Book Review — Revolution Francaise: Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation by Sophie Pedder

The political biography of the year is “Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation” by Sophie Pedder, the Paris bureau chief of The Economist. It is a biography of political ascent and is sure to be studied by political consultants across the world as a guidebook on how to win a smashing middle class-centered majority in a political environment of populist extremes. Both the dynamics of the man and the mechanics of his improbable electoral victory are clearly dissected in this thorough-going, but never tedious, narrative.

Pedder divides her narrative into two halves: the first is entitled “Conquest” and the second “Power.”

As to conquest, what was the Macron victory? First, a 39-year-old outsider won the presidency of France at his first go at elective office. Second, a month later his newly created political party En Marche won 60 percent of the seats in parliament and saw off France’s two largest conventional political parties. With allied political parties, the parliamentary election gives the Macron government a near invincible 70 percent plus majority in the National Assembly.

Considering that in the first round of the presidential primary the right-wing National Front and various left-wing candidates got a vote total in the high forties—coincidentally about the same that the current populist coalition in Italy has. French politics was deeply divided. But one can see that Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic constitution turned out to give France the most unified government among western democracies at a time of great political precariousness. The constitution seems to work best at times of near crisis. And no other president of the Fifth Republic inhabits the spacious powers of the Republic as fully as Macron since the departure of Le Grand Charles almost five decades ago.

The most important thing to understand about Emmanuel Macron is that he is a man in perpetual motion. He is the opposite of the status quo hugging leader of slender majorities or shaky coalitions. To paraphrase Descartes: he moves, he is. The movement caught the French voters’ attention at a time when they were looking for anyone but an established political leader. This deep-seated hunger was so profound that François Fillon never understood the political dump truck that ran him over in the primary election. There is a juicy quote from Segolene Royal about François Hollande, her erstwhile companion and later the president Macron served as a political aide Royal said that Hollande’s political career could be summarized in a word: inaction. He epitomized the immobile politician.

Macron’s provincial upbringing in a bourgeoise household of doctors—both his parents and his siblings are physicians—is detailed with the observation that his early childhood brilliance was given impetus by a loving grandmother with whom he spent a great deal of time. Pedder also elucidates Macron’s romance with a drama teacher 24 years his senior who eventually became his wife; the takeaway is that this trial by disapproval gives the couple tremendous solidity while providing Macron with a fortified sense of rugged individuality, a person who succeeded at a quest far outside the boundaries.  This is a man who achieves far and distant goals.

The intriguing aspects of Macron’s political ascent can be described as a process of creating one’s own charisma. Macron is somewhat nerdy and does not naturally project a cool John Kennedy-like charisma. What Macron and his team sensed, though, was that there was a hidden majority in France in favor of reform. The trick was to unlock it.

Macron and his small group of “metro-chic” advisers came up with the concept of a campaign as a “start-up” operation that was more like a social media start-up than a conventional political campaign. The jump-off step was a town hall to solicit views from the public. They publicized the event on Facebook and had to close off registration after only six hours. On a mid-July evening in Paris in 2015 more than 500 people turned up to ask Macron questions. In turn, Macron asked how “we” could liberate the country’s energies, create a new model, re-take the initiative. Macron proved he had a key to drawing crowds; the meeting also proved that there was a disconnect between the general public and the Paris elite. Macron began a process of consulting widely and then making up his own mind; he is intrinsically decisive. People and ideas started to flow towards him.

Macron viewed the history of the Left as a process of extending collective rights to achieve collective progress. He turned this around rhetorically: he articulated a philosophy of building a neo-progressivism around the idea of individual progress for all, a way to combine individual agility with everyone’s need for personal security in globalizing times. He also rejected the labor arguments of Martine Aubry and the 35-hour work week crowd by stating that the time when “France could get better by working less” was over. In return, the Socialist Left described him as an agent of ultra-liberal capitalism; they applied all the old, tired labels. Macron welcomed the sense of disruption. The Socialist Party had become a calcified fossil. It could not be reformed, only broken.

While Macron was building a political movement under the radar, but in plain sight, Prime Minister Manuel Valls retaliated against the presumptuous newcomer and relegated Macron and his day job as the economy minister to the bureaucratic backwaters. Macron’s response was to start a movement built around a giant information-gathering exercise called “Grande Marche,” which utilized thousands of grassroots volunteers to gather information. It eventually became the open organization En Marche. Information was collected on tablet computers and customized smartphone apps in neighborhoods across France and instantly uploaded to the Paris server.

The structure of the incipient Macron campaign was a galvanizing personality at the top and a decentralized citizens movement below which featured an old-fashioned emphasis upon knocking on doors. The Socialist Party grandees sneered at the door knocking. But the Macron volunteers quickly grasped the big message the voters were telling them: all politicians are rotten. Macron formulated his strategy accordingly. National campaign momentum built up from all the on-the-ground political work. En Marche knew where the people were; the other politicians did not.

The Macron team built an efficient campaign social media structure with powerful data analysis at the Paris hub while the grassroots structure was just one layer below and featured lots of “one click” ease of use. Local committees could be set up effortlessly and became ubiquitous. With no jurisdictional boundaries, there were no jurisdictional factions or rivalry. And Paris knew what everyone was doing everywhere all the time.

French privacy laws did not permit targeting individual voters, but small blocks of streets could be grouped with demographic data. That was sufficient to permit effective targeting. Simple: go shooting where the ducks are.

After coming in first in initial round of presidential voting, Macron went straight at Marine Le Pen’s crucial weakness, one that she shares with other populist firebrands. She’s all slogan and not much policy. Macron took her down over the euro and lack of economic program in the final debate. Le Pen sputtered and proved inarticulate in the face of Macron’s well-articulated critique. Macron was on his way to the Elysée.

The second part of the book is entitled “Power”. It leads off with a delicious epigraph from a Macron adviser: “France is an intellectual country … This isn’t Texas.”

Importantly Macron believes the French should be proud of their heritage but he is “against a conception of culture as an identity that excludes.”

Macron has an operating philosophy that is an extension of his oft repeated phrase “at the same time” (en même temps). Macron looks for connection between seemingly opposed positions. Another precept is that theory must be constantly re-examined in the light of experience. Macron is a social democrat in the tradition of Michel Rocard who believed that society should work collectively towards the common good but that belief that ideas must be confronted with reality. This tethering to reality and pragmatism separate Macron from many thinkers on the hard left.

Macron believes that action must proceed from permanent deliberation. He excels at this process of deep thinking and contending with opposites. From this springs his belief in action aimed at once liberating the world of work while protecting the circumstances of the most precarious.

A crucial point is that public dissatisfaction is countered by action. Having a parliamentary majority becomes crucial to an executive’s effectiveness because changing the law is the substance of action.

Macron is both top-down and non-ideological. His Elysée administration is centralized and tightly controlled. (The current scandal over the disgraced former security aide Alexandre Benalla reveals the secretive weaknesses in the configuration of this control freak dimension of the Macron operation.)

Macron argued fervently during the election that he could not stop the forces of globalization, on the one hand, but that Europe has a duty to protect on the other. Once again, forces in opposition in need of reconciliation through policy. As to social democracy, Macron is liberal in the Nordic sense and not the Anglo-Saxon sense. He is part of the left that is reconciled to the market economy which separates Macron from the French far left. He also has a sense of the coming economic transformation and the driving power behind it originating in the business sector which has so successfully harnessed the new technology tools. The coming transformation is not a place for the traditional left’s focus on equal outcomes.

 

There is the interesting observation that if high taxes and high spending were the answer to poverty and joblessness, the France would have eliminated both. But it hasn’t. This is interesting because the left of the US Democratic party wants to embark on just such a program.

France has more big multinational companies in the global Fortune 500 than Germany. France is very globalized in the large-company, industrial sector. Renault-Nissan is the largest carmaker in the world, combining the capabilities of the world’s third largest economy with its fifth largest. In some interesting ways, France knows how to punch above its weight in the world economy.

Freeing the French economy from the tangle of rules, particularly the monstrously large labor code, is aimed at freeing up medium-size French firms to go more global, which has been a key to German success over the previous two decades. The overall result of a stratified French corporate sector has been that the French economy is a two-tier labor market with an entrenched prosperous class and a lot of outsiders with their noses pressed to the window wanting in. In particular, the labor code dried up the market for permanent contracts employment, which left many younger workers on the outside looking in.

What has ossified the French economy since street demonstrations defeated reform efforts in the mid-1990s was a continuous political failure to fix competitiveness problems through domestic reform. The French were unable to copy industrial reform implemented by its powerful neighbor Germany; labor market reform was the key to Germany’s recapture of competitiveness 2001-2009.

Macron got major labor market reform in his first year. Luck was also with Macron in his first year as growth permitted a tax cut while bringing the budget deficit below 3 percent for the first time in 10 years. Long-term plans are to cut the share of public spending to 52 percent of GDP, still very high but getting down towards sustainable Scandinavian levels.

The other challenge is to reorient the technostructure of the elite civil service. The role of the French state in the postwar era has been to protect jobs; thus the expanding web of rules and safeguards. Macron argues for a shift to protecting people, not jobs He is  interested in the Danish “flexicurity” model.

The shifting balance of global economic power and pace of digital dislocation will not be forgiving. And France remains deeply fractured. There is a widening skills gap. Macron has a clear focus on education reform and the need to decentralize and localize the highly centralized public education system.

Lyon is an example of a dynamic regional city that has carved out a specialize niche in the global service economy. Others are RennesMacron won stunning pluralities in these cities, beacons of the post-industrial society. At ease with business-friendly globalism.

Outside of Lyon, it is Front National territory when you get to France profonde, or peripheral France. This is the territory of anxiety and neglect, fragile towns and deserted rural areas. Precariousness.

The further you live from an SNCF train station, the more likely you are to vote FN. Support for FN increases as local services decrease. Marine Le Pen had biting rhetoric calling to evict the establishment ‘in the name of the people.”

Sophie Pedder has superb on-the-ground reporting from a red brick town outside of Lille of Hénin-Beaumont that saw its mining employment collapse over the decades. The Socialists were non-existent for the working classes; Marine Le Pen was at the factory gates. Marine Le Pen told her political cadres, “Indignation needs to be organized.” Ms Pedder’s interviews are highly revealing of the frustrations in Front National country.

Between Marine Le Pen and left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélanchon, they pulled 41 percent of the first-round vote. Add in other minor candidates, and almost half of French voters went for the extremes.

Macron’s strategy to combat rural populism and its pervasive sense of being left behind is désenclavement, or breaking the sense of isolation.

In the metropolitan regions, politicians have abandoned the banlieues, and these neighborhoods remain socially isolated while being within view of the globalized economy. They are on the capital’s doorstep, but a world apart. France wrestles with the problem that the only integration that means anything is a job, a task it has proven deficient at with regard to young Muslims. Isolation leads to radicalization through rejection. That creates a dark fascination with political Islam. The Republic had given up on certain neighborhoods. Other observers note on radicalization that “no one knows how to solve the problem.”

If one half of the ethnic divide in France involves Muslims, the other side and often hidden side of French poverty is “misère blanche,” or white destitution, the sharp edge of ethnic disadvantage.

The highly centralized French education system standardizes inequality and becomes the tyranny of the normal. But the world of work is being upturned and so must education. Accordingly, Macron’s focus on education reform.

With regard to foreign policy and relations with Europe, Macron is championing new approaches to situations that have curdled in the ten years since the financial crisis. “In every beginning dwells a certain magic,” said Angela Merkel, quoting Hermann Hesse.

Unlike American conservatives, the French view shared sovereignty as a means of reinforcing, not undermining, the nation state. Macron has wanted to reach a “new deal” with Germany.

Macron summarizes the political challenge as a chance to champion a stronger center, and guarantee the liberal democratic order, that can secure decent lives for its people. “We can be leaders of tomorrow’s world.” The goal for the European Union is to rebalance Europe with more solidarity and convergence rather than let it fracture under the hammer of populist forces.

Safe food, clean air, easy and safe ways to travel, communicate, study and share with fellow Europeans. The goal is better domestic societies across Europe.

by Paul A. Myers at myerscpa@aol.com or myersbooks@gmail.com

 

 

 

Categories Book Reviews

1 thought on “Book Review — Revolution Francaise: Emmanuel Macron and the quest to reinvent a nation by Sophie Pedder

  1. Great pleasure to read your insights.

    Like

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