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26 April 2022updated 27 Apr 2022 9:11am

Emmanuel Macron promises humility in victory

The president’s second term will show what sort of liberal he really is.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In order to understand Emmanuel Macron, it helps to understand the late French ­philosopher Paul Ricoeur. The two met in the late 1990s, when the former was studying philosophy at the University of Nanterre in Paris and the latter was a genteel but powerful social-democratic voice against dogmatic Marxism and structuralism. Ricoeur was a thinker who embraced not the conflict but the connections between different philosophical concepts. In her biography of the French president, Revolution Française, Sophie Pedder writes that “from Ricoeur’s ­philosophical thought Macron absorbed a ­conviction that society should work collectively towards ‘the common good’ as well as, crucially, a belief in the constant need to… create a permanent tension between ­competing ideas”.

More than two decades later, Ricoeur’s keen young research assistant has just been re-elected as president of France. It is an impressive achievement. In 2017 Macron swept aside the dominant mainstream families of French politics – Gaullists and Socialists – with his new party La République en Marche (LREM) and defeated the far-right Marine Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. As France’s youngest president at just 39, his was a Ricoeurian prospectus: to forge something new and public-spirited between the ­antinomic poles of left and right.

On 24 April Macron achieved another feat: re-election against the same challenger, now “detoxified” of some of her more extreme policies, by a still-emphatic lead of 59 per cent to 41 per cent. The win enables Macron to complete the two terms in office allowed under France’s electoral system. He will be in power until 2027, probably making him the pre-eminent European leader of the 2020s.

Yet survey the country that second-term Macron inherits from first-term Macron and there is less evidence of the Ricoeurian spirit than one might hope. In the first round of the presidential elections on 10 April, anti-system candidates of right and left obtained 58 per cent of votes. In the second round, Le Pen’s result still marked a new high for the far-right in a major Western European country. Turnout was its lowest since 1969. “It’s at once an outstanding feat and a fundamental failure,” argues the French commentator Marion van Renterghem. “In 2017, he had promised that he would defeat the forces pushing voters to the extremes. The opposite has happened.”

The newly re-elected president acknowledged as much. Speaking at a rally in the Champ de Mars, in front of the Eiffel Tower, he recognised the “anger and disagreement” of many voters as well as “so much doubt, so much division” and admitted: “I know that a number of French people have voted for me today not to support my ideas.” Polling showed that 47 per cent of Macron’s voters had cast their ballots for him to stop Le Pen rather than because they liked him.

Plenty of these voters hailed from France’s fractured left, where first-round supporters of the left-populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon backed Macron over Le Pen in the second round by a margin of around 3-1. ­During his address to the crowd in Paris on 24 April, the president pledged not ­“continuity with the last term which is now ending” but a “new method” for a “new era”.

France needs more of the Ricoeurianism that Macron promised in 2017. The philosopher was close to the French “second left” around Michel Rocard (the French prime minister under François Mitterrand), with its emphasis on a middle way between socialism and free-market liberalism, and in particular on an intensively democratic society.

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Yet Ricoeur’s student, as president, seemed to govern less in that spirit than in the conventional style of the French centre-right: his battles against vested interests targeting labour more than capital; his bid to liberate work sometimes shorn from a balancing commitment to shield the poorest; his agenda on identity and culture coming across as more one-sided than it really was and a tendency towards hauteur periodically getting the better of him. ­“Macron’s biggest challenge will be to create a sense of cohesion in an extremely fragmented country,” says Tara Varma of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

While these failings are not the root cause of the “anger and disagreement”, “doubt and division” that Macron rightly ­diagnosed in his Champ de Mars speech, they have got in the way of confronting those ills. The question now is whether the ­president really will bring in a big-tent “new method” in his second term.

An early test of that will be his choice of a new prime minister. Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultancy reports that, where the last two incumbents hailed from the centre-right, the re-elected president is this time considering figures with roots on France’s centre-left. They include the previously Socialist stalwart Élisabeth Borne, the agriculture minister Julien Denormandie, and François Hollande’s former prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve. The choice will bear on France’s legislative elections on 12 and 19 June, at which the president will be hoping that his LREM secures another absolute majority.

The elections will illustrate wider shifts and realignments across French politics, which are taking place in three distinct areas. In the centre, LREM looks likely to win the majority Macron needs (a Harris poll published on 25 April gave it between 57 per cent and 64 per cent of seats in the National Assembly). But questions loom. Can LREM bolt on the remnants of the moderate centre-right and centre-left? And can it nurture personalities and talents big enough to emerge from Macron’s shadow and run a strong campaign for president in 2027?

Meanwhile foundations are also being laid on the left and right. Mélenchon wants to bring together his party, La France Insoumise, with communists, socialists and greens in a new left alliance. On the right, the failed far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour is calling on Le Pen (and in effect hard-liners from the mainstream conservative camp) to form a new nationalist movement. It all makes French politics between now and 2027 ­volatile, unpredictable – and fascinating.

If LREM gets its new majority, the way will be clear for Macron’s domestic agenda. This includes a state-led push for greater energy independence – including the construction of new nuclear power stations, higher spending on defence, infrastructure and green technology, an increase in the pensions age from 62 to 65, the centralisation of social benefits into one unified system, higher pay for teachers and tax cuts for firms and individuals.

“Macron’s priority mission must be to restore meaning to democracy,” argues Van Renterghem, who calls for reform to make France’s parliament more proportional. Those close to the president insist he will have more to offer left-of-centre and other neglected voters. “Macron hopes to appeal to young left and green voters by being more climate-oriented in his second term”, reports Rahman. To appeal to older working-class voters tempted by the far-right, he adds, ­Macron is preparing “a new initiative to help with cost-of-living concerns”.

Most significant from an international perspective is what the second Macron term will mean for Europe. The EU has muddled through the pandemic and the new Russian threat so far, but both crises have revealed the urgent need for more effective integration on health, defence, security, energy and fiscal policy – possibly including treaty change. Macron gets the level of ambition needed. Angela Merkel is no longer German chancellor and her less experienced successor Olaf Scholz is relatively well-disposed to some of the French president’s ideas. And with amenable partners in Rome and Madrid and two years until the next institutional turnover in Brussels, France’s president has a window of opportunity to push these ideas.

Yet the question is not just what Macron wants to achieve but how. Repeatedly, during his first term, the president alienated groups and individuals that might otherwise have been partners in his mission both at home and in Europe. Domestically he did too little to avoid the perception that he was a “president of the rich”. In Europe, though his ideas and dynamism were essential, they were too often packaged in lofty speeches rather than the persuasive alliance-building needed to make change happen in the EU. “He must reform himself,” says Van Renterghem. “‘President Jupiter’ has become indefensible. He must strip himself of his extraordinary powers, learn to govern like the Germans: by sharing, by listening and by negotiating. With parliamentarians, mayors, unions… It will be hard for him, as his whole personality is based on the solitary exercise of power.”

Will his second term be different? Opinions are divided. I find some contacts in Paris upbeat (“He recognises he has to change”) while others fear that his resounding win will cement the detrimental habits of the past five years (“Why change anything?”). What it comes down to is whether the president really is still the same man whom Ricoeur had, in Macron’s words, “re-educated” and “pushed me into politics because he hadn’t done so himself”, who had absorbed lessons such as “contemporary political action requires permanent deliberation… which enables decisions to be adjusted, reoriented, adapted to reality”.

Is Macron really a social liberal, with a feel for and understanding of the value of that social-democratic, adaptive, public spirited, second-left tradition in French politics? The flash of conciliation and humility at the Champ de Mars on 24 April provided a ­welcome sliver of hope for those of us who believe it is what France and Europe needs now. Soon enough, it will become clear whether he meant it.

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma