Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Macron en Marche

An aide explained that his thoughts were too sublime to be comprehended by journalists, prompting the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné to print a spoof interview with Macron.
 Questioner: “So, it’s all over for interviews and press conferences?”
 Macron: “Affirmative. They will be replaced by the publication every month of a scan of my brain, so that the public may marvel at the complexity of my reasoning.”
 To critics, his lofty attitude recalls a remark made by Napoleon himself to his cabinet in 1804: “We are here to guide public opinion, not to discuss it.”
—News article on France’s new president by Michael Sheridan in the UK’s Sunday Times, July 9
I still do not have a handle on Emmanuel Macron.

The standard narrative of European state broadcasters and the American corporate media was that he was the political savior who brought voters to their senses after a string of witless decisions in Europe and the U.S. A surging tide of unfathomable populism and nationalism had caused a narrow victories for anti-European Union forces in Britain’s referendum last summer and for Donald Trump in November. Fear had been palpable that another unlikely surprise could result in the National Front’s Marine Le Pen ascending to the Elysée Palace in May. When Macron won the presidency handily, there were huzzahs all around. The E.U. and liberal democracy were safe. The epidemic of insanity was over.

Not so fast.

The funny thing is that, had there been a viable Socialist candidate in the race, I have no doubt Macron would have been painted by much of the press as some sort of populist reactionary. No more than the Democrats and Republicans in the U.S., the long-running major French parties—the Socialists and the ever-name-changing Guallist/conservatives (currently called Les Républicains)—more or less imploded and/or at least ground to an intellectual halt from lack of inertia. Socialist François Hollande’s term was so disastrous that he did not bother running for re-election. Two other leftist candidates—one of whom was out of the mainstream even by French standards—divided the vote. On the right, François Fillon might well have won if not for an inconvenient scandal involving high-pay/low-duty jobs for his wife and children. So far neither he nor anyone else, by the way, has blamed the Russians for his defeat.

As it is, some have compared Macron to Barack Obama because of his youth, freshness, photogenic image and the fact that he represents a break from the political past. I wonder, though, whether a comparison with Trump is not more apt. After all, he had never before held elected office, he campaigned successfully against all the established political parties, and his agenda was always unabashedly pro-business. Still, all that mattered in the final round was that he was not Marine Le Pen, so he was clearly the good guy. Also, unlike Trump, he was pro-European-Union and did not emit untoward tweets or cringe-worthy off-the-cuff remarks. So far, by the way, Le Pen has not blamed her defeat on misogyny.

Like Trump, however, Macron seems to be finding that, while having no long-term well-established major party support can sometimes be an aid to election, it does not make it particularly easy to govern. Trump, a nominal Republican, arrived in Washington with majorities in both houses of Congress. Macron’s barely-year-old party La République en Marche swept the legislature. Yet, as an article in The Guardian this week notes, in Macron’s first full month in office, there were no fewer than four high-profile resignations and investigations into two separate scandals. His approval rating has dropped from 64 percent in June to 54 percent this week—lower than Hollande’s at this stage. Much of the drop has been among pensioners and France’s sizeable number of civil servants, that is, l’état profond (the deep state), as no one is actually calling it. Why? Because Macron actually seems to be doing what he promised—trying to reform the country’s bloated bureaucracy.

Whatever happens next, it will be fascinating to watch. After the last French election—in which the top finishers were a novice independent and a far-right nationalist—will France’s politics eventually revert back to tradition or will it all have to be reborn? Similarly in the U.S.—where one major party still does not seem to realize how unpopular it is on a national level and the other one is fragmenting into bickering factions—can things ever go back to “normal” again?

The collective sigh of relief over Macron’s electoral triumph may have been just a tad premature.