has given Mr Macron a ‘cult-like’ image within his party, creating a sense that the movement could not exist without him.


On a practical level, it also negates the risk of a rival ousting him in a leadership primary, the selection method still used by the traditional parties. It was during such contests that the Parti socialiste (socialists) elected the quiet Benoît Hamon over the more charismatic Manuel Valls, whilst Les Républicains (conservatives) shot themselves firmly in the foot by picking the embarrassingly corrupt François Fillon over the ageing but respectable Alain Juppé. With no such system in place in La République En Marche!, Mr Macron’s position couldn’t be safer.


Beyond his party Mr Macron has wasted no time in asserting himself as a monarchical figure, presiding over the chaos of French politics with a sense of omnipotent detachment. As noted in an examination by the New York Times, he is keen to ensure that all executive power belongs solely to the president. He is able to retain this unique position by deploying ‘the Napoleonic tactic of keeping opponents off balance’ through his dynamic and unusually energetic approach to politics.

Much of this is achieved through effective PR. Shortly before his victory speech at the Louvre on 7 May, he allowed himself to be seen pacing the grounds alone in a black greatcoat. Political commentators snapped this up: François Mitterand had done the same thing in 1981 before going on to become France’s longest-serving president. Not long later Mr Macron made the decision to address both houses of parliament at Versailles – something done only during times of crisis – thus once again symbolically presenting himself as the centre of power.


However, symbolism isn’t everything. The young ‘republican monarch’ is keen to show that he has teeth and is willing to use them when his decisions are questioned. Perhaps the best example is his treatment of General Pierre De Villiers, the former head of the armed forces, who protested against Mr Macron’s military budget cuts. Aware of the need to prove his authority, the new president publically accused the general of speaking out of turn. Within days, General De Villiers had resigned.


Not content with consolidating his power at home, Mr Macron also seeks to set out his image as the ‘liberal strong-man’ abroad. As he states in his book, Révolution, the president wants to boost France’s image as a reliable, liberal state that maintains a healthy distance from China (who may undercut the economy), the USA (whose days at the top are numbered) and Russia (who supported his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen). With an ever-present and hypercritical media watching his every move, he cannot afford to look weak in the eyes of foreign powers.

Again, gesture politics is the order of the day. He almost aggressively welcomed Donald Trump to Paris in July, perhaps aiming to gain the trust of the reckless US president in order to influence his notoriously changeable views. The welcome laid out for Vladimir Putin was even grander. Mr Macron brought the Russian premier to Versailles, the traditional home of the Bourbon dynasty, thereby proving that Russia wasn’t the only country that could play at symbolic national politics.


Emmanuel Macron has not been president for long. Indeed he was all but unheard of before last spring. But in an incredibly short space of time he has set himself out as a new breed of leader. By combining his technocratic background with his conviction that France needs a headstrong commander, he has created the image of – to use his own term – the ‘Jupiterian’ president. Mr Macron is well aware of the stagnant nature of French politics and plans to alter it radically, using himself as a model for change regardless of the ridicule it engenders in certain wings of the press. Every carefully calibrated gesture is another step towards his vision of a more efficient and assertive France, led by a romanticised hero in the cannon of Napoleon or Charles De Gaulle. But as the honeymoon period draws to a close and domestic issues begin to bite, it remains to be seen as to whether Mr Macron can convert this dream into reality.

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