Overrated: Emmanuel Macron

It is doubtful whether the rising star of French politics will live up to the hope and hype

Emmanuel Macron: No St Joan (Illustration by Michael Daley)

On May 8, the French city of Orléans celebrated, as it does every year, its liberation by Joan of Arc and her army in 1429. Many politicians have tried, for decades, to take over St Joan’s mantle by speaking at the event.

This year a new candidate appeared — not a right-wing leader or an eccentric Catholic, but Emmanuel Macron, the French minister of the economy. It is surprising because Macron is from the Left, and the Left has rarely celebrated Joan of Arc. And until recently Macron was more of a bureaucrat-turned-politician than an orator statesman like Charles de Gaulle, who identified with Joan.

Macron, just 38, was appointed minister in August 2014 after being joint deputy secretary-general of the Presidency of the Republic for two years. Before that, he was a banker at Rothschild. Like many of his former colleagues, he is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, where bright students learn how to become top civil servants, but sometimes end up as bankers or company executives.

Macron is a sincere free-marketeer: he would like France to have a more deregulated economy. No wonder that he has been praised by liberals and free-market supporters, and is hated by the statist socialists, including many of his fellow ministers. His major bill, passed in August 2015, was meant to deregulate Sunday trading, bus transport and the professions.

Over the past few weeks, and to the great dismay of President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, his fame has gathered momentum, and he has founded his own movement, “En marche!”, which seeks good ideas from both Left and Right. (Such a move would mean instant dismissal for a British Cabinet minister, but not for Macron.) He is the rising star of French politics, talked about everywhere, from Le Monde to the Andrew Marr Show. He may well be an independent candidate for president next year.

To some extent, this success is justified: France is desperate for an economic boost, and Macron’s ideas are exactly what is needed. And there can be a fair case on the Left for defending the free market as an emancipatory tool. Macron has another quality: he seems to be sincere. In an age of spin, a tint of honesty always attracts people.

The Orléans episode could be seen as a positive attempt to reach out to French conservative opinion, and it is to some extent brave for a leftist to recognise that French history did not start in 1789. But in fact it was a perfect example of what Macron is doing wrong.

After implying that Joan of Arc embodied the ideal of the French Republic, he stated that she “cracks the system, she pushes against the injustice that was meant to imprison her . . . Whereas France . . . was divided, she had the intuition of her unity, of her togetherness.” Many commentators interpreted Macron’s words as a veiled description of himself. He seemed to imply that he was the only person able to “reconcile the two Frances — the one who likes the world and the one who fears it”. This sounds both patronising and arrogant.

All the fuss about Macron largely exceeds his achievements so far. First, he has never received any electoral mandate. A creation of Hollande, he is politically inexperienced. He is a perfect product of the French state elite, which knows nothing of political accountability, and cares less. Second, he has achieved nothing substantial. His first bill was an important attempt at reform, but it could have been much more wide-reaching in its ambition and results. At the end of last year, he tried to introduce a new bill on the digital economy. It was abandoned in January for lack of support. Macron is paying for his lack of allies in parliament.

Which leads us to his third flaw, a strange mixture of naivety and arrogance. He has made several faux pas. He said that, thanks to his bus reform, “the poor would travel more easily”, forgetting that trains are expensive for almost everyone.

In an interview with Paris Match, his wife Brigitte, who at 63 is 25 years older than him (she was his school teacher), called him “a knight”. He was so embarrassed that he said she had made “a blunder” in speaking to the press. Is such lack of gallantry worthy of a knight?

But most worrying of all is that Macron’s economic views are not really substantial. How then can he aspire to be president, a much more demanding task?

His vision of freedom, like that of many French free-marketers, is shallow and over-simplified. Outside economic matters, he holds the views of a standard progressive. He lacks depth and accountability, and does not deserve all the passion and hope he is arousing.

One qualification should, however, be added. Shouldn’t French conservatives, if they believe in some version of the free market, back Macron, because he is among the few French politicians who have set out to defend it? He should be given the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

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