Emmanuel Macron: one year on
Since 1945 three presidents of France have arrived in the Elysée Palace with a clap of thunder and set out to fundamentally change their country. Charles de Gaulle in 1958. François Mitterrand in 1981. And now Emmanuel Macron, elected one year ago this week.
De Gaulle set about modernising France by using state power to invest, to plan, to rationalise, to pay fair wages. For a nation that had suffered defeat and occupation during the Second World War and then humiliation as first the Vietnamese and then the Algerians snuffed out the last remnants of the French empire, de Gaulle gave back to France its self-confidence and sense of grandeur.
Mitterrand was a Gaullist socialist who also nationalised and used the state to reshape France, putting a global roadblock in the path of the Thatcher-Reagan project of dismantling the 1945 social-market welfare-state settlement, based on destroying trade union power and making the pursuit of individual gain the chief social virtue.
Neither the Gaullist nor the Mitterrand project worked fully, but during their time France had a president who was a world figure. After Mitterrand left office in 1995, France collapsed into a crisis of identity and timidity. And now, out of the blue, has appeared this 30-something technocrat, with the promise of a French renaissance. Like the election of Donald Trump in America and the Brexit vote in Britain – both derided as impossible by all the academics and expert commentators – Macron’s campaign caught the mood of the moment. Suddenly, all the old parties in France found themselves in the dustbin of history.
Today France is almost visibly glowing. As Britain – its eternal rival – twists and turns on its Brexit hook, Macron has emerged as the leader of Europe, especially in the continent’s relationship with the US. Trump and Macron play off each other. While the London and Berlin political classes outbid each other in their disdain for the US president, Macron goes to Congress, where he lectures Trump on the need to preserve the planet, keep trade open and embrace multilateralism, rather as if he was dictating a Guardian editorial in his near perfect English to a president no one else knows how to handle.
Macron is often compared to de Gaulle, but unlike de Gaulle – who had nothing but contempt for creeping European federalism – his biggest single speech, a long address to the Sorbonne last autumn, was an appeal to place Europe at the heart of French political life. Of course, the political establishments in Brussels and other EU capitals dislike Macronism, as it threatens the cosy little political cartels, party fixes and arrangements that have been the way the EU has been run for years.
In his Sorbonne vision, Macron set the bar extremely high, with calls for a Eurozone finance minister, a European Monetary Fund, even a parliament for the Eurozone, as well as insisting on rigorous treatment of European leaders, such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who are open in their contempt for European values and ready to pander to overt racism and even anti-Semitism to retain power.
In the end, Europe will only take Macron seriously if he delivers reform in France. There is trouble already on the streets, and further difficulties ahead, but there are also signs of growth, of new investment, of some of the many entrepreneurs and risk-takers who fled France in recent years being ready to return home. But this needs to be sustained over a three- to five-year period. De Gaulle famously complained, “How can one govern a country that produces 200 cheeses?” Today, France produces twice as many fromages; getting this nation of proud individuals to march to Macron’s drumbeat will not be easy. This may explain one of his most audacious initiatives.
A few weeks ago, Macron addressed the French bishops in the handsome Collège des Bernardins in the heart of Paris and told them: “Relations between the Church and state have been damaged and it is up to you, as much as us, to repair them.” He went on: “A French president who takes no interest in the Church and its Catholics would be failing in his duty,” and he called on Catholics to “engage once again with the French and European political scene”. This is heresy in France, where the separation of Church and state is enshrined in law and maintained with passionate, almost evangelical fervour, by the left and most who work in the state system.
De Gaulle, for example, when attending an official Mass, would never take Communion, to show that as president he respected fully the separation of faith and government. Although Macron grew up in a non-religious family, he insisted on being baptised at 12, though there is little evidence of church-going. He likes to shock, to break taboos, and to maintain his story: here is a bold, new type of French president.
In 1968, France thought post-war social conservatism had been buried with the May uprising of students and workers. We are still living with the transformations in sexual, gender, parental, racial and other social relations that erupted then. Fifty years later, is Macron reinventing politics and beginning a new era in European democracy? Of course, it’s too soon to tell, but the contrast with Britain’s lacklustre leadership is stark.
Denis MacShane is a former Labour MP and minister for Europe. A regular writer and broadcaster for the French media, his latest book is Brexit, No Exit: Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (I.B. Tauris).