Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The French Exception

The biggest driver of Emmanuel Macron appears to be his own ambition – but that is not his shortcoming, writes Conor Pope

What is centrism? Is it a coherent political ideology, simply a rejection of ones that already exist, or just a dismissive attack by the radical left on social democrats?

Whatever it is, everyone seems to be able to agree that its biggest proponent in 2017 is new French president Emmanuel Macron, who famously describes himself as ‘neither left nor right’.

Macron’s remarkable rise is by now a familiar story. Adam Plowright’s new biography, The French Exception, is the first English-language attempt to answer some of the questions it throws up.

There seems to be an important distinction between centrism from the left and that from the right. Plowright’s explanation of his subject’s apprenticeship to, and subsequent friendship with, the leftist French philosopher Paul Ricœur, as well as the Left Bank Parisian intellectual circles he moved in during his 20s, suggests Macron is of the former. It not only defines his priorities, but also informs what he chooses to define himself against. This explains why his early months in office have seen him take on monolithic beliefs of the French left: their strict labour laws and high wealth tax.

However, there are issues with breaking off from the traditional left. Macron lacks a grounding in the working class. While he makes easy friends with leftwing intellectual elites, there is little evidence he has spent much time with working-class people at all. In his first week as an economy minister, he caused a stir after expressing concern that factory workers being made redundant would struggle to find new jobs as ‘many couldn’t read or drive’. Those newly out-of-work people did not take kindly to the characterisation.

Hillary Clinton admits a similar gaffe during her campaign, devoting an entire chapter of her memoir to the time she promised to ‘put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.’ Both underperformed against their rightwing populist opponents, who appealed to blue collar workers. While Macron won, there was an underwhelming turnout for his runoff against fascist Marine Le Pen.

Plowright’s portrait is of a man with astonishing self-belief – no surprise there – as well as of intelligence, talent and, yes, charm. It explains why, as a minister, he unilaterally decided to try and broker a deal in the Greek government-debt crisis (for which he earned the grudging respect of hard-left Yanis Varoufakis), why he ran for president on a new party ticket, and why his chief aim in office is to reform labour laws, despite it scuppering so many of his predecessors. He is simply looking for something he cannot do.

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. He tweets at @Conorpope

The French Exception: Emmanuel Macron by Adam Plowright

Icon Books 300pp | £12.99

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Conor Pope

is online features editor at Four Four Two Magazine

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