Jun 30, 2021

Defying History

French voters often punish their presidents by refusing them reelection. However, Emmanuel Macron’s brand of relatively unideological third way politics seems to resonate with the electorate. His chances of securing a second term look good.

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron above Montmartre

One of the defining differences between Germany’s and France’s political culture is that incumbents in political top jobs face very different reelection prospects.

In post-war France, only three presidents managed to convince the French to give them an encore: Charles de Gaulle (1959-69), François Mitterrand (1981-1995), and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007). Meanwhile, to find a one-term chancellor in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, you have to go back to the days of a certain Kurt Georg Kiesinger (1966-69).

To explain this one might possibly have to go even further back in history: to Heinrich Heine.

In 1841, the poet described German history as a sort of perpetual muddling through. “The Germans are scared of everything new, whose consequences are not clear and thus try to avoid answering important political questions as long as possible,” Heine observed. Germans’ risk-aversion might explain why incumbents have an easy life in Germany. After all, the promise of “stability” and “no experiments” looks like it could be enough for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to record its fifth (!) election victory in a row this fall.

In contrast, Heine viewed French history as a succession of “judicial proceedings.” The French do not satisfy themselves with the status quo. “The French want to be governed by dreams,” Napoleon said. Politicians develop grand visions to get elected. Once in office, they launch into activism, but ultimately cannot live up to their promises. The French give them the boot and someone else gets a shot at realizing the impossible task of reconciling the republican ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

So, can President Emmanuel Macron escape history or are the French already preparing his judicial proceeding? Is Europe after Merkel also going to be a Europe after Macron?

Once in a Lifetime

There is a case to be made. Primarily, because the leader of the far-right National Rally, Marine Le Pen, has done a complete U-turn on Europe. In 2017, she campaigned on ditching the euro and exiting the European Union. She could not implement 70 percent of her program without Frexit, Le Pen said at the time. But she only won 34 percent of the vote. The French might have a highly ambivalent relationship with the EU. But that they do not want to exit, that is quite clear.

Le Pen thus has changed course. She no longer wants to leave the EU, the currency union, or the European Court of Human Rights. She says she accepts free movement of persons within the EU as well as the common external border under the Schengen agreement. She has sought to reassure center-right voters by vowing that under her leadership, France would service its public debt (she had previously stated France should cancel it).

If Le Pen is going all in and trying to move to the center even at the cost of Euroskeptic hardliners leaving the party in protest, it is because she knows that 2022 is her once-in-a-lifetime chance to make it to the Élysée, for two reasons.

In a country that has a structural center-right electorate, outsiders, such as François Mitterrand and François Hollande of the center-left Socialist Party, only made it to power in a duel against a very unpopular incumbent. In an election without an incumbent and a fresh center-right candidate, like Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, the left and the far-right have had no chance.

And second, Macron faces a steeper uphill battle than all his predecessors. Mitterrand and Chirac won reelection when their political opponents controlled the National Assembly and the government. This “cohabitation” allowed them to blame their rivals in the presidential election for all the country’s woes. Macron instead faces the voters while having to assume all political responsibility for what went wrong in the past five years.

Macron Nonetheless

Still, Macron has good chances of being reelected. In fact, with 10 months to go until the presidential election, everything suggests that Macron will be able to defy history.

The president’s approval ratings stand at 50 percent. For the hard-to-please French this is remarkable. At the same time in their presidencies, Hollande stood at 21 percent, while Sarkozy, who narrowly missed reelection in 2012, stood at 35 percent.

Macron’s brand of updated third-way politics that mixes neoliberal (tax cuts on capital) and social democratic (increase in minimum wage and pension), conservative (tightening of nationalization rules) and progressive (doubling of paternity leave) elements, resonates with the French. In the country that invented the terms “left” and “right”—in the Constitutional Assembly of 1789 the republican-revolutionary forces sat on the left and the proponents of a constitutional monarchy on the right—64 percent think this classification makes no sense today, according to surveys. Only 8 percent think it is the main political dividing line.

The president’s ideological fluidity gives him the liberty to let his politics be guided by events, common sense, and plain opportunism. The difficulty in “decoding” Macron, as even the writer Michel Houellebecq says—someone not usually shy about making easy judgements—also explains why Macron fares well on the prime key metric for the second round: How unpopular you are. Only 53 percent of the French have a “bad impression” of Macron (25 percent “very bad”). This compares to 68 percent for Sarkozy (35 percent “very bad”) and even 80 percent for Hollande (40 percent “very bad”) a year before the end of their presidential terms.

Polls for the second-round run-off thus show Le Pen losing, after only winning around 45 percent of the vote against Macron. In reality, the margin is probably wider. Past polls have consistently overestimated Le Pen’s support, as we have witnessed in the recent regional elections. For the presidential election in 2017 early polls overestimated Le Pen by 4-5 percent. Therefore, it’s fair to say that Macron has the best reelection chances of any French president in the past decade.

In fact, Macron closely resembles the most successful politician of our times: four-time Chancellor Angela Merkel. Even after 16 years in the public spotlight, Germans do not really know what Merkel actually thinks, but they largely trust her to do the job. The same can be said for Macron. The two politicians could not be more different in style, but Merkel has found an unlikely heir to her centrism in Macron.

Joseph de Weck is a journalist and author based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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