In a contentious election that could prove pivotal in Europe, some see a savior in Emmanuel Macron.
The contest for the French presidency comes after the twin shocks of the Brexit vote and the election of U.S. President Trump, two watershed victories for right-wing populism against “establishment” politics. And France — with consistently high unemployment, widespread outrage over Europe’s migrant crisis and a population still reeling from a string of terrorist attacks — could soon follow suit.
This is now Macron’s mission: to ensure that his country does not succumb to the profound political turmoil that has rocked Britain and the United States in the past year. But his method is unusual, and maybe even risky. In a year that has witnessed a global rejection of the political center in favor of extremes, Macron — with no party affiliation or support — has billed himself as a radical centrist, a candidate for all.
“I am not going to say that the left or the right is meaningless, that they are the same thing, but are these divisions not a hurdle?” the debonair former economy minister asked a cheering crowd of thousands in a speech in Lyon this month. “I want to reconcile the two Frances that have been growing apart for too long.”
But can this vision of a middle road — a French “Third Way” — actually prevail at a time when the political center seems in full retreat?
For now, Macron remains extraordinarily popular, especially among Parisian elites and younger people. His rallies routinely draw crowds numbering in the thousands, and he inspires an enthusiasm that reminds some of the zeal generated by Barack Obama — another aspiring unifier — in 2008.
“He’s worked in the private world, and the fact that he is not just a career politician means a lot. He knows the real economy,” said Margaux Pech, a member of Jeunes Avec Macron (Youths With Macron), the sizable youth activist organization working on his behalf.
“It’s also about Europe,” she said. “I have an Italian grandmother and family in Portugal, and I am very much a real European. He’s the only candidate who defends that.”
That is true. Macron is fundamentally pro-Europe at a time when his mainstream opponents have been critical of Brussels, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, has argued for taking France off the euro altogether. He also champions any number of socially liberal positions, especially the freedom to practice religion in an officially secular state increasingly suspicious of Islam.
But at the same time, Macron is a former investment banker who, while he was France’s economy minister, drafted a law designed to stimulate economic growth by targeting the country’s ossified labor market. The proposal was so unpopular it had to be enacted by decree. Many on the left consequently see him as the candidate of big business. As Macron told a trade unionist last year: “The best way to afford a suit is to get a job.”
To his critics, the contradictions cannot be surmounted.
“These positions are not reconcilable,” said Virginie Martin, an analyst at Kedge Business School in Paris. “The welfare state in France is very strong on the French left. But people are fed up with it on the right. These are two fundamentally different positions on what the state should do.”
Macron, in fact, runs up against the constraints of his centrist creed almost any time he utters an opinion.
In Algeria this week, he referred to French colonization as a “crime against humanity,” infuriating right-leaning voters. But precisely the same thing happened last year among leftists — whose support he also needs — when he attacked the 35-hour workweek, a hallmark of French life.
“A long time ago, the left believed . . . that France would be better off if people worked less,” said Macron, who still describes himself as a man “of the left.” “That was a wrong idea.”
“There is indeed an electorate that doesn’t recognize itself in the classic left-right divide,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris. “But the problem with Macron’s electorate is that it consists of people too far to the left coupled with people too far to the right.”
With the possible exception of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974, a centrist politician has never won the French presidency.
But the peculiar climate of 2017 could provide another exception, and other circumstances favor Macron, as well. The Socialist Party has struggled to field a viable candidate, and the fortunes of the center-right Republicans have dwindled following a nepotism scandal that has all but destroyed the candidacy of François Fillon.
Macron is seen as the candidate with the best chance of defeating Le Pen, who is considered almost certain to qualify for the second and final round of the presidential vote in May.
“A lot of voters are choosing a ‘tactical’ vote rather than a vote of the heart, and might decide to vote for the candidate most likely to raise the most serious obstacle to [Le Pen’s] victory,” said Cécile Alduy, an analyst and professor at Stanford University.
The problem? If Macron does win, it remains unclear how he would then proceed, given that he has no party support behind him and his blend of ideologies will probably be difficult to sell in the French Parliament.
As Martin put it: “With whom will he govern?”