26 April 2017

I left France in despair. Macron can bring me back

By Felix Marquadt

France is in a mess. The rate of youth unemployment has been oscillating around 25 per cent for a decade, making life for a chunk of French youth unbearable. Fed up, I launched an initiative called Barrez-vous five years ago to encourage France’s young people to stop demonstrating and start packing their bags. I told them they should leave the over-centralised, decrepit gerontocracy that France had become and try their luck on the global job market.

This would, I argued, be a way for them to educate and empower themselves – a way to get the attention of the French political class, and also a way to save a country impervious to reform. They would learn best practices overseas and eventually come back to put them in place at home. In the process they would make the world – not just their country – their oyster.

Needless to say, we struck a nerve. President Hollande was asked about our movement on prime-time television a year later. What would he say to a young woman who was moving to Australia because of the lack of job opportunities in France? The President’s answer: “She should stay; her country loves her.”

In a speech at the Summer University of the National Front in 2014, Marine Le Pen attacked me and the “post-national nomadism” of our movement, claiming Barrez-vous! and I were anti-French. My answer, in the daily newspaper Libération, was that just because I favoured a “post-national nomadism” didn’t mean I was anti-French, just as I was not anti-American (I have Austrian and American nationality, but was born and raised in France).

I eventually followed my own advice and left France for Sweden in 2015, disheartened by the mess my country was in and the incapacity and disinclination of its leaders to embrace any kind of meaningful reform.

Enter Emmanuel Macron.

The rejoicing in Paris over his victory in the first round of the presidential elections is premature and dangerous. Most people beyond the so-called “périph” (Paris’s orbital motorway) tend to vote for Le Pen not in spite but because of such rejoicing.

But while he is far from an extremist, Macron does understand – just like Steve Bannon, Marine Le Pen and the French Chavez, Mélenchon – that the Davos consensus is dead. That the World Economic Forum’s motto, “Committed to improving the state of the world”, sounds more disingenuous with every passing year.

From observing Macron over the years, and talking to him and his team, it is clear that he considers responsible politics in the 21st century to be about creating wealth and redistributing it in such a way as to ensure that the brunt of the (necessary and welcome) rebalancing between the developed world and the rest of humanity is not borne by the lower-middle classes of the former.

Macron grasps that the Russians’ capacity to destabilise the world’s “indispensable nation” so drastically, and the “soul-sucking, attention-eating black hole” of the Trump presidency’s unending series of scandals will come at a cost for global democracy.

He is also acutely aware of the rise of inter-generational inequalities and that a clash of generations, rather than one of civilizations, looms if nothing is done to stymie them.

But it is his view of how the world is changing, and growing more connected, that feeds into his view of right-wing nationalism. Rather than see the European Union’s failings, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as a sign that the nation-state is back, Macron believes that they are symptoms of its obsolescence – at least as the be-all and end-all of modern governance.

To him, this obsolescence of the nation-state is apparent in the way the world’s fastest-growing companies are organised around linguistic basins, regions and cities rather than countries. In the way young people identify with one another not in terms of skin colour, sexual orientation or nationality, but in terms of values. He feels there is something naive, if not outright absurd, in expecting national leaders to adequately tackle local issues, or global ones which will take decades at best to be dealt with.

The solutions to these issues, he believes, will be local or transnational if they are to be real solutions at all. That is why he is focusing on small towns and cities, where most of us live, and not so much on nations.

On May 7, the results of the second round will mean either that Europe is dead in the water – or that France will suddenly and paradoxically become the world’s single most interesting political experiment in how to navigate the choppy global waters of the 21st century.

At the weekend, more than 70 per cent of French voters gave their backing to Marxists, national-populists or Putinists, or a mix of the three.

A Macron victory will not change that. But it will mean that Europe, the Atlantic and, yes, global democracy have a new champion.

If Emmanuel Macron is elected President, I’m coming home. And so are very many of the 2.5 million French people who currently live abroad. There’s nothing to do now but hold our breath.

Felix Marquardt is the founder and CEO of the Atlantic Dinners and of the think tank Youthonomics