If you believe the hype, Emmanuel Macron is l’anti-Trump. He is what the inter-national centre-left, reeling from the shocks of Brexit and the US election and fearful of a victory for Marine Le Pen in France, is crying out for: a politician who can win again. He is only 39 years old, handsome and radical sounding. He’s not a career politico; he used to work as a banker for the Rothschilds (every-body loves them). He wears sharp suits and he’s written a book called Révolution.
Better still, he has a buzzing movement behind him: his ‘En Marche!’ (Let’s go!) campaign has excited trendy progressives. He is not bogged down with formal connections to the loathed establishment. Surely he could beat Le Pen to the French presidency in the second-round vote on 7 May? Surely?
This week Macron came to London (France’s sixth city, in terms of number of French residents). At Methodist Central Hall he addressed a crowd of 3,500 mostly young Londoniens and the atmosphere was almost religious. It felt like a spiritual revival seminar for depressed Europhiles. Nick Clegg sat in the front row, looking for inspiration. Behind him lots of beautiful and well-dressed French millennials beamed at each other and chanted ‘Macron! Macron!’ Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ was played. On a screen above the stage, pink messages flashed up saying ‘Partagez’ (Share) and ‘Adhérents’ (Members).
Macron began by mentioning Boris Johnson and the crowd booed and whistled at the mayor turned Brexiteer. ‘Never boo! Leave that to those who have no hope and no plans! We don’t boo,’ he said, and the crowd clapped and cheered.
Is Macron Europe’s Obama, or France’s belated answer to Tony Blair? He certainly speaks like a Blair 2.0 — he starts his English sentences with a pally ‘Look…’. He has charisma and he stares at people intensely when he shakes their hands.
Macron may be cheesy, but he excites progressives precisely because he is unapologetic about his progressivism. He thinks, for instance, that David Cameron lost the referendum because he was not ‘aggressive’ enough. ‘I respect him and his team,’ he said at a press conference on Tuesday, ‘but they didn’t defend the Remain at all — they defended a “Yes, but”, which is not the best way to win against “No”. And at the end of the day they lost… if you are shy you are dead in the current environment.’ As for Hillary Clinton, he adds, she lost because her campaign ‘was not very clear and I would say not as clear at Bill Clinton’s’.
If he becomes France’s president, Macron promises to be tough towards Brexit Britain. He insists that the EU’s four freedoms (of people, capital, goods and services) cannot be abrogated. He will try to lure UK-based businesses to France by simplifying and liberating French tax and regulatory systems. This threatening talk thrills told-you-so Remainers. ‘The execution of the Brexit has to be compliant with our interests and the European interests. On financial passports, for instance, there is no access to the single market without contribution.’ Phwoar! Take that, Dan Hannan!
‘What is fascinating,’ he says, ‘is that those who should be liberal say now it’s impossible to protect and defend a liberal approach.’ He insists he is ‘proud’ to be pro-liberalisation, pro-welfare and pro-globalisation.
While populists are blowing up the orthodoxies on acceptable opinions, Macron is defiantly PC. Last week he found himself in trouble with the anti-PC police after he called France’s colonial history a ‘crime against humanity’. In London he said the far-right had ‘manipulated the statement’, but he did not retract it. I asked him if he thought British colonialism was also criminal and he said yes: ‘All of us have to look very carefully at our pasts.’ He added that the British ‘have a much more multicultural approach... but at the end of the day we... [all] promoted some legislation which didn’t respect human integrity and equality of rights and so we have to deal with it.’
Macron is easily caricatured as a cipher, a technocrat posing as a radical, an insider’s outsider, a revolutionary who wants to prop up the global elite. He has, as Patrick Marnham noted in this magazine, powerful supporters behind his seemingly grassroots campaign. The Front National’s Florian Philippot calls him ‘globalisation personified’ and such a label might stick.
Ironically, Macron’s most compelling argument is a patriotic one. Theresa May believes she can navigate a British course between globalism and nationalism. Macron believes France’s exceptionalism will make it global-ist. Sailing headfirst into the populist winds, he says he can win because his country is different. ‘I do believe that France, by definition, doesn’t do the same thing as the others… when extremes (anti-Europe, anti-globalisation) win elections I think that’s probably the best moment for France to do the opposite.’ France, he says, is ‘contrarian’: ‘We don’t have the same political cycle.’
France has never had its equivalent of Britain’s New Labour. Nicolas Sarkozy tried to hack at red tape from the right and failed. Hollande failed from the left. Macron promises to be more radical from the centre. He says his economic reforms will unleash the power of the French aspiration. He told the French Londoners he was fed up of hearing from start-up entrepeneurs on the Eurostar that they’d had to move to Britain because of France’s suffocating regulatory system.
But France has not succumbed to liberal capitalism precisely because it is contrarian and therefore resistant to Anglo-Saxon globalisation. Macron may be the right man for Channel-hoppers and other socially mobile groups, but does he speak to La France Profonde? When he says of the French, ‘If we don’t love success, the people who want success will go elsewhere,’ the striving bourgeoisie may cheer. But worse-off voters in Lyon and Le Var do not. For all Macron’s hip appeal, France’s leading party among young voters is still the Front National.
It is a common complaint that Macron’s campaign offers no substance beyond Blairite razzmatazz and bold-yet-vague promises of reforms. One of his staff this week acknowledged this and said he was about to unveil something ‘really credible and serious, and then we’ll have a revolution’. Until he does, the doubts will only grow. As one London-based Frenchman I spoke to put it, ‘Does he have a programme? Or is he just surfing on the wave of emptiness of the French political environment, hoping nobody will notice?’