SHAND HANDS and shrugging his shoulders, Emmanuel Macron lingered for hours among a crowd of well-wishers in a small market town at the foot of the Pyrenees, just days after he was re-elected. At the end of the campaign, which began, the French president’s trip was conceived as a show of recovery and audition. The technocratic killer of populism could still connect with people as follows from the visit, and the second term president will now also listen more to them. Macron said it was time for reconciliation and a “new method” of advisory government: “We can’t solve everything with là-haut (at the height) “.
From a leader who has risen to great heights to begin his presidency in 2017, it marks some sort of turn. It seems that the centrist fully perceived what was at stake during probably his last term. (The constitution allows only two in a row.) After all, Mr. Macron’s challenge is typical of those faced by liberal democrats across Europe when they seek to keep the center against the forces of populism. And France, the eurozone’s second-largest economy, is a test that matters. By 2027, if Macron retains a majority in next month’s parliamentary elections, then the 49-year-old could well leave behind a decade of stable, competent government in central Europe. In France, a country of outsiders like to think that is always on the verge of collapse, that would be quite the result.
Yet France is also coming out of this election fragmented and fragile. Mr Macron is politically triumphant. But, as he admitted, he owes his victory to those who wanted to prevent his opponent, the populist nationalist Marine Le Pen. Her campaign has touched and provoked the humiliation and anger felt by many French voters. If Mr. Macron fails to find a way to eliminate political frustration and consolidate the democratic center, then in five years the young political retiree could give France a more willing than ever to bring to power a radical populist.
No one accuses Mr. Macron of a lack of competence, seriousness, intelligence or imagination. He needs to work hard to improve the distribution of wealth, although the record is not bad. To match his government’s post-party accounts, he needs to balance it towards the Greens and the Left. But the main claim has to do with Mr Macron’s solitary exercise of power and the impression he can make by despising the less able or happy. How can the Macron 2.0 presidency listen more and dictate less?
One challenge will be to soften the style that accompanies the philosophy. Mr. Macron’s political thinking focuses on the concept of “emancipation”: creating fairer opportunities for people to improve their lives while maintaining a strong safety net for those who stumble. He has invested in better early learning and nutrition in poor areas, and has greatly expanded his apprenticeship schemes. Such projects are commendable and ripe. But they need time to show results and leave some behind. The impression of disrespect for those who are still struggling undermines real investment in preventing them from doing so.
Another option to alleviate the feeling of silence would be to give people more voice in the breaks between elections. Mr Macron spoke of setting up a citizens’ assembly to discuss aid to dying, similar to the one Ireland used to discuss whether and how to legalize abortion. (He created a similar one on climate change afterwards yellow vests protests with mixed results.) It could encourage more local experiments in school management, say, contrary to the country’s Jacobin reflex. He may also seek to make parliament more representative. Ms. Le Pen received 41.5% of the vote, which was her best result of all time; however, her party has only seven seats in the National Assembly. In 2019, Macron tried to introduce a dose of proportional representation, but was blocked by a Republican-controlled Senate. This time an inter-party commission can help reach a consensus.
Mr Macron will also have to work with the country’s heavy unions. He wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 and force teachers to do more for better pay. But he cannot simply impose such reforms. Michel Rocker, a former socialist prime minister and former teacher of the young Mr. Macron, argued that the decline in France of both the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, which once gave structure and expediency to society, made institutions such as trade unions more important. and not less. These days they may have fewer members, but they still have an impact. Negotiations will be tough. Even moderate leaders are denying Mr Macron’s retirement plan. He will need extraordinary subtlety if he wants to consult more, fulfilling the promises for which he was chosen.
To rest again
Perhaps the biggest problem will be Mr. Macron himself. Under constitutional law, he made full use of the powers of the President of the Fifth Republic of France. He follows everything by temperament. It is the president who absorbs the dossier, understands public policy and self-studies subjects to fill in the gaps left by others. Even his supporters say Mr. Macron is not always a simple boss. Perhaps that’s why it took him so long to name the new prime minister, a position Rocker once called “hell”. The re-elected president will have to fight this instinct if he wants to fulfill his promise to rule differently.
The Macron 2.0 test is in part the same one that every European leader faces: how to make the economy fairer, greener and more competitive in times of war, inflation and rising energy prices. It is also important for Mr Macron whether he can find the right balance between ensuring policy coherence and effectiveness, on the one hand, and avoiding dictation and lectures, on the other. No one, no matter how talented he is, can do everything alone or do everything right. And if the delegation doesn’t get to Mr Macron easily, there’s a reason. As he reminds everyone who wants to ask if he listened to others, he would not be where he is today. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European policy:
Emanuel Macron is now the standard-bearer of Europe (April 30)
Tariffs on Russian energy are a smart way to thwart Vladimir Putin (April 23)
Thank the elderly for keeping European extremists out of power (April 16)
For more coverage of the French election, visit our dedicated hub
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