Understand Macron’s political leadership and its impact on French politics
Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as President of France on April 24, but what does the next five years hold for French politics? Alistair Cole assesses Macron’s leadership, his broader impact on politics in France and the prospects of his second presidency.
Incumbent President Macron was re-elected for a second five-year term. Rather than a simple success story, the 2022 presidential election revealed worrying trends in French democracy: the consolidation of the far right; the increase in abstentions; the collapse of traditional centre-left and centre-right pivots and the good performance of anti-system parties.
Part of the problem during the first term (2017-2022) lay at the heart of the Macron enterprise itself, built on the rejection of the main party families and the difficulty in defining a basic political project. Such shortcomings, combined with a loss of faith in French politics and society, present formidable challenges for this quirky political entrepreneur.
Macron’s contribution is best understood if one considers leadership as a three-level game, based on the interplay between individual political personality, strategic institutional opportunities, and the potentially transformative effects of European and international opportunities (as well as their equal capacity for disturbance and derating).
On an individual level, Macron’s re-election for a second presidential term, for the first time under the Fifth Republic outside the specific context of “cohabitation”, testifies to personal endurance, as well as political success. His achievement could be interpreted favorably as that of a political entrepreneur whose fortune lies narrowly in the rejection, dislocation and imperfect reconfiguration of the existing party system.
In 2017, Macron was the actor – and the symbol – of the break-up of the old partisan system. The two main parties of the Fifth Republic – the Republicans (in part heirs to the Gaullists) and the Socialists (of former President Mitterrand) have both been defeated and show no sign of recovery. In fact, 2022 accelerated these trends, as Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo plunged to 1.75% and even the Republicans (Valérie Pécresse) fell to less than 4.8%.
This outcome is undeniably a success for Macron, who was able to reframe political competition in terms of representation of the central space (both political center and center of gravity), flanked by extreme leftists (Jean-Luc Mélenchon, third candidate in 2022) and the right (Marine Le Pen, unsuccessful candidate for the third time). Macron has combined skill with a dose of fortune in the management of successive crises – social, health, international. Under Macron, the crisis has become a mode of management above politics.
A rather less favorable interpretation would be that of a political trickster, whose leadership could eventually subvert the system that brought him to power. Macron has adopted a top-down, divisive and “disruptive” style in power. This made his attempts to reconnect in a more horizontal sense during the campaign less convincing and continues to make it difficult to sustain democratic debate in a serene atmosphere. Indeed, his approach is often seen as condescending to those less fortunate than him, arguably fueling the underlying crisis of political trust and disconnection from French politics.
Institutional and international dimensions
I have mentioned elsewhere the Janusian nature of the Macron presidency. Macron was elected president in 2017 on the basis of contrasting, even contradictory dynamics (the balance of the same time, but the Manichaean reduction of political struggles to “progressives versus nationalists”). It has since evolved in a pragmatic, not to say opportunistic, way. Such zig-zags contributed to undermining the foundations of the political regime in the longer term. During the period under observation, Macron first appeared to stem the deep mistrust of political institutions. But the bursting of the yellow vests movement in 2018 showed the first signs of the exhaustion of the new presidential legitimacy.
In relation to the European and international dimension, finally, Macron’s political leadership has involved a permanent two-way dialogue; push for domestic reforms to enhance national prestige abroad; using the foreign arena to reinforce the message of reform within, in permanent movement and transition between levels. Foreign leaders and audiences are invited to be accomplices in the plot to reform and change French society. The current Ukrainian crisis presents opportunities for more European strategic autonomy (and French influence), but also reveals the importance of reassuring Central and Eastern European and more Atlanticist democracies.
The next five years
The future presents formidable challenges. Critics of the first Macron presidency pointed to the hollowing out of state and society that would have taken place under a “Juperitian” president who distrusted and ignored civil society. But in practice, Macron has also let public deficits widen to deal with the health crisis.
Real economic dangers lie ahead. Some credit must be given to Macron: his early reforms in education and labor markets contributed to record employment and historically low unemployment; greater flexibility has been introduced into the labor market and very high tax rates have been modified (flat tax), which suggests a boom in foreign direct investment.
But, on the darker side, public debt has increased massively, to around 115% of GNP, well above the 100% inherited by Macron. Deficits have also risen sharply. France continues to have a fairly weak SME sector – behind that of Italy, for example, let alone Germany. The Covid-19 crisis demonstrated that French industry appeared to be deficient in certain respects – and the Ukraine-Russia conflict revealed the dangers of over-expanding emerging markets (as had happened before with the case of France). ‘Iran).
Returning to domestic politics, Macron promoted symbolic modernization in pensions, labor markets, education supply and demand. But the capacity for reform will be sorely tested in the months following his re-election. In summary, while the Macron enterprise is crowned with political success (via the progressive undermining of political adversaries and an ongoing process of triangulation), the social, economic and international balance sheet is murky. The president got a second term. He has yet to secure his presidential legacy.
Alistair Cole is the author of Emmanuel Macron and the two years that changed France (Manchester University Press, 2019)
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: European Council