Macron’s resolute walk towards radical centrism  

There has been a great deal of media speculation about the prospect of a new centre party in the UK. There has also been a great deal of media comment that “it couldn’t happen here”, mainly because the first-past-the-post electoral system doesn’t favour new parties, and the experience of the SDP in the 1980s is a warning to potential break-outs from existing parties. Meanwhile in many countries in Europe, new insurgent parties have been spectacularly successful for example in Spain, France, Greece and Italy. In other countries, new or re-branded right-wing parties have also been successful, for example in Germany, Holland, Greece, Finland, France and Austria. We are publishing a series of blogs (on Fridays) describing the experience from other European countries with the view of collating experience  and identify how a new party might break into British politics, given the inherent barriers of the first past the post system. The first one, by Nic Firzli, is about France.

The year 2017 saw the unravelling of the prevailing order that had dominated the French political scene since the late 1950s (the end of the Fourth Republic). For nearly sixty years (1958 – 2017), the authoritarian centre-right Gaullists shared France’s ‘fromage’ (cushy public jobs, neoclassical Left Bank mansions and lightly-clad assistants) with the moderately Marxist Socialists.

Apart from a short hiatus (1976 – 1980 Raymond Barre government), that period was marked by the progressive decline and eventual marginalization of the eminently French Radicale tradition – once Western Europe’s leading political philosophy.

It took Emmanuel Macron less than a year to revive it by using a bold combination of modern managerial techniques, digital marketing and age-old tactical manoeuvrings: to that day, France’s Labour party (‘Socialists’), Gaullist Conservatives (‘LR’) and right-wing nationalists (‘FN’) don’t seem to know what hit them.

A Young Man in a Hurry

Emmanuel Macron’s life seems to mirror that of Pierre Nioxe, the workaholic character from a famous mid-century Parisian novel “who suffers from a curious affliction: he insists on doing everything quickly.”[1] A former Jacobin statist (of the Chevènement genre) turned laissez-faire investment banker, he failed to secure a nomination to run as Socialist Party candidate in the Amiens district (2007) and eventually joined the office of president Hollande in 2012 as economic advisor and deputy-director, a rather derivative role.

For two years, the “economic policy memos” Macron churned out were systematically discarded by a wimpish president: Macron chafed under the old orthodoxies of French social-democracy, but eventually rose through the ranks and became Minister of the Economy in 2014, a position in which he served for just two years.

Unable to push through the overdue employment law reforms (the ‘Code du Travail’ was to a large extent the brainchild of Cold War Era Communist-leaning legislators), Macron eventually resigned in the summer of 2016: back then, most political experts believed he was committing political suicide en direct.[2]

But his resignation was only the natural consequence of the establishment of En Marche! (known as ‘EM’), a new, seemingly modest political movement founded four months earlier (April 2016) by Emmanuel Macron, Benjamin Griveaux, Cédric O, Stanislas Guerini and Ismaël Emelien: tellingly, four out of five co-founders, including Macron himself, were alumni of the HEC Paris School of Management, France’s leading business school founded in 1871 by market-friendly Radicaux modérés and their secular centrist allies (dubbed “opportunistes” by their enemies).

The Rebirth OF Belle Époque Economism

The HEC School of Management was founded precisely at the start of the ‘Belle Époque’ (late Victorian and Edwardian eras in the UK), a period rightly described as a golden era for a new kind of French culture and civilisation: the country had been humiliated by the United States (Mexico 1866) and defeated by Germany (Sedan 1870), and the new French elites (“les nouvelles couches sociales”) sought to transform their country as rapidly as possible into a modern nation which could compete with Washington and Berlin on the world stage.

To that end, they pursued a dual policy combining ambitious, market-driven economic growth (“centre-right”) and anti-clerical secularism across schools, universities and the civil service (“centre-left”), thus breaking away with Catholic-inspired agrarianism, which moderate Radicals and centrists perceived as a hindrance to modernisation (many of them were Anglophile Deists and Lockean libres-penseurs, which further fuelled their anticlerical outlook).

Just like Macron and his En Marche friends, the Radicaux modérés were obsessed with the comparison with Germany. Guided by “modern, scientific skills”, the new managerial class leading French banks, industrial plants, business schools and university research labs were to contribute to the “national effort” – even Dr Louis Pasteur’s remarkable discoveries (vaccination, modern microbiology, treatment of tropical diseases) came from the French pharmaceutical sector’s urge to beat their Prussian rivals.

That resolutely modernist Radicale-technocratique worldview, which regards economics as the main factor in society, lost much of its political clout after World War I, as doctrinaire Socialist and Communist collectivism (on the left) and Catholic conservatism, Gaullism and ultra-nationalism (on the right) left very little political space for that once dominant ideology (except perhaps during the short-lived Giscard – Barre era, 1976 – 1980).

François Mitterrand’s Socialist Party came to power in 1981 in alliance with the Stalinist left (French Communists being the only unreconstructed Marxists left west of the Iron Curtain) and, paradoxically, with the implicit support of some Gaullist-conservative and right-wing MPs, who despised equally free-market economics and technocratic modernisation – de Gaulle himself had quipped “French politics won’t be settled at the Paris Stock Exchange” (‘la politique de la France ne se fait pas à la Corbeille’).

Quite predictably, the period which ensued (1981 – 2017) was a disaster for the French economy: for nearly four decades, doctrinaire Socialist Party politicians and clumsy provincialist conservatives were to alternate in office, while the French economy sank and the far-right National Front and their Islamist frenemies spread the gospel of ethno-cultural hatred across the country.

Big Tent Centrism and the New New

Many early En Marche backers came from the French private equity and venture capital (PE & VC) industry, a relatively small social set positioned precisely at the crossroads where finance and high-tech meet. Not surprisingly, most French VC firms are led by alumni of HEC and INSEAD, many of them personal friends and former colleagues of Emmanuel Macron: ambitious entrepreneurs particularly enthusiastic about notions such as “hyper-growth” and “digital leapfrogging”.

Conservative and Socialist politicians made no particular effort to reach out to them, while “at least one candidate competing in the [French] presidential election [was] well-disposed towards the technology sector. Emmanuel Macron championed digital growth when he was economy minister; this week [Feb. 23 2017] in London he urged French expats to come home to innovate.”[3]

Macron’s shrewd cultural wink to the ‘New-New-Thing’ crowd[4] came in the form of a derogatory term he used to describe his rivals, be they mildly Marxist Social-Democrats or rigid Conservatives: “L’Ancien Monde” made of fossilized political dinosaurs harking back to the pre-digital age…

Tech-sector billionaires (who own many of the country’s newspapers, magazines and TV networks) reciprocated by lending their support to the young consigliere’s unorthodox campaign: once a handicap, Macron’s youthful demeanour suddenly became an asset in the eyes of France’s famously gerontocratic chattering classes!

But En Marche’s venture-capitalist vision went far beyond top-down support from generous IT and telecom nouveaux-riches. The new party itself was consciously and conspicuously modelled after Silicon Valley startups: “key to Macron’s success is the army of volunteers – known by the English term ‘helpers’ – who give up their time to campaign for him.

Helpers work in the movement’s Paris headquarters, known as QG (quartier general), and in local districts around France where they undertake a variety of tasks – from managing social media to leafleting, organising debates and events, going door-to-door and answering questions that come to En Marche via phone and email […] Helpers who stay late or feel tired during the day can nap or sleep in a dedicated room of bunk beds.

Enthusiastic Parisian teenagers without degrees or careers work on Macbooks and chat with the man who in a month’s time could be president – Macron himself works on the floor above the helpers, popping down from time to time to mingle.”[5]

Quite tellingly, the middle-aged champions of the French Gaullist right (François Fillon) and far-right (Marine Le Pen), both small-time lawyers with a scant grasp of basic financial economics, and the new left’s leader (a grumpy Trotskyite typist turned Socialist school teacher) were all archetypal representatives of the old typographic-notarial classes. Their slow-moving supporters proved no match for En Marche’s digitally choreographed electronic insurgency: “every technology has its own ground rules, as it were. It decides all sorts of arrangements in other spheres [including politics].”[6]

‘And, At the Same Time’ and the New Radical Pragmatism

Macron’s rivals on both sides of the aisle (from Socialist ex-friends to right-wing demagogues) often accuse him of being “an opportunist”, an anti-centrist slur used by earlier generations of reactionary MPs… “The right” and “the left” are, after all, French inventions: it has thus never been easy to stand for the rational middle-ground in a Gallic political system characterised by a fondness for confrontational theatrics – “quarrelsome” is also a French word!

As if to provoke his critics, the new President has revived an ancient French expression: “Et en même temps”, which means something along the lines of “and, at the same time” or “and, on the other hand” – ultimately from ‘autem’ and ‘sed etiam’, Jerome’s concise Latin renderings of intricate Judeo-Greek notions of ‘dialectics.’ [7]

Put simply, the “Et en même temps” principle means that, for socio-economic renewal to succeed, a modern, radical-positivist policy mix can only be rooted in the pragmatic centre of gravity of society as a whole. This multidisciplinary, cross-cutting approach[8] makes for sound economic reforms: “What happened last Sunday? [first round of the 2017 presidential election] French men and women have decided to close a long chapter in our history: they have said that the two main political parties [Socialists and Conservatives] that shared power for many years had lost touch with the people […] As for me, I only have one enemy: France’s fractures, its divisions. I reject notions such as the rich against the poor, the big city as opposed to the countryside, France’s triumphant elites vs. the disenfranchises losers […] I want to restore our unity to build, to create, so we can be proud of being French and European, of being ourselves, at last![9]

[1] Review of “The Man in a Hurry.” Publishers Weekly, July 27, 2015

[2] Alemagna, Lilian. “Pourquoi Macron rompt.” Libération, 30 August 2016

[3] The Rise of ‘Deep-Tech’ is Boosting Paris’s Startup Scene. The Economist, 23 February 2016

[4] Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. WW Norton & Company, 1999

[5] The Story of Emmanuel Macron – How an Ex-Investment Banker Became France’s Best Hope. The Irish News, 18 April 2017

[6] The Future of Man in the Electric Age. Marshall McLuhan Interview by Frank Kermode. BBC, 1965

[7] See notably Boyarin, Daniel. “Dialectic and divination in the Talmud.” The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (2008): pp. 226 – 228 for an illuminating explanation of the major cultural-ideological shift taking place amongst both Greek-speaking (Athens, Antioch and Jerusalem) and Aramaic-speaking (Babylonia) intellectuals across the Roman Empire around the 4th century CE

[8] For the Neo-Comtian French Positiviste roots of much of modern socioeconomics, see Bell, Daniel. “Twelve modes of prediction: a preliminary sorting of approaches in the social sciences.” Daedalus (1964): 845-880.

[9] Discours d’Emmanuel Macron à Arras 26 avril 2017

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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