Why Macronism Failed

Date:

BERLIN – Following his party’s decisive loss to the far-right National Rally in the European Parliament election, French President Emmanuel Macron shocked everyone by dissolving the National Assembly and calling a snap election. He has justified his decision by claiming that an election will “clarify” the political situation, but his compatriots do not share this view.
Even those who do not fear that Macron’s gamble will bring the far right to power are anxious about the chaos that might ensue. As Édouard Philippe, Macron’s prime minister from 2017 to 2020, put it, the president has needlessly “killed the presidential majority.” A hung parliament with National Rally as the largest party is now considered the most likely outcome. Still, Macron’s decision has clarified one thing: his strategy to create a powerful centrism in France has failed. Other European leaders should take note.
Legend has it that the first question Napoleon would ask about a military officer was not whether he was talented, but whether he was lucky. When Macron triumphed in the 2017 presidential election, he was extraordinarily lucky. The incumbent was so unpopular that he did not even bother to run for a second term, and the likely conservative winner was felled by a scandal. Macron seized the moment to offer what one might call a Second Coming of the “Third Way.” Just like Tony Blair, the British Labour Party leader who came to power in 1997, Macron held that the old ideological cleavage of left and right was dépassé, and that centrists should simply pick the policies that “worked best.”
Macron appealed to both socialists and conservative Gaullists, on the assumption that all reasonable people could unite happily in the moderate middle. Anyone who rejected the invitation was, by definition, an unreasonable extremist. For a while, this approach had traction, because Macron’s seemingly ever-expanding center was flanked by Marine Le Pen’s National Front (now National Rally) on the far right and by the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed on the far left. But the technocratic approach – “if you’re not with us, you’re unreasonable” – ultimately failed to transform the political landscape.
The far right, far left, center left, and center right each still tend to win at least a fifth of the vote in the first round of French presidential elections, on average. But the center-right Republicans have been hemorrhaging votes to National Rally, prompting the party’s leader, Éric Ciotti, to endorse an alliance with the far right. This matters, because Macron’s overwhelming support in the second round of the 2017 and 2022 elections – when he was facing off against Le Pen – was largely due to voters’ hostility to the far right, not burgeoning enthusiasm for Macron-style technocracy.
On the contrary, technocracy tends to provoke a backlash, because it creates an opportunity for populists to argue – reasonably – that there are no uniquely rational solutions to complex problems, and that democracy is supposed to be about choice and popular participation, not elites decreeing that there is no alternative. Macron’s haughty style – already in 2017, he let it be known that he wanted to rule like “Jupiter” – certainly did not help. Rightly or wrongly, it has made him an exceptionally hated political figure. But quite apart from the personal failings of a man who fancies himself a philosopher-king, a centrist project aimed at taking the best from the left and the right was always more likely to alienate both than to harmonize their contradictory agendas.
Once Macron had lost control of the National Assembly in 2022, his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, heroically tried to cobble together ad hoc majorities to advance the president’s agenda. But on more than 20 occasions, she resorted to constitutional shortcuts to ram through measures that clearly lacked popular support.
Macron’s centrism not only looked increasingly authoritarian; it also acquired a rightward tilt. Hence, his hardline interior minister went so far as to accuse Le Pen of being soft on Islamism, and Borne introduced an immigration law that seemed to legitimize what the far right had been saying all along. If you are constantly tacking rightward, you eventually will reach a point where you can no longer blackmail voters with the argument that you are the only thing standing in the way of right-wing extremism and the end of the Republic.
Some commentators speculate that Macron wants the National Rally to govern until the 2027 presidential election, on the grounds that it will prove itself incompetent and set the stage for a triumphant shift back toward the center. But this kind of quasi-pedagogical project – with the headmaster showing his pupils that the substitute teacher doesn’t know how to do the job – is misguided for several reasons.
For starters, not all far-right populists have overly simplistic policy ideas or are amateur administrators. And even in cases where they do show themselves to be incompetent, their fortunes can recover. When Austria’s Machiavellian Christian Democratic chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, brought Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party into government in 2000, the populists did descend into infighting and revealed their incompetence and corruption. But after splitting up and licking its wounds, the Freedom Party sailed to victory in last month’s European elections.
Moreover, since the French system allows for “cohabitation” – when the president and the prime minister belong to opposing parties – a governing party that appears incompetent can simply blame the other side for tying its hands. Wielding the extraordinary powers of the French presidency, Macron will doubtless find an outlet on the international stage. But it is sobering to see that his vision has been downgraded from a “revolution” in 2017 to a “renaissance” in 2022 to what it is today. Macron failed to transform the movement he started into a proper political party that is not dependent on a charismatic leader. His charisma gone, the center’s prospects for 2027 look bleak indeed.
Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021).

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