Now that Emmanuel Macron has been elected President of France, it would be tempting to write only that the easy part is over and that the hard part is about to start. Tempting, but incomplete. Although the task of governing France is as daunting as it gets, Macron’s remarkable achievement in winning this election at the age of 39 should not be underestimated, not only for what it says about him as a person but also for the way he is likely to approach the presidency.
After all, wouldn’t it have been easier for this highly ambitious young man to do what many other young and ambitious French politicians have done in the past? Learn the ropes among the ruling classes by graduating from ENA and become senior advisor or chief of staff to a minister, the Prime Minister or the President. Be appointed a minister or Prime Minister oneself. Become the mayor of a large city or lay down roots in a parliamentary constituency and be elected as its MP. Conquer the leadership of a well-established political party. Or even all three at the same time. Observe closely, from such vantage points, the country’s political scene, build up a network of useful and preferably rich and powerful contacts while keeping a safe job within the civil service in case of a political setback. And then, when the time is judged ripe, stand for the presidency once, or twice, before winning the treasured prize. That is, more or less, the route that the last three Presidents of the Fifth Republic have followed.
Macron clearly does not fit this description. Although he has graduated from ENA, he was only briefly an advisor and then minister to François Hollande. He has never, before last night, been elected to political office. He created his own party only a year ago and has resigned from his safe position in the civil service. The scenography of his first appearance as President last night and the two fairly sober and low-key speeches he delivered, the absence of any histrionics, seem to indicate that he sees the presidency not as the crowning glory of a long political career but as his destiny.
The last President to have broken the default mould of French politics in a similar way was Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974. He too graduated from ENA and created his own party but, unlike Macron, he had previously pursued a high-profile ministerial career, which would undoubtedly have been longer if the untimely death of President Pompidou in April 1974 had not led to an election in May. Giscard, now 91 and still going strong, comes from an aristocratic and wealthy family and definitely lacks the common touch, however desperately he has always tried to conceal it. Right from the grandiloquent “a new era dawns today” in his inaugural speech, Giscard let himself too easily be characterised as an upper class toff. In spite of his forward-looking policies on European integration and bold social reforms like the legalisation of abortion, he was felled in the 1981 presidential elections by a relatively minor corruption affair to which he reacted badly and with characteristic contempt and pomposity, before meeting - and losing - his match with François Mitterand. Le Monde formulated the following damning judgement when he left power: Giscard, it wrote, was a man of “false modesty and real pretentiousness”.
Macron is a very different person and will probably be a very different leader.
And it is surely too easy, as many of his opponents have tried to do, to ascribe the Macron phenomenon solely to the support of a coterie of influential sponsors who hold the levers of finance and the media. Macron certainly has some powerful allies, but he is definitely not a puppet in their hands, as François Hollande, for one, has found to his cost. He has bold and innovative ideas and has shown, during this campaign, that he will not shirk from defending them with conviction, even in the face of a hostile crowd. He has clearly been able to inspire and lead from the front. He has shown that he learns fast, that he can use the support he has been given to good effect, and that he has the vision and the energy to create the conditions for success.
All that is well and good, but as I have written before, people and institutions that have no interest in change will undoubtedly put up great resistance. We shall have few indications about how Macron intends to go about putting his bold ideas into practice until he takes over officially from François Hollande next Sunday and appoints his first, probably interim, Prime Minister. The parliamentary elections in June will be a whole new ball game. The confused and contradictory debate on TV last night between the main protagonists of these elections shows that nobody has much of a clue as to what majority will emerge nor whether it will be favourable to the President or not.
I have often thought in the past that France needed a Margaret Thatcher to shake it up and put it back on track. I’m not at all sure today. France is not the United Kingdom and sets much more store by its model of a cohesive society. It will give short shrift to a leader who only supports its most dynamic elements but leaves its more vulnerable members behind. The eleven million votes for Le Pen in yesterday’s run-off, not to speak of the long standing revolutionary tradition in French politics, that was strongly and successfully embodied by Mélenchon in this election, are ample proof. Macron’s record so far and his first speeches as President indicate that he is fully aware of this reality. Thatcher was a great leader but she was also a divisive one and it can be argued that the U.K is still suffering today from the negative effects of her stewardship. Macron may have taken a leaf out of her book in his single-minded determination to win power. Now he must turn that single-minded determination not only to breaking the mould of French politics but also to changing the mindset and the culture of much of French society while restoring its cohesion and upholding the values it professes to live by.