More to Macron than ideological ambiguity

Renaud Thillaye / Mar 2017

Photo: Shutterstock


When asked where he stands on the left-right axis, Emmanuel Macron gives a long answer along these lines: “I come from the left, but I don’t believe the left-right divide is the right one today. Look at how both the left and the right are divided, and how primaries have reinforced radicals from each side. Look at the number of issues on which there is a left-right consensus. I believe in another axis, which matters more today: the opposition between progressives and conservatives.”

This ambiguous positioning has earned Macron a lot of mockery. As the old joke on the French left goes, when someone claims to be neither left nor right, then he/she is right-wing. Opponents from either side of the political spectrum accuse him of being a classic liberal centrist, sharing common features with ex-president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing. The recent alliance formed with historic centrist figure François Bayrou only validates their assumption.

Yet, there is more to Macron’s spectacular success than ambiguity and demagogy. Four factors are essential to understand why this political novice could become the youngest French president ever in two months’ time: context, personality, offer and strategy.

First, context. To state the obvious, new personalities seen as outsiders are in demand today. While the impression that something is broken is widely shared across the West and has led to Brexit and Trump (and maybe even Obama eight years ago), there is a bonus for any fresh face trying something new. Since things are already pretty grim, voters think they have nothing to lose. This explains to some extend Benoit Hamon’s surge in the PS primaries, but he remains the candidate of a party which is a toxic brand for many voters.

Second, and as a result, Macron’s personality is one of his strongest assets. It is hard to deny the candidate’s rare combination of intelligence, leadership skills, and ability to connect to a very large audience. His personal and professional trajectory is the success story of an outsider who has taken risks. Opportunistically, he used his roles as banker or minister as springboards for his political ambitions. He has certainly had luck on his side so far. He is not a life-long serving politician – unlike Fillon, Hamon, Mélenchon and Le Pen.

Third, Macron’s offer is a pragmatic social-liberal offer with a pinch of Nordic flexicurity. At first glance, Macron is simply half-way between Fillon’s shock therapy and Hamon’s strong left agenda (see table in Annex). Like Sarkozy and Hollande, he wants to restore France’s degraded status by keeping public deficits under control and restoring competitiveness. Compared to Fillon, he would introduce more limited spending cuts, support low-income households more resolutely, and decrease the share of renewables vis-à-vis nuclear energy. Compared to Hamon, he would cut taxes for the middle class and investors, and he does not favour a universal basic income.

This balance between economic responsibility and socio-ecological orientations need not be tedious. Macron’s promotion of social mobility is particularly compelling. As a minister, he made himself a name liberalising bus transport, driving schools and lawyers. As a candidate, he puts a lot of stress on training and lifelong learning and offers to move away from status-based entitlements to universal (but conditional) benefits. Social barriers affect discriminated minorities, rural youth, and elderly workers in the same proportions. Macron is particularly good at identifying concrete measures which would give these categories a helping hand, and at denouncing the privileges of those who are disproportionately well-protected.

The final reason behind Macron’s success, possibly the most powerful one, is that he puts his money where his mouth is. En Marche is not a traditional political party. Online registration means membership. Rather than receiving public subsidies, En Marche relies on donations, though the movement imposes on itself the same legal constraints as political parties, namely setting a maximum of €7,500 per donator. Preparation for Macron’s bid included a huge door-knocking exercise that helped take the pulse of French society. In view of the legislative elections to be held in June, anyone wishing to be a parliamentary candidate can file an application online, with 6000 received so far. The lucky 577 will be selected by a jury of nine senior personalities on five criteria: renewal, gender equality, ethics, political pluralism, principles. Taken together, these innovations provide a template for anyone thinking about the key ingredients of a successful 21st century political movement.

The logical conclusion is that Macron’s success does not necessarily herald a restructuring of the ideological spectrum. A lot of voters still position themselves along the left-right divide and feed political polarisation. Obama’s failure to deliver a safe win for Clinton has been analysed as the death of centrism. If Macron were just a traditional centrist candidate, he would be a weak one.

His success owes more to the combination of an international context (and its French specificities), an outstanding personality and very smart strategy. It is therefore no surprise that so many voters from the centre-right and the centre-left, but also from the Front National, are tempted to cast their ballot for him. The Macron bubble has not burst yet, and seems now likely to stay intact until the election. Whether this genius of a political entrepreneur would stand the test of government is a different question, and this probably explains why only 45% of those saying they will for him are sure of their choice.


This is an abridged version of an article first published on Social Europe here


Renaud Thillaye

Renaud Thillaye

March 2017

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