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Emmanuel Macron, the French Realignment, and Us

The last decade of French politics has things to teach us about the possibility of breaking out of our national duopoly.
July 11, 2022
Emmanuel Macron, the French Realignment, and Us
Emmanuel Macron, French president in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace at Elysee Palace on July 5, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images)

More than three in five Americans told Gallup pollsters last year that the “[Democratic and Republican] parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third major party is needed”—but of course, the members of this disaffected majority are diverse, and they would not agree on what that third party should stand for. Those who wish to see a dramatic multipolar realignment of our politics will always find reasons for hope, but the safe money is on the stability of our reigning duopoly.

The story of French politics over the last decade offers the strongest argument against complacency on this front. The French Constitution bears more than a superficial resemblance to our own, with a powerful president independently elected by the people having to work with a National Assembly filled by members who won their own district-specific contests. Generally, the president sets the agenda and his party in parliament follows along, but there have been episodes of divided government—which the French charmingly call “cohabitation.” A hostile majority in the 577-person National Assembly can hold up the president’s agenda, although he retains the power to dissolve the assembly and call for new, off-cycle parliamentary elections.

Citizens of the Fifth Republic have always had choices well beyond two parties, but the contest between the political left and right was stable for nearly a half-century after Charles de Gaulle established a new constitution in 1958. Left and right party coalitions, clearly aligned with left and right presidential candidates, divvied up nearly every seat between themselves. The Socialist Party comfortably dominated all left coalitions. Contestation was fierce, but battle lines were stable.

Disruption came in the form of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the purveyor of an anti-Semitic, anti-European, anti-immigrant nationalism. France’s elites regarded Le Pen as a backward embarrassment, but his message nevertheless appealed to a significant minority of French citizens, especially those distant from Paris. Le Pen shocked the system by finishing as the runner-up in the first round of the presidential election in 2002, his 4.8 million votes edging out Socialist Lionel Jospin’s 4.6 million. Although he would be decisively rejected in the second round runoff, winning just 5.5 million votes as President Jacques Chirac went on to collect 25.5 million, he had opened the possibility that French politics could leave behind the traditional left-right struggle—a possibility strongly reinforced when French voters refused to ratify a proposed European Constitution in a 2005 referendum.

These developments prefigured a new shape for French politics, but it did not come immediately. Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, on the right, and François Hollande, on the left, continued to clash over familiar issues such as working-hours legislation, and their coalitions collectively kept hold on four-fifths or more of all parliamentary seats in 2007 and 2012. But both they and their respective parties were plagued by scandals throughout the 2010s, leaving French citizens feeling a heightened version of what all democratic citizens do: that they were governed by an ineffectual, out-of-touch elite whose fossilized concerns did not reflect the challenges of their moment.

The stage was set for Emmanuel Macron, a political wunderkind whom Hollande made economy minister in 2014, when the younger man was just 36 years old. Macron had risen, through a combination of relentless determination and good luck, through the ranks of Socialist officialdom, and he used his position to pursue badly overdue reforms of labor and pension laws. His fellow Socialists offered lukewarm support for these initiatives, which left Hollande to push them through by means of a constitutional device for bypassing a legislative vote. Macron was convinced that the Socialist Party’s era was coming to an end—all the more as Hollande became toxically unpopular in 2016.

Out of government, Macron audaciously announced the beginning of a new movement in 2016. His campaign book, Revolution, announced that “the game of political juggling” between Left and Right had failed France in the era of globalization, and that the country could only regain its confidence by throwing out the whole of its leadership. He would marshal the French people’s frustrated common will to return the country to glory.

Macron’s rhetoric could be gauzy (“kindness” was one of his movement’s four key pillars) and many found him evasive on policy substance. His tendency to frame his answers with “en même temps,” or “at the same time,” became infamous—Emmanuel Carrère wrote in a 2017 Guardian essay that the expression “has now become practically unusable in France, except as a running joke”—though Macron defended it as necessary in a complicated world.

But Macron had not emerged by accident. He is a man possessed of three profound insights into his political moment.

The first is that that French politics was ready to be reoriented on the axis of conflict favored by Le Pen. Macron’s movement, La République En Marche!, was pro-European, pro-work, and devoted to progress. If the vision of Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s daughter who steered his party toward the mainstream and thereby increased its viability, was backward, Macron styled himself as the man to lead France forward. During his 2017 campaign he declared, “Stopping the civilized world from destroying itself and enabling a future world to be built, that is our responsibility and our mission.”

Macron’s second insight was that France’s existing parties were no longer strongly connected to the country’s citizenry, having become compromised by their efforts to keep various organized constituencies on board. That created enough anti-party sentiment to make possible an intensely personality-centered campaign. En Marche!—which, of course, shared his initials—was an internet-native vehicle for marketing him, and over the course of the campaign he managed to capitalize on the public’s fascination with his personal life. (Famously, he is married to his one-time high school drama teacher, a quarter-century his senior.) Macron sold himself as his own man, brave enough to go his own unconventional way, which would be an asset in a political system too often weighed down by old deals. To indulge in some academic jargon, Macron saw the potential of technopopulism in a system where old-fashioned politics had become disreputable.

Macron’s third insight was that France’s recent transition to American-style direct presidential primaries would lead the previously dominant parties to choose standard-bearers further out from the center of French opinion, leaving a vacuum in the center. Sure enough, in 2017, the center-right unexpectedly chose François Fillon, who positioned himself far to the right (and was then, fortuitously for Macron, beset by scandals), and the Socialists chose Benoît Hamon, who devoted his presidential campaign to promises of a universal basic income. In the first round of the presidential election in April 2017, Macron came in first (8.7 million, 24 percent), Le Pen second (7.7 million, 21 percent), Fillon third (7.2 million, 20 percent), and Hamon a distant fifth (2.3 million, 6 percent). In fourth was Marxist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon (7 million, 20 percent). Like Le Pen, though for different reasons, he questioned France’s subordinate place in the international order, and at one time suggested the country should leave NATO.

Just as Macron had foreseen, he easily defeated Le Pen in the runoff, beating her nearly 2-1.

And the presidential contest was not an isolated phenomenon in this regard: Macron had coattails. In the parliamentary elections, En Marche! fulfilled its pledge to run at least half political neophytes and half women. The party and its allies won a stunning 350 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. Fillon’s party went from 199 seats to 112. Socialists, whose support largely migrated to Macron, went from 250 seats to 30. Meanwhile, other insurgent parties got footholds in the legislature in 2017—Le Pen’s National Front won 8 seats, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) party won 17 seats.

Many had regarded Macron and his party as a curiosity just months before the 2017 election. The results showed they had completely taken over French politics.

It remained to be seen how deep and enduring the transformation was. When campaigning against the stagnancy of French politics, Macron had promised major structural overhauls of the system. But apart from passing stricter ethics requirements for government officials, he did little to demonstrate an appetite for these reforms once in power. The former Socialist’s government pursued policies further to the right than many had expected when they cast ballots in 2017, including pursuing tax reforms (including a regressive carbon tax) and aggressive immigration enforcement. Macron’s supporters on the left soon abandoned him and his approval nosedived from 47 percent to around 24 percent over the course of 2018, with the first Yellow Vest protests appearing at the end of that year (which led to the carbon tax’s speedy repeal). Macron’s standing gradually recovered, but he went into the 2022 election year with the support of just 37 percent of the electorate. Nevertheless, his three insights still held good. Once again, he and Le Pen came in first and second in the first round, and once again he won the runoff quite handily—though not nearly as lopsidedly, with Le Pen this time winning 41.5 percent of the vote.

If the realignment did hold for another presidential election cycle, there are still plenty of reasons to question its durability. Macron made himself curiously scarce in the run-up to the parliamentary elections that would determine his party’s ability to govern in his second term. Other than being rock-solid in his pro-European orientation, Macron has used his endless nuancing to evade the responsibility of offering a clear program. As the translator and political commentator Arthur Goldhammer observes, “Macron knows that any policy position he takes will merely open him to attack,” and so he prevaricates and shadowboxes. It is still much easier to say what his coalition is against than what it is for; though it once called for a “revolution,” it did not really bring one. It has now rebranded as Renaissance.

The party and its allies suffered for their evasiveness, sliding to 245 seats in the June 2022 election, well short of a working majority. Meanwhile, Le Pen’s party, now renamed National Rally, won 89 seats. Even more dramatically, Mélenchon managed to subordinate a variety of left parties, including the humbled Socialists, under his umbrella. His New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES) won 131 seats. It is unclear what path forward Macron will take. Far from being on the march after overthrowing the old political order, the republic seems to have discovered a new sort of impasse. If the parties fail to find a way to work together in the months ahead, that would embolden Macron to dissolve the body and call a new election. But for that strategy to work, he will have to have a message to attract now-skeptical French citizens when they are bidden back to the polls.

Meanwhile, in a curious and telling inversion, Mélenchon has taken up the call for constitutional reform that Macron once sounded in 2017. Specifically, the NUPES leader calls for an end to France’s “presidential monarchy” and a rebalancing of power away from the executive and toward the legislature. The phrase is not out of place. Charles de Gaulle said the presidential election was to be “the meeting of a man and his people,” and Macron has been remarkably open about the French people’s continuing desire for a regal leading figure. Long before he became president in the 1980s, François Mitterrand penned a 1964 pamphlet attacking the Fifth Republic’s system as “a permanent coup d’état.” He wrote, “By replacing the national representation with the notion of the leader’s infallibility, General De Gaulle concentrates the nation’s interest, curiosity and passions on himself and depoliticizes the rest.” Plenty of Mitterrand’s detractors thought that he embraced the very grandiosity that he had criticized.

Macron is even more vulnerable to the charge. The young president wants to portray his political ascent as a transcendence of normal politics. But whereas De Gaulle was the country’s national hero, with unmatched stature and popularity, Macron is a hyper-talented striver of the professional class. Given the narrowness of his core supporters, whom French economist Thomas Piketty characterizes as a “bourgeois bloc” comprising the well-educated, the wealthy, and retirees, Macron’s “Jupiterian” posture risks alienating him from the vast majority of the French public. As Macron biographer Adam Plowright notes, Macron frequently holds the press at arm’s length, and he has at times snapped at journalists who presumed to ask him questions he felt were below his office’s dignity. One must wonder, however, if the office can shield the man from populist leaders claiming a direct connection with their constituents. A more prominent representative legislature might take the pressure off Macron, but the President’s enthusiasm for the Fifth Republic’s elevated conception of his own office precludes that possibility. His “listening tour” was ambiguously received by the public whose approval he sought, and his critics dismissed it outright as a sham—a “masquerade.”

The structural features of American politics may render the U.S. incapable of reprising the core developments of recent French political history. The two-round structure of French elections has persuaded French voters that support for non-standard presidential candidates is worthwhile, and this was decisive in allowing Macron (and Le Pen) to break through. Even if ranked-choice voting and open primaries have made some inroads in various American jurisdictions, our constitutional commitment to the Electoral College means we will not be undertaking any similar experiments on the presidential level any time soon.

But the national disruption caused in 2016 and after by a nationalist figure reviled by the country’s political elite suggests that there are ways American politics could still take a French turn. If the Republican Party withholds its presidential nomination from Donald Trump in 2024, he could easily create a splinter party that enjoys the support of a massive contingent of Americans, and that party could prove capable of changing the old lines of political contestation. On the other hand, if Republicans do nominate Trump in 2024 and Democrats in turn rally behind a hard-left agenda, there could be an opening between them for a Macron-style, above-the-fray centrist to mount a campaign against the extremes. Macron’s example suggests that the person best suited for this role would be a rising star—someone who could embody the hopes of a younger generation. Among others, Pete Buttigieg is an attentive student of Macron’s 2017 success.

What is certain is that the hypercharged presidencies of both France and the U.S. are straining under the weight of huge expectations placed on them. While Macron may be tempted by his constitutional power to simply dissolve the Assembly to secure a more favorable working environment, American presidents of both parties work diligently to circumvent Congress however they can, often using their power to pursue flashy symbolic victories that will excite their supporters. Centralized power is often imagined as a direct path to efficient governance, but the strong presidentialism of both France and the United States appears to have made it difficult to develop and implement enduring and effective policies. Broad compromises forged in representative assemblies offer a more solid foundation for the work of legislation, but that approach requires lawmakers to accept the inevitability of political compromise—and compromise is precisely what populists and techno-populists alike condemn and promise to transcend.

Realignment may be exciting, but it can’t liberate modern citizens from the burden of difficult political tradeoffs. Coping with that reality will require a different sort of civic renaissance.

Philip A. Wallach

Philip A. Wallach is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Why Congress (Oxford University Press, 2023). Twitter: @PhilipWallach.