As I listened to the youthful leader describe his program for positive, constructive reform, I thought: Why don’t we have anyone like him?
In the past year, President Emmanuel Macron of France has defied and blown up his nation’s moribund two-party system; defeated an immigrant-scapegoating, Russian-supported populist; and taken power with a vision of reform aimed at the people in the middle class who have been left behind by automation and globalization.
Then, almost unimaginably for an American, he has begun his presidency by embarking on the hardest, least popular element of his reform vision.
In at least three ways, in fact, Macron can be seen as a bulwark against Trumpism’s worst possibilities.
First there was his crushing defeat of the odious party of Marine Le Pen, which by no means seemed a sure thing when this year began. Macron, speaking with me and a few other American journalists while he was in New York City for the U.N. General Assembly last week, said that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia tried hard to sway the May election in Le Pen’s favor.
If Putin had succeeded, the world would look very different today. Stephen K. Bannon might still be riding high in the White House. NATO and the European Union would be in danger. Sunday’s German election might have had a more ominous feel. Throughout the West, liberal democracy itself would feel far more endangered.
Now Europe has a second wind, and Macron is on a “mission,” as he told us, to steer President Trump away from isolationism and back into the multilateral fold — essentially, to save Trump himself from Trumpism. He is trying, Macron said, because the world still needs U.S. leadership.
Most important — and maybe most difficult — Macron is trying to offer a model of revitalization, both economic and political, that will offer a way forward for workers who have been neglected by past reforms. These are the voters tempted by Trump, by Brexit, by Le Pen — by “illiberal democracy,” as Macron said — and today’s politics must find a way to make the free market work for them after two decades in which government failed to regulate the “excesses of capitalism.”
“Even your debate was between the cosmopolitan elite who can succeed with globalization, and the middle class,” he said. “And the day your middle classes don’t get their share of prosperity, their part of economic progress, they stop believing in democracy. That’s why you have such rising illiberal democracy, or populism.”
The French president’s solution, which may sound paradoxical at first, is to start with labor reform, which his country’s powerful unions have resisted for decades.
The idea is that this is an essential first step to kick-start economic growth. France’s rules for laying workers off have become so onerous that few companies will create jobs.
Once that changes, Macron says, he will turn to training, retirement security, vocational education, innovation in artificial intelligence and climate change — all “to create jobs for the middle class, to get a place for them. That’s for me the critical issue.”
He will try, in other words, not only to spur growth but also to make sure that this time the growth is inclusive.
Of course there are many ways in which Macron could fail, and the Le Pens and the Bannons — or their next incarnations — will be waiting.
But what’s extraordinary is that to achieve the presidency, and his large majority in France’s legislature, Macron knocked out not one but both mainstream political parties that had alternated in power since pretty much forever. Most people, even a year ago, considered this outcome impossible, he acknowledged.
What made it possible?
“Our politicians just created a closed world: ‘Now it’s mine. It’s the business of authorized persons,’ ” Macron answered. “If you manage to highlight that the rules of the game are just ridiculous . . . and you manage to reinvigorate the deep willingness of your citizens to be part of the decisions, you can break this and build something new. That’s what I managed to do in France.
“So now the big question: Do I deliver, or not?”
Listening to Macron talk about the “closed world” of French politics, it was hard not to think of a Democratic Party whose most creative offering seems to be Medicare for all, not paid for, and a far more bankrupt Republican Party peddling, once again, tax cuts for the rich, not paid for.
So I asked again. Could it happen here?
U.S. party rules may make it more complicated, Macron said. But, he said, “I think it’s feasible even in your country.” With a smile, he added, “I think the only way to be sure is to try.”