Emmanuel Macron, the golden child?

While the international media evangelises its pro-European poster boy, in France the mood is one of nervous anticipation before an unknown and ambiguous political actor.

Emmanuel Macron seems to be the new golden child on the global political scene. Compared in turn to J.F. Kennedy, Napoleon and Charles De Gaulle, the 39-year old seems to be the panacea for populism and the ills of a stagnating European Union, a whizz kid that swept his way to an unprecedented victory and is now using his talent and vitality to launch a democratic revolution in the heart of Europe. At least this is how the majority of Anglophone media would have it. Yet the so-called “Macron effect” that is sweeping through the West has, as yet, not taken hold in the Fifth Republic.

In Macron’s France, the mood towards their new leader is equivocal. He seems agreeable, and is undeniably academically brilliant. It looks like he has some good ideas, and he definitely articulates them elegantly. Yet uncertainty remains as to who Macron is, how he thinks, and just what exactly he is planning to do.

English language coverage of the results of the French election has focussed upon the unprecedented nature of Macron’s victory. As both the youngest president in French history, and the first not to have come from an establishment party, this is not incorrect. Having formed his independent party ‘En Marche!’ only 14 months before the presidential elections, his success is indeed impressive.

His party may be a newcomer on the French political scene but Macron, clearly, is not.

Yet one would be mistaken in thinking that Macron is politically inexperienced, or that he is the product of anything other than an elite French political establishment. A four year membership of the Socialist Party and equal time spent as Inspector of Finances in the French Ministry of Economy, accompanies job titles that include private banker for Rothschild & Cie, deputy secretary-general of the Élysée and Minister of Economy and Finance. His party may be a newcomer on the French political scene but Macron, clearly, is not. Add to this an Ivy League-equivalent education, with graduate degrees from the two most prestigious academic institutions in France, and you have a candidate that is plainly the product of an elite political class that his party claims to eschew.

The only inconsistency in his stellar CV is a philosophy degree from the University of Nanterre, an institution infamous for its radically left-wing student body and its role in precipitating the events of May 1968. While there, however, his Master’s thesis was written on none other than Machiavelli, and many are wondering whether this could be a sign for what lies ahead. Macron’s decision to address the houses of Parliament for the first time in Versailles, and his refusal to grant a traditional Bastille Day interview have drawn criticism, with detractors concerned that it indicates an autocratic, hyper-centralised style of leadership. He evokes the figure of the detached leader, suspended above quotidian institutions and enshrouding himself in stately mystery.

Macron was a necessary measure to guard against the perils of the National Front.

While much of the hype surrounding Macron has been built upon his ‘crushing victory’, the official statistics tell a different story. With a 66% majority in the second round, Macron’s party did claim a significant victory, yet in the eyes of many, their votes were ones cast under duress, a choice made between the lesser of two evils amidst a splintered political system. A national abstention rate of 57% in the second round of the legislative elections seemed to confirm a widely held view amongst French citizens that Macron was a necessary measure to guard against the perils of the National Front.

Fast forward two months after the election, and Macron’s popular mandate is still unclear. While many cast their ballot out of desperation, there is now a sense of cautious hope towards the new president and his regime. His rhetoric is both liberal and progressive, and seems to embody welcome innovation regarding issues such as the environment and labour laws. As France prepares to exhale over the coming summer months, there is a sense of delicate, if tentative anticipation for the change that has been promised and long awaited.

Yet scratch a little deeper and there is cause for concern. Macron’s career has been mired by close and problematic links to big business, links that show no signs of dissolving. While he talks humanism, his decision to integrate many of the State of Emergency measures into common law has alarmed civil rights groups. Under such laws, the state would have the ability to conduct warrant-less property searches and house arrests, as well as banning protest marches, shutting down places of worship suspected of extremist teaching, and increased electronic surveillance.

Similarly, the seemingly liberal stance of the new administration towards immigration masks a paradoxical dichotomy between what appears to be a desire for a more open, welcoming EU, yet with stricter border control, particularly in France. While Macron spoke of the need for France to accept its just part in the welcoming of refugees to Europe throughout his election campaign, conversely, he has taken a tough stance on irregular immigration. While it remains to be seen how such distinctions will play out, the mass expulsion of approximately 2,700 people from a migrant camp in La Chapelle, Paris on 7 July does not seem like a particularly auspicious start.

There is no doubt that Emmanuel Macron is an ambitious and talented strategist, with sharp intellect and a perhaps unmatched intuition when it comes to gauging the social temperature. Yet so far the liberal rhetoric has been mingled with concerning policy proposals, and a leader that has chosen to distance himself from public life. For the time being, France waits to see if their ‘saviour’ will be a lion or a fox.