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Who is Emmanuel Macron? Cracking the riddle of France’s divisive president

French president Emmanual Macron.
When speaking, Emmanual Macron is the champion of “en même temps” (at the same time), putting ideas that are normally opposed directly together. AFP

France’s June parliamentary elections dealt a heavy blow to President Emmanuel Macron and his place in France’s political arena. Holding an outright legislative majority in 2017, with 345 of 577 seats, his parliamentary group shrunk to 245 – a drop of 100 seats. That left him 34 short of the 289 required to have an absolute majority.

The results in 2022 contrast with the praise heaped on the French president by the English-speaking media since his rise to power in 2017. Macron has variously been depicted as “young, clever and eminently reasonable” (The Economist), “solid” and “urbane” (MSNBC) and a “striver” (Politico). In the United States, he was seen by some Democrats as a model to emulate. A year into his mandate, the Financial Times marvelled how he had turned France “into a refuge for entrepreneurs”.

Such views are anything but universally held in France, however, a point brought home by the drubbing that Macron and his party took in the June elections. Simply the difficulty of pigeonholing the him can inspire suspicion. Ever since entering the public eye, Macron has revelled in paradoxes. In a 2018 speech, he said:

“One must be very free to dare to be paradoxical and one must be paradoxical to be truly free.”

He is France’s youngest president, having entered the Élysee Palace at age 39 without any previous electoral mandate, but also the preferred candidate of older voters. He’s a champion of Europe, but a polished product of France’s grandes écoles (elite universities). When he was re-elected in April, he was the first to do so outside of a “cohabitation” (power-sharing with an opposing party), yet did so with a historically low percentage of the vote.

So, who is Emmanuel Macron? To crack that riddle, let’s take a close look at the concepts that have defined his paradoxical politics.

Disruption and revolution

In 2016, Macron published a political essay, “Revolution”, and there was a lot of talk about “disruption”. The term is often used in the digital world – it’s about thinking differently (to borrow a page from Steve Jobs and Apple), and it is also a way of thinking about business and marketing.

Revolution is to politics what “disruption” is to the economic world. But as was observed by Thomas Schauder in Le Monde, “the facts quickly point to a return to the same”. In other words, there was neither revolution nor disruption, but a massive shake-up especially concerning the left-right political divide. At the same time, the state returned to its classical form, vertical and relatively conservative.

Few terms embody Macron’s chameleonic ideology more than his much-parodied adverbial phrase “En même temps…” (“at the same time”). On the one hand, it can point to a similarity between two entities (in English: “at once”, “simultaneously”). On the other, it can also designate an opposition (“however”, “and yet”). Here is an example from the Journal du Dimanche:

“I have always accepted the dimension of verticality of transcendence, but at the same time, it must be anchored in complete immanence, of materiality.”

During an April 2017 campaign meeting, he even said:

“You must have noticed, I said ‘at the same time’. It appears to be a verbal tic. I will continue to use it.”

Yet in 2018, the president fully owned up to its underlying function:

“I will continue to use it in my sentences and thought, as it means one takes into account seemingly opposed principles.”

Macron has never believed in being a “normal president”, as his predecessor Francois Hollande once described himself. On the contrary, he wants to embody the presidency in word and deed. He wants emotion and “fiery” politics, as exemplified by a speech he made on July 14, France’s national holiday: “Perharps I’m Vulcan, the one who forges” – in a way, “the one who works”. Macron seeks stature, in the truest French monarchical tradition.

In 2022, however, the reality of France’s electoral landscape brought Emmanuel Macron back down to earth. “Jupiter no more” observed the Financial Times. Indeed, it is rather as if Icarus had burned his wings: the disruptive president of the left and the right, the one who was going to defeat the extreme right, fell short.

New public management, the “third way” and triangulation

New public management (NPM) is a way of introducing private sector methods into public organisations, the pretext being efficiency. It was born in the 1970s and contributed to putting pressure on public service, the idea being that they should be efficient in the same way as the private sector. For France, however, this quickly led to the public-service mission of administrations being overshadowed by the demand for efficiency.

The “third way” is a kind of political transposition of the NPM. Tony Blair, former leader of the UK’s Labour Party (1994–2007) and prime minister (1994-2007) was its most visible face. He was neither left nor right, and yet both – at the same time.

Macron has also been considered France’s champion of triangulation. A way to weaken one’s enemies and gain power, the theory of triangulation was developed by Dick Morris for Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s.

“I felt that what you should do is really take the best from each party’s agenda, and come to a solution somewhere above the positions of each party. So, from the left, take the idea that we need day care and food supplements for people on welfare. From the right, take the idea that they have to work for a living, and that there are time limits. But discard the nonsense of the left, which is that there shouldn’t be work requirements; and the nonsense of the right, which is you should punish single mothers. Get rid of the garbage of each position… and move up to a third way. And that became a triangle, which was triangulation.”

Following in Blair’s and Clinton’s footsteps yet shifting inexorably to the right, Emmanuel Macron is champion of NPM, the third way, and triangulation. It is about being beyond the parties, rallying voters beyond the left and the right. It is also – more prosaically – appropriating the ideas of others. In so doing, he has succeeded in breaking the left-right divide that structured the French political landscape for more than 50 years.

“Pantouflage” and “progressivism”

In France, the term pantouflage refers to the practice of leaving the civil service to work in the private sector. Macron’s career has followed the opposite direction – closer to the US practice of “the revolving door”: having attended France’s elite Ecole Normale d’Administration in the early 2000s, he left the public sector to work as an investment banker at Rothschild & Co. His return to politics has been shaped by the corporate spirit and, in particular, the banking world. His resumé reveals both everything and its opposite: major companies and public service.

In 2019, two of Macron’s former advisors, Ismaël Emelien et David Amiel, attempted to define the president’s ideology. Their take was “progressivism”:

“The first principle of progressivism is to maximise the possibilities of present and future individuals.”

To them, Macron believes that it is the individual that is important and that categories such as religions, social classes, and the left-right divide are outdated. The concept promotes the individual without individualism, globalisation without submission and diversity without division.

By affirming that the world has changed and that it is necessary to govern beyond the parties, Macron thought – in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy – that he was going to defeat the extremes. However, the opposite occurred: while Macron succeeded in occupying the centre and centre right, in the process he favoured the rise of the extreme right: the Rassemblement National (RN) party has 89 deputies in the new assembly, a total never before seen.

As for the political left, they recoiled from Macron and in opposition built a new alliance, the Nouvelle union populaire écologiste et sociale (Nupes). In June’s legislative elections, they won 131 seats, second only to Macron’s party, and deprived him of his political majority. If Macronism changed from 2017 to 2021, in 2022 it failed.

Macron: an outline

Ultimately, Macron evades labels. However, his essay “Revolution” does provide us with some clues on his few but enduring political values that still hold today.

Macron’s statements are often vague and can be easily adapted, but Individualism is arguably one of his founding principles:

“I deeply believe in a society of choice, that is to say, freed from its barriers, from an obsolete organisation, and within which, each individual will be able to decide upon his/her life.”

Even if Macron was part of a Socialist government under François Hollande, he is pro-market: “Competition is essential for innovation”, he has said.

He has little sympathy for those who have difficulty finding work, as exemplified by a 2018 remark to a job seeker: “I’ll cross the street and I’ll find you a job” Macron replied, an off-the-cuff phrase that shocked many in France.

In 2018, Emmanuel Macron told a job-seeker that all he needed to do to find work was “cross the road”, implicitly putting the responsibility on him.

Macron is pro-European and champions France as an influential country in a European Union that is dear to him: “To regain control of our destiny, we need Europe.” France’s presidency of the Council of the EU from January 1 to May 31 was a highlight for Macron, especially concerning the Ukrainian crisis.

Beyond these themes, the question of the environment appears to be more of an intention than a major ambition. While Macron began his first mandate by the naming of the famed ecological activist Nicolas Hulot as environmental minister, he noisily resigned in 2018. And with Macron’s second mandate, the minister of ecological transition has moved from fifth place in the protocol to tenth place – the implications are clear.

Fractured France

Rather than bringing together everyone to a new centre, freed from political parties, Macron’s strategy has fractured France’s political life into three entities, centre right, left and far right.

Defining Macron is ultimately tied to his character, his electorate and the consequences for the French political landscape. In the end, he may just be a “partyless” catch-all man. As the sociologist Max Weber would say, he has a “charismatic legitimacy”, drawing his authority from his person rather than his moral strength, or even his connection to those who voted for him. After all, many in France did so only because they refused to support either of the two alternatives. That’s a Pyrrhic victory at best for Macron and the “Revolution” of which he dreamed in 2016.