Emmanuel Macron, victorious, searches for reinvention
By Roger Cohen
There have been many Emmanuel Macrons: the free-market reformer, the man who nationalized salaries in response to the pandemic, the provocateur who pronounced NATO brain-dead, the maneuverer ever adjusting his position, the diplomat and the disrupter.
Now, having persuaded the French to reelect him, something no president had achieved for two decades, which Macron will show up? To judge by his sober acceptance speech after his 17-percentage-point victory over Marine Le Pen, a chastened one.
There was nothing triumphalist about his tone after vanquishing the extremist anti-immigrant far right and, for the second time, rebuffing the wave of nationalist jingoism that produced Brexit and President Donald Trump.
Rather, Macron expressed a quiet determination to break with past habits, confront the “anger and disagreements” in the land, and to reach out to the many people who had only voted for him to keep out Le Pen.
“He will want to democratize his authority and soften it,” said Alain Duhamel, the author of a book about Macron. “No metamorphosis in his personality, but there will be an adjustment in his methods.”
Macron said his second term would not be “the continuation of the five years now ending”; it would involve a “reinvented method” to “better serve our country and our youth.” The years ahead, he said, “will not be tranquil, but they will be historic, and we will write them together for the generations to come.”
Ambitious words, and Macron, a centrist, is never at a loss for a fine phrase, but what they will mean is uncertain. It is clear, however, that the 13.3 million people who voted for Le Pen constitute far too large a group to be ignored.
For now, the president’s priority is to display compassion. He wants to bury once and for all the image of himself as “president of the rich,” and show he cares for the working class and for all the angry or alienated people drawn not just to Le Pen’s nationalist message but also to her promise to give them economic help.
The numbers were clear. About 70% of affluent voters supported Macron; about 65% of the poor voted for Le Pen. The college-educated voted for Macron; those who did not complete high school tended toward Le Pen.
Among the measures that Macron may introduce early in his second term are a rebate on gasoline for people who have to drive long distances every day, substantial raises for hospital workers and teachers, and an automatic adjustment of pensions in line with rising inflation.
“We have to listen better,” Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister, said in an interview with Franceinfo radio. That is, listen to those left behind in an economy with a growth rate of 7%.
Among those Macron will need to listen to are the young. While some 70% of people aged 18 to 24 voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist candidate with a bold green agenda, in the first round of the election, about 61% transferred their allegiance to Macron in the second round, after Mélenchon was eliminated.
If Macron is serious about engaging with those whose support of him was reluctant — a second choice, a vote against something rather than for something — he will need to demonstrate a serious commitment to a post-carbon economy, having spent his first term on what often seemed like hesitant half measures.
In his victory speech he promised to make France “a great ecological nation.” That will require major investment, a timeline and help for those transitioning to relatively expensive electric cars.
The road ahead is full of potential obstacles. Legislative elections in June could deliver a National Assembly no longer fully controlled by his party, which would complicate any second-term agenda. In an unlikely worst case, Macron may have to endure a “cohabitation” — work with a prime minister from a rival party — and that is by no means a guarantee of happiness.
Whether Macron can lastingly adopt a less abrasive manner is uncertain. Duhamel described the president as a self-invented man “in perpetual motion” and always on the offensive, someone who can “never be confined to a box,” a leader given to ever-changing balancing acts — not least between left and right.
His opponents have often found this agility confounding; others have seen in it a malleability so extreme that it poses the question of what Macron really believes in.
Macronism, as it is called here, remains something of a mystery. What cannot be disputed after this second victory is its political effectiveness.
If the restless energy of Macron seems certain to persist, the French electorate made clear that it needs to be redirected. They have had enough of an insouciant leader with bold plans to transform Europe into a real “power”; they want a president attentive to their needs as prices rise and salaries stagnate.
Many of them also want a democratization of the top-down French presidential system that Macron had promised but did not deliver. He may propose introducing an element of proportional representation in voting for the National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, Duhamel said. This would happen after the June vote.
The current two-round system has favored alliances of mainstream parties against extremist parties like Le Pen’s National Rally, formerly the National Front, resulting in a democratic disconnect: A party may have widespread support but scant representatives. This, too, has fed anger in the country, on the left and on the right.
When it comes to listening, Macron may be obliged to extend that practice to his European interlocutors. The war in Ukraine has comforted Macron’s belief that a stronger Europe must be forged with its own military and technological capacities in order to count in the 21st-century world.
But his style — announcing dramatic goals for European “strategic autonomy” rather than quietly building coalitions to achieve them — has not pleased everyone in a European Union where a strong attachment to NATO and American power exists, especially in the countries closest to the Russian border.
President Joe Biden, in a congratulatory message to Macron, said he looked forward to working together “to defend democracy.” By defeating Le Pen, with her strong attachment to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the French president has just made a notable contribution to that cause.
Macron will remain a firm supporter of multilateralism, the rule of law, the European Union and the NATO that he hopes to reform to allow more room for Europe to develop its own defense capacities. These are fixed points in his flexible beliefs.
He will also continue to calibrate his message even as he redirects it toward the less fortunate. His goal, he said in victory, was a “humanist” France, but also an “entrepreneurial” one, a France of “work and creativity” but also “a more just society.”