Eyeing Re-election, Macron Walks a Tightrope Above Swirling Crises in France

PARIS — In a recent meeting with a handful of foreign correspondents, President Emmanuel Macron of France philosophized for 100 minutes on the record, without notes. He dotted his conversation with Americanisms — “game-changer,” “honest brokers” — that must have had de Gaulle turning in his grave. He dissected French “universalism.” He mused on colonial history. He identified hatred, turbocharged by social media, as “a threat to democracy itself.”

The performance was typical of Mr. Macron, and unusual for any head of state, the equivalent of tightrope walking without a net. Yet, the many words revealed little of the man himself. Four years into an often tumultuous term, facing an election next year, Mr. Macron remains an enigma to even his own country.

Backed by the left in 2017, Mr. Macron now has more support on the right. Once a free-market reformer, he now extols the role of the state and protection “at any cost” in the age of Covid-19. Once the leader of a freewheeling movement that swept away old political hierarchies, he now sits comfortably at the pinnacle of power, his authority accentuated by terrorism and pandemic.

“With Macron we have gone to the limit of presidential domination in the Fifth Republic,” said Alain Duhamel, a political commentator.

The question now is to what end Mr. Macron, 43, will use that power as Europe faces a treacherous passage and the ability of the continent to bring Covid-19 under control remains in question. He is determined to steer his country and Europe on an independent course from China and the United States. “The day cooperation equals dependence, you have become a vassal and you disappear,” he said at the meeting with the correspondents.

With the era of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, drawing to a close this year, Mr. Macron is in a position to shape the “sovereign” Europe he has extolled, as well as a new French identity at a time of violent flux. He could even win a second term next year, something no president has done since 2002.

Or, with his country facing its biggest economic, social and health crisis since World War II, its economy shrinking 8.3 percent last year, millions furloughed from shuttered businesses, and more than 87,000 dead from the coronavirus, the funambulist could fall. The French urge to topple a leader is never far below the surface.

“Anything can happen between now and our presidential election next year, given the national fragmentation,” Chloé Morin, a political scientist, said. “There is a lot of resignation, but also a lot of anger. The hyper-concentration of power in Mr. Macron is part of the problem.”

Macronism, as it’s known here, is still a mystery, an elastic and disruptive political doctrine depending less on content than the charisma of a risk-taker. Lockdown or no lockdown? One man decides (no lockdown for now, despite pressure from some ministers). The Parliament and political parties feel marginal, even irrelevant.

A country so unsettled could lurch right next year toward the xenophobic Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate now working hard to look electable in May 2022. One recent poll gave her 48 percent of the vote in a runoff with Mr. Macron. Or France could do what it did in 2017 with Mr. Macron: embrace an unknown.

Regional elections in June seem certain to batter Mr. Macron’s hodgepodge centrist political party, La République en Marche. Power has worn on Europe’s wunderkind. He has already survived the Yellow Vest movement, a revolt of the downtrodden against the privileged. In the pandemic’s pall France is sullen. A recent survey found one in five adults depressed.

“Initially, he inspired me,” said Paula Forteza, 34, a lawmaker who quit the president’s party last year. “He was our way to modernize the left. But I learned that he was above all a tactician and that we will never know what he really believes.”

Still, Mr. Macron appears better placed than either François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessors, to gain re-election. His approval rating hovers just above 40 percent, high for a French president. The master of the center ground, he unsettles his opponents, even if they sense the president may be vulnerable.

Mr. Macron’s support has persisted despite a mixed pandemic performance — France has far more Covid deaths than Germany with its bigger population — and European mismanagement of vaccine procurement. The French rollout of shots has been slow.

“He faces a right in difficulty and a disunited left,” said Frédéric Dabi, the deputy director-general of IFOP, a polling institute. “One in two people on the right appear to support him, and one in three on the left.”

This breadth of support reflects Mr. Macron’s mastery of a post-ideological world. He came to power announcing the end of left and right; he has lived by that credo. Once the apostle of balanced budgets, he now waves away the ballooning debt in the age of the virus as a problem for another day.

The new buzzword of Macronism is solidarity. One Macron slogan contemplated for 2022 is “Nous, Français,” or roughly “We, The French.”

“I believe in continental sovereignty, and I believe in nation states, and I do not believe in neo-nationalism,” the president said in the meeting, a startling attempt to comfort the pro-European center-left, the patriotic center-right, and the never-Le-Pen crowd in a single phrase.

No wonder he has been called the “on-the-other-hand” president. In trying to overcome the bitter legacy of the Algerian war, he has pursued truth with courage, but declined repentance. He often tries to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Mr. Macron swept to power in revolutionary style in 2017. He demolished the traditional parties of left and right, the Socialist Party and the Republicans as he absorbed them into his own movement. They have not recovered.

Reform followed, of the rigid 3,324-page French labor code, of the heavily subsidized French rail system, of the tax code. Unemployment, over 10 percent in 2016, fell sharply until the virus struck. Foreign investment boomed. He got a stubborn country to budge.

But strikes blocked proposed changes to the generous French pension system. Mr. Macron earned an unwanted sobriquet: “President of the Rich.” Because he had been all things to all people, he had to disappoint some.

“When you talk to him you are the only person in the world,” Ms. Forteza said. “He has the habit of winking at people in a crowd, in a friendly not inappropriate way, to generate complicity. He did it to me several times. But later, I realized he did it to everyone! I was not as unique as I thought. And he was not the man of the left he seemed.”

Perhaps that is unsurprising. Mr. Macron is a product of the National School of Administration, which turns out presidents with metronomic regularity.

The school, closer to McKinsey than the masses, is not designed to foster revolutionary change. It’s an elite establishment; one percent of the current graduating class of 80 has a working-class parent.

Mr. Macron vowed to abolish it after a humility-inducing post-Yellow-Vest listening tour in 2019. He has since retreated, instead opening up a few places at the school for students from the projects that surround big French cities.

“On immigration, on security, he turned to the right,” Ms. Forteza said. “We on the left feel a little used.”

But the left has no unifying figure in a country that pandemic-related insecurity and Islamist terrorists attacks have pushed rightward. Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, may run and galvanize the left into a serious challenger.

But for now, Mr. Macron’s political calculus seems to be that he has most to gain picking up votes on the right.

Hence his attempt to extirpate through legislation the roots of what he calls “Islamist separatism,” which Mr. Macron believes undergirds recurrent domestic terrorism.

At a time when identity politics and the anger of some marginalized Muslim immigrants have raised questions about France’s ability to embrace the diversity of its society, Mr. Macron wants to preserve and broaden a French universalism much criticized for disguising forms of exclusion, particularly for Muslims.

“Our universalism is not in my view a doctrine of assimilation,” he told the foreign correspondents. “It is not the negation of differences. I believe in pluralism within our universalism.”

In its subtle parsing, its attempted reconciliation of the irreconcilable, the finesse was very Macron. France has tended to view its model as assimilationist in opposition to American multiculturalism. So, this was a departure. But if pluralism “is not multiculturalism,” what does it look like?

Mr. Macron went on to speak of the millions of French people who are descended from migrants, whose identity and dreams are “totally France” but whose families may have “other languages or other dreams.”

All this, he said, “must be recognized as an opportunity”; and France must understand that in recent years “our integration policies have not worked” and that this failure has been felt most acutely by those who have “a different first name or a different skin color.” Those, he added, who “are different from the majority — I do not like the word minority.”

Like “multiculturalism,” “minority” is a no-no in France, because in its self-image this is a nation of undifferentiated citizens drawn to an ennobling, universal idea. If Mr. Macron can indeed reinvigorate this idea through celebration of diversity, he will have broadened the meaning of Frenchness.

On one subject, Mr. Macron has never wavered: the defense of Europe’s great postwar push for integration to assure peace. He will carry the banner of Europe into his election campaign, at a time when France will have the rotating presidency of the European Union for the first time since 2008.

His priority will be the pursuit of a “sovereign” Europe, with the technology and military capacity to stand up for the values — liberty, pluralism, the rule of law — that he believes define it.

That was courageous in 2017, with the fervor of Brexit and former President Donald Trump’s anti-Europe rhetoric raging; and perhaps, faced by Ms. Le Pen, it is no less so today.

In a time of rising authoritarianism, the French president, like Ms. Merkel, has been a significant democratic counterweight, a strong supporter of multilateralism and free societies.

Mr. Duhamel, the political commentator, identified Macronism as “a civil and democratic Bonapartism, where everything goes up to the leader, and there is a quest for disruption and reform, through the whip.”

And does France, at once a conservative and revolutionary society, like this style enough to give the mystery man five more years?

“The election will be decided between two negative emotions, hate and fear,” Mr. Duhamel sighed. “If hate prevails in May next year, Mr. Macron will be defeated. If it’s fear, after a convulsive period, faced by an uncertain future, then he will win.”

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