I remember the evening well. Perched on a sofa 20 kilometres outside Brussels, Merlot in hand, awaiting the result. The feeling of exhausted relief as I opened BBC News and read the big bold letters at the top of the page: Emmanuel Macron defeats Marine Le Pen to become French president. 66% to 34%.
Of course, once the initial relief – felt by right-minded people across the world – over the defeat of the far right had died down, the challenge facing the centrist outsider and surprise winner of the election became clear. France was, and in many ways still is, a politically unhealthy country. The government was embalmed in red tape and run by the deeply uninspiring François Hollande, a man never quite left-wing enough to be a true socialist and never quite charismatic enough to be a French president. The economy was and remains sluggish at best, even by post-2008 standards. Populism was on the rise, spurred on by the refugee crisis and the twin embarrassments of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory.
For many French voters, a young and seemingly unblemished individual emerging from outside the traditional party sphere provided a key to the future. Macron stressed his economic and social liberalism throughout the campaign, keeping his opinions and private life vague enough to avoid the traps into which his opponents tumbled. After his victory in May, Macron set about trying to live up to his self-generated hype by tackling France’s troubles with the same energy that had steered his En Marche! movement to power.
Macron’s methodology has certainly shown a break from that of his predecessor. Unlike ‘Mr Normal’ Hollande, he has attempted to cultivate an image of headstrong, hyper-intelligent dynamism. In practice, this ‘Jupiterian’ style of leadership means that the buck always stops at the Élysée Palace, with the President making the final decision on any matter presented to him.
This approach has been seen before (most notably in the case of Charles De Gaulle), but it has rarely been used so effectively in a democratic context as by Macron. He took this highly personalised form of politics – in which the individual leader takes precedence over the party (take another look at the initials of En Marche!) – and used it to win a landslide. Since then he has tried to do the same in government.
Though his success has perhaps been more limited than he would like, Macron’s political strategy has delivered some victories over the first seven months of his presidency. The legislative elections in late May were a resounding endorsement of French centrism, with the newly rebranded La République En Marche! trouncing opposition on either side of the political spectrum. The traditional French left and right hastily pointed to low turnout, but this made no difference to the fact that centrists were now sitting in over three times as many National Assembly seats as the next most successful party (the conservative Les Républicains).
Macron’s personal charm and drive has also proved useful on the diplomatic stage. The knuckle-popping welcome laid on for Trump was generally viewed as a success in France, with the swaggering masculinity of the US president apparently tamed by the urbane, metropolitan Frenchman. By reversing this strategy he was also able to hold his own against Vladimir Putin, matching the Russian’s love for grandeur politics by meeting him amidst the Bourbon splendour of the Palace of Versailles. More recently, Macron has been able to play on his young, environmentalist image to win support amongst the international community via his ‘Make the Planet Great Again’ campaign, which involves France stepping into the space left by America in the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and paying for US scientists to begin research in France.
However, this managerial leadership style has its limits. For a start, many commentators have pointed out that Macron’s perceived social liberalism is merely skin-deep. His commitment to feminism has yet to expand beyond his selection of cabinet ministers, whilst his strict approach to the media has been described by more than one writer as Orwellian. Attempts at economic reform have likewise proved more troublesome than anticipated. French labour laws are notoriously complex, limiting workers to 35 hours of work a week (on paper, I might add) and often resulting in lengthy union disputes. Macron’s early moves to loosen up the code de travail – which he described in typically erudite fashion as a ‘Copernican revolution’ – were deeply unpopular. Strikes followed. Opinion polls plummeted.
And while the President’s approach to European and transatlantic diplomacy has proved reasonably successful, applying the same methods to Africa has resulted in widespread condemnation. Macron is keen to get involved in the futures of African states that once made up the French Empire, such as Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast and Algeria. He’s desperate to show that he is from a generation that ‘would not tell Africans what to do’, but has a tendency to overplay the white saviour card. His attitude towards former colonies, which on the surface appears aggressively friendly but masks a deeply paternalistic involvement, has split opinion in both France and Africa. Whilst some welcome his active approach to developing Franco-African relations, others point out the inherently patronising element of this postcolonial relationship. As African history and political science expert Rose Ndengue notes, Macron frequently refers to African leaders with the informal tu pronoun instead of the formal vous. It’s hard to imagine him doing the same to the likes of Putin or Xi Jinping.
The question now is whether Macron’s frenetically possessive approach to governance will remain effective over the next few years. His popularity has risen noticeably at home during the past few months, clambering out of the depths to which it had fallen during the summer. However, the factors affecting his administration will not disappear easily. The thorny issue of work laws is unlikely to vanish any time soon, and neither is France’s high rate of unemployment. The EU is still under threat, with an enfeebled British government trying to extricate itself from the organisation whilst the usually level-headed Germans grapple with rising right-wing populism. The US is still run by an unpredictable bigot and violent extremism still lingers across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
As both French and British newspapers like to quip, Macron came to power as the youngest leader of France since Napoleon Bonaparte. I believe, however, that the comparison is more than simply anecdotal. Macron is, like the Emperor before him, a highly managerial type of leader. His greatest strengths during the election were his personal drive and intelligence. Now he leans on them too much. His ultimate reliance upon the Emmanuel Macron brand means that both success and failure will always traced back to him. Macron’s political solipsism may follow in the footsteps of France’s most powerful leaders, but whether or not it is the appropriate answer to the country’s current ills is yet to be seen.
Sam Young is an Editor at Backbench