Politicians everywhere have hidden parts of their political and personal itinerary. Sometimes the exposing of such “secrets” causes disillusionment and/or reduced support of voters who had supported this person. What varies is the extent to which the politicians can keep such secrets obscure.
The recently elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has managed maintaining the obscurity better than most. It is therefore useful to try to answer the question of who he (really) is. For one thing, there is a lot of disagreement about the answer. This difference is not only one between supporters and antagonists but also within each of the two.
What do we know about his background? He studied at two of France’s elite institutions – Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) – where he performed brilliantly.
Upon graduation, he served the government as an Inspecteur Générale des Finances. He then moved to the private sphere, obtaining a post as a banker at Rothschild & Cie. At the time, he was a member of the Socialist Party, about to govern France with François Hollande in 2009. This was the very moment that he changed his party affiliation to Independent.
When Manuel Valls, the leader of the most “centrist” faction of the Socialist Party, formed in 2016 his second, more conservative cabinet, he recruited Macron to be his Minister of Economy. Macron’s task was to implement a neoclassical turn in France’s governmental policies. Macron (and Valls) were only partially successful.
The presidential elections of 2017 were approaching. Valls sought the candidacy of the Socialist Party. Macron did not support him but instead created his own party structure. He named it En Marche!, which means “going forward” but also replicated Macron’s initials (EM).
Support for the Socialist Party had by then diminished severely, largely because of the acute unpopularity of François Hollande. The candidate of the other mainstream party, the center-right Les Républicains was François Fillon, who had surprisingly won his party’s nomination, using as his main argument his comparative moral rectitude.
The candidate of the far right National Front party, Marine LePen, had succeeded in making the party adopt more “respectable” positions at the cost of breaking publicly with Jean-Marie LePen, the founder of the party and her father.
It seemed at first that the two candidates who would survive the multi-candidacy first round were Fillon and LePen, which would turn the second dual-candidate round into a contest between the center-right and the far right. Such a choice was for many voters very unpalatable and unacceptable.
Suddenly all changed. Fillon himself became embroiled in a scandal, but refused to pull out in order to allow his party to name another candidate. This subsequent decline of support for Fillon allowed Macron to assert himself as the only candidate who could defeat Marine LePen in the second round.
Macron presented his party as neither left nor right, breaking with the left-right pattern that had prevailed for a century in both elections and governing. It worked. On the first round, Macron obtained 24% of the vote and LePen 21 percent. On the second round with only two candidates, Macron won with 65% of the vote.
In his campaign, Macron used one other major argument derived from the traditions of the Socialist Party. The socialists had always been the prime defender of laicité (somewhat equivalent to secularism) against the traditions of the Right parties, whose base was strongly constituted by Catholic voters. Macron attacked first Fillon and then LePen as seeking to enact socially conservative positions on questions such as abortion, gay rights, et cetera.
As soon as he assumed office however, Macron sought to attract major politicians from the two mainstream parties as well as ecologists and self-defined centrists. He clearly hoped this would destroy the future prospects of the two mainstream parties and consolidate his own and his party’s dominance of French politics for decades to come.
Now that he is entering the second year of his regime, what can we say about who he is? He is undoubtedly a person of the Right on all economic matters. He has been the first politician able to enact major revisions to France’s welfare state structures. When Hollande tried a much milder version of such reforms, half of France was in the street, and the proposals were partially withdrawn. When Macron did it, no such reaction occurred. In particular, the trade unions were unable to mobilize their members against Macron as they had against Hollande.
Macron has shown that he is extremely ambitious on a world scale as well. While Hollande was unable to maintain France’s position as an equal ally of the France-Germany controlling duo of European politics, Macron has moved into the void created by Germany’s now much weaker position. Nor has he stopped there. He has challenged the hegemonic pretensions of the United States without embracing an openly anti-American stance.
Nonetheless, he has sought to make France a significant actor in the Pacific arena, in Africa and the Middle East, and even in Latin America. It seems that what he is offering is a more palatable version of U.S. world policies rather than offering something more progressive.
As for social issues, Macron has shown himself to be quite prudent. Yes, he supports the causes favored by the Left but he is careful not to go too far too fast. He does not wish to arouse Catholic voters to engage in massive street protests.
The bottom line for me is that France now has the shrewdest, most efficacious Right politician in power in modern history. One can think of others who wanted to create a similar package of policies but they were not able to put together the coalition that permitted it. No doubt, Macron was helped by the chaotic state of the world-system. But it should be recognized how effectively he has implemented his conservative objectives.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).