Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto shakes hands with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on July 6. (Etienne Laurent/European Pressphoto Agency)

MEXICO CITY — When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto met his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris last week to talk climate, trade and migration, the reaction back home was gushing.

"There’s chemistry between Peña Nieto and Macron," read a headline in the Crónica newspaper, which followed several weeks during which Mexico’s chattering classes fawned over the French leader.

"Dear Emmanuel Macron," wrote author Guadalupe Loaeza in a recent (and oft-mocked) Reforma newspaper column, "I could not let another day pass without telling you that my country, Mexico, is eagerly trying to find a ‘Macron’ for the 2018 presidential elections."

Indeed, no fewer than five probable presidential candidates have been named the "Mexican Macron," the man who will supposedly unite the country, fend off populism and impose pragmatic, centrist rule. Amid widespread anger at Peña Nieto — whose approval rating wallows in the teens — and the endemically corrupt political class in general, Mexico’s political and social elite see such a mythic figure as the way to stave off anti-establishment left-wing candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

"The excitement about a 'Macron Mexicano’ is not about change. It’s about the elites trying to find a reasonable profile to maintain things as they are," said José Merino, a political science professor and the director of data analysis firm Data4 in Mexico City.  This is "the search for a Mexican apolitical technocrat that due to his biography will solve everything, even under the same circumstances."

The search is so fevered that it embraces candidates who seemingly have little in common. Some are independents. Some are partisans. Some are controversial and close to the current administration — like Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, who invited President Trump to the presidential palace for an ill-fated appearance. Most are hardly fresh faces at all.

President Trump signed an executive order formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, an order establishing a federal hiring freeze and a third order reinstating the "Mexico City policy," on Jan. 23 at the White House. (Reuters)

But the Macron template appears too attractive to pass up, even for the establishment titan of Mexican politics, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Several of the would-be Macrons come from the PRI, which has previously tried running young, supposedly reform-minded politicians — only to end up with a batch of governors confronting graft charges.

"The PRI has basically settled on that strategy of presentation," said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It’s going to be somebody who stakes out a very normal position for a Mexican politician with respect to the world, which is open, liberal international, free trade, all of that, with a few rhetorical tricks to makes sure you know this person is actually Mexican."

"The rest of it is [raising the] fears of the worst," said Estévez — meaning attacks on López Obrador. "It’s all negative."

The elites’ villain, López Obrador, is a former mayor of Mexico City and perennial presidential hopeful. His opponents have branded him "populist" and "messianic," often making dark comparisons to Venezuela’s late socialist leader, Hugo Chávez. Yet some observers see an irony at play, with his opponents seeking their own messiah rather than strengthening institutions or the rule of law.

"It’s ironic that the defenders of the idea [of a Mexican Macron] place so much faith in a single man — a nonexistent man — when they criticize that same thing about [López Obrador] and his followers," Merino said.

Most observers, in fact, don’t see any Macrons in Mexican politics.

"It’s a political fantasy. There is nobody even close to that sort of figure on the Mexican political landscape, with that sort of ascending career, that intellectual firepower, that media talent," said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics.


Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks at a rally in Mexico City during his 2012 presidential run. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

The Mexican Macron idea is thought to have started with former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda, a longtime proponent of independent candidacies.

In a May interview with the Televisa network, Castañeda touted Sen. Armando Ríos Piter — who has announced plans to run for president as an independent and has drawn Castañeda’s endorsement — as a Macron-like politician. He "has a lot of similarities with Macron: age, freshness [and] an ability to pull in people from the left, center and even the center-right," Castañeda said. Like in France, "there are conditions for an independent, anti-party candidacy in Mexico."

Ríos Piter, a 44-year-old from the southern state of Guerrero who recently abandoned the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, played down the comparisons to Macron — sort of. He told news outlet Nación321 that the widespread dissatisfaction in Mexico was "very similar to what happened in France recently," making it possible for an independent to win the presidency.

When asked if he was the Mexican Macron, though, he instead fired back at his potential rivals. "Who would be Marine Le Pen in Mexico?" he responded. "I think all the political parties are Marine Le Pen."

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U.S. President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed Russia, China, the Paris climate agreement and terrorism at a joint news conference on July 13. (Reuters)