Emmanuel Macron begins his first week as president of France bearing a heavy weight of expectations. To say that he holds the fate of the West and its liberal democracies in his hands would be to go too far, but his success or failure in office will be hugely influential. That said, his extraordinary journey to the Elysée Palace has already displayed one of the great strengths of the open, liberal society: its ability to evolve and to renew itself.
Authoritarian political systems can endure for decades, but in the end they either crash, as the Soviet Union did in 1991, or they adopt democracy in order to preserve social peace, as South Korea did in the late 1980s. Democracies can backslide, as the hordes of pessimists about liberalism point out, as has happened in Russia, Turkey and Hungary. More often though, if their institutions are well established, they evolve and adapt and revive.
That is what we are witnessing in France. Macron is a case of the destruction – or at least severe defeat – of discredited mainstream political parties. But he is also a case of renewal, of how, in the moderate centre of politics, a young man from a classic establishment background, a former banker, indeed, has been able to create a new movement, supported not by extremist hotheads but by the middle classes.
Macron’s arrival at the Elysée does not mean that the moment of peak populism has passed in either Europe or America. That depends on whether he, and people like him in other western democracies, succeed in addressing the despair and disillusion that has fuelled support for his opponent, Marine Le Pen, or Donald Trump in America, or similar populists of far-right or far-left in other European countries. But it should mean that the moment of peak liberal self-flagellation has passed.
In both Europe and America, liberals should indeed feel guilty, but not for being liberals. They should feel guilty for having failed to live up to their own values, especially in the decade that led to the worst financial collapse for 80 years, that of 2007-08, and in the decade that followed.
The sins that the Macrons of this world need to expiate are first of all the sin of complacency – of being blind to the growing sclerosis in societies and economies caused by powerful interest groups, especially the financial sector and its grip on politics and public policy, especially in America but also in Britain and France. Second, though, is the sin of omission, of failing to recognise that liberal societies have always depended upon a harmony between the openness which brings new ideas and achievements, and the equality of citizenship and political rights that makes change acceptable and absorbable.
This is particularly resonant in France, land of égalité, fraternité and liberté. Powerful interest groups, often bringing people on to the streets in the name of equality, have actually defended unequal privileges, creating a land divided into insiders and outsiders. Macron rightly made the need to remove such divisions, between the highly insecure and the overly protected, one of his campaign mantras. To do something about it, and restore both the sense of equality and the dynamism of France, will be a tall order.
Yet tall orders can be surmounted. His first task in doing so is to win a working majority in the parliamentary elections that France will hold next month, on June 11 and 18. He and his party stand a good chance of doing that, such is the disarray of the mainstream Socialist Party and Republican Party. His choice of a moderate Republican, Edouard Philippe, as his Prime Minister, should help him draw more centre-right support while also mopping up the remains of the centre-left. And he will need all that and more if he is to build the necessary domestic consensus for liberating and equalising reforms.
But then, he will need to build a domestic consensus for liberalising and equalising reforms.
And to do that, his work will become easier if he can make the European Union feel to French citizens like a help rather than a hindrance, a conversion which will require the forging of a new partnership Germany, preferably to launch a series of initiatives – on infrastructure, the euro, defence and migration. He is a devoted pro-Europeanist, but in expressing that devotion he will need to channel his presidential predecessor Charles de Gaulle, who saw Europe as a way to make France’s voice louder in the world.
Macron has one little-noticed advantage: that he is not the first 39-year-old leader to leap from almost nowhere to run a major European state in recent years, so he can learn from the mistakes made by the pioneer: Italy’s Matteo Renzi. In 2014 Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever prime minister, also without having been elected to national office, though in his case, he got to the top by taking over a well-established party organisation, the Democratic Party, rather than creating his own.
In his nearly three years in office, Renzi looked like a bundle of energy and achieved a handful of significant reforms. But the living standards and hopes of Italian citizens barely improved. Meanwhile, Renzi’s reputation as a fresh, innovative outsider swiftly declined as he surrounded himself with cronies from Florence and seemed to play the same sort of political games as had his predecessors. He got nowhere in trying to persuade Germany to alter its European policies. In December last year he crashed and burned, resigning as prime minister following a resounding defeat over constitutional reforms
The lessons for Macron? Don’t waste your political capital on reforms that make little difference to ordinary citizens. Look for measures that can have a real, noticeable impact on jobs and living standards. Make your presidency a permanent campaign so as to build a consensus for change, rather than hiding in the Elysée, surrounded by a coterie of friends. Bang the drum for equality, for openness and for Europe as a solution, not an obligation or burden.
In the battle of ideas about how to run a modern society, President Macron is going to be one of the crucial warriors.