During the 2017 French presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron compared himself to Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, proclaiming that “France needs a ‘Jupiterian’ head of state”. Conceit morphed into hubris when, after his election, he seemingly claimed the mantle of Napoleon and celebrated his victory outside the Louvre, the museum that was once the home of French kings. Macron’s aim to make France great again and restore French pre-eminence in Europe was always driven by delusions of grandeur.
Yet as the New Statesman’s international editor Jeremy Cliffe argued last week, French instincts about a more interventionist state in the economy and about greater strategic autonomy in world affairs are gaining currency after the Covid-19 pandemic and the mess left by the US’s hasty escape from Afghanistan.
French influence is, of course, nothing new. Where France goes, the rest of the West often follows. The French Revolution gave us the politics of left vs right. Napoleon was the first modern dictator. France also witnessed the restoration of the monarchy, the democratic uprising of 1848 and the collapse of parliamentary democracy into Vichy-style fascism. After the war, French Christian democrats and socialists helped to enshrine universal human rights and were at the heart of European reconciliation.
More recently, Macron’s victory in 2017 was widely seen as the start of the liberal fightback against far-right populism. He not only defeated Marine Le Pen’s nationalism at home but also vowed to confront populists abroad – the Brexiteers, Donald Trump and the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary. Elected with a two-thirds majority, he was the great hope of progressives in France and beyond against the emerging “Populist International”.
Yet nearly five years later, Macron’s mask has slipped as his liberalism is becoming increasingly illiberal. First, he ordered a violent crackdown of the gilets jaunes movement, composed of working and lower middle classes that rose up against the Parisian establishment and its contempt for ordinary people. Then, his government enforced draconian lockdowns with long curfews and has now imposed vaccine passports against popular resistance. Between claiming that the AstraZeneca vaccine is “quasi-ineffective for the over-65s” and ordering the police to check on people’s Covid immunity, Macron is more Janus-faced than Jupiterian.
He is also trying to outflank Le Pen’s party by deploying a demagogic discourse against the country’s approximately five million Muslims. Draped in the language of civilisation, the president has chosen to fight religious radicalism by trying to privatise faith at the expense of the very liberal values – freedom of thought, speech and religion – that the republic purports to protect. Meanwhile, Macron and his right-wing Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin use inflammatory language such as “the right to blasphemy”, which intensifies the separatism that the new law “to protect the principles of the republic” was meant to prevent.
[See also: Why the world is becoming more French]
Far from confronting nationalist populism, Macron’s brand of progressive politics is itself populist and polarising. His version of liberalism helps to normalise the authoritarianism of the far right and the revolutionary left. Courting the far right will alienate both left-wing and certain conservative voters, which could bring down the traditional “republican front” to keep Le Pen out. For progressives in France and elsewhere, the idea that Macron could pave the way for Le Pen’s victory in next year’s presidential election, and that a right-wing France might join Poland and Hungary in blocking Brussels’s drive for further EU integration remains unthinkable. But it is plausible and more probable than at any point since Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie founded the National Front in 1972.
For now, Macron is projected to beat Le Pen in the second round of next year’s presidential contest by around 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The outgoing president has little margin for error. His political base is fragile as the popular backlash against the centrist consensus, of which Macron is one of the last representatives in the West, continues. While the socialists and the far left languish in the polls, the conservative right is resurgent but remains divided between “big beasts” such as Xavier Bertrand and Valérie Pécresse, who were ministers under former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and have enjoyed a renaissance as regional leaders. As long as the centre-right lacks a unifying candidate, the Macron-Le Pen rematch looks set to happen.
The weakness of left and right should provide sufficient space for a centrist party such as Macron’s La République En Marche, but it risks being reduced to what the late political theorist Peter Mair called “ruling the void” – a vacuum created by popular disaffection and a collapse in political participation. Abstention was the great winner of France’s regional elections in June this year, with 67 per cent of eligible voters staying home in the first round and 66 per cent abstaining in the second.
There are few signs that the erosion of democracy will be reversed any time soon. With no party offering a majority, postliberal politics around decent work, community, country and international cooperation, the French seem ever-more alienated from their political classes.
As the old opposition of left vs right gave way to the new binary of progressive vs populist, Macron was the iconic leader venerated by liberals across the West. Like Tony Blair in his heyday, the young, modernising Macron sees himself on the “right side of history” – the saviour of France and Europe at a time of great populist peril. He may yet triumph and be re-elected in May 2022. But what will be his legacy other than an illiberal liberalism that deepens divisions? As Macron’s nemesis Le Pen waits in the wings, his hubris augurs his own downfall.