Our Rorschach test

Emmanuel Macron stands the best chance of beating Marine Le Pen but offers no hope for Labour’s modernisers

Twenty years ago, the centre was radical, popular – even, at times, exciting. The Third Way was ascendant. Wim Kok, Gerhard Schroder, and Lionel Jospin were in power. When Bill Clinton sat down in 1997 to dine with Tony Blair at the Pont de la Tour it seemed like a new era of centre-left politics was dawning.

This was a politics beyond old statist socialism, and beyond neo-liberalism: pro-growth, pro-business, pro-entrepreneurs and at the same time fiercely egalitarian, concerned with social justice, and in favour of redistribution of assets, opportunities and power.

Today, as the spectrum of global politics widens at its extremities, at one end leftist ‘social movements’, and at the other Trumpian reactionary conservatism, the centre seems lost and irrelevant. So you can see why progressives, in Europe and beyond, are looking with hope, and a dose of envy, at Emmanuel Macron.

Macron is an unusual, complex character, even for politics. He was born in 1977, and studied philosophy at Nanterre in Paris. Alumni of this prestigious university include Christine Lagarde, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Nicolas Sarkozy. He came top of his class at the École Nationale d’Administration, France’s finishing school for top public leaders. As an investment banker at Rothschild, he became a millionaire almost overnight, by closing a deal with Pfizer and Nestle. He speaks fluent English and plays the piano to an international standard.

His political career is no less stellar. He joined the French Socialist party, and served as minister for finance. He was instantly distrusted by Socialist party apparatchiks for being both a philosopher and an investment banker. Pascal Lamy, former European commissioner and member of the Socialist party since 1969, says Macron ‘came to the Socialist party for intellectual reasons. He came to politics through philosophy’. You sense that Lamy does not consider this to be a good thing.

When Macron launched the breakaway party En Marche! in 2016 in his home town of Amiens, some were quick to spot the coincidence of the initials ‘EM’. Is En Marche! an ego trip? Political history suggests that starting your own political party is never a good sign: consider Robert Kilroy-Silk or George Galloway. But Macron knows the Socialist party is a toxic brand after Francois Hollande’s failures, and beating Marine Le Pen might take a creative product relaunch.

There is little doubt that Macron is driven by a supreme sense of self-confidence, perhaps even entitlement. A Socialist member of parliament told the Liberation newspaper that ‘the problem with Macron [is] … the great and good of Paris have come to tell him he is the future Kennedy and he’s ended up believing them.’ He makes no pretence at being one of the sans-culottes. He wears his elitism with ease.

His political platform is more early Blair than John F Kennedy. The loi Macron, the law that bears his name, introduced when he was Hollande’s finance minister, is the best guide to his beliefs. It liberalises some aspects of the market, for example transport in Paris, attacks some aspects of restrictive practices, for example allowing shops to open on a Sunday, but leaves some sacred cows, such as the 35-hour week, well alone.

He espouses a politics which is neither traditional left nor traditional right, and seeks to transcend habitual party boundaries. With this, he is tapping into the anti-establishment mood that is no less prevalent in France than Britain or the United States. As a splinter from the Labour party, there is something highly Social Democratic party about En Marche! Macron, like the ‘gang of four’, wants to break the mould.

Macron seeks to marry liberal economics to social solidarity. Individual freedom within a strong society. Pro-business. Pro-European Union. This involves placing distance between himself and the old left, especially the French trade unions. But is also involves intervening into markets where they fail. This is classic Third Way politics.

There is a sense of Hollywood about him too. His personal opinion poll ratings are stratospheric. This time last year he was polling twice as favourably as Hollande. The French media love him. He appears on the cover of magazines as frequently as any movie star or singer.

It is all highly beguiling for progressives. Macron has become our Rorschach test: we stare deep into his steel-grey eyes, and we see our own hopes, fears and aspirations looking back. But it is all highly dangerous too. Certainly in the United Kingdom, there is no future in a breakaway from the Labour party. Our electoral system punishes small parties. Similarly, parties built on personalities are built on sand. Film-star good looks can get you so far. But ultimately, parties need deep roots in society and robust policies, anchored in values.

This year, Emmanuel Macron turns 40. He has made his millions, been a minister, and started his own political party. His attempt to fashion a radical centre-ground politics is laudable, necessary even. He stands the best chance of beating Le Pen for the presidency, which must outweigh all else. The gnawing doubt is En Marche! is a feu de paille – a flash in the pan – destined to dazzle us briefly before fizzling out. Our hearts may leap at the prospect of a radical centre politician actually winning an election, but our heads should remind us that charismatic leaders are only rarely the real deal. 

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