Macron the Maverick

Editor's note:

This piece was originally published on Project Syndicate on February 8, 2017.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, may be a charter member of what New America Senior Fellow Scott Malcomson calls the “Nationalist International.” But she is not the only “maverick” who is polling well in the run-up to her country’s presidential election this spring.

Emmanuel Macron is also a maverick, but of a very different type. After serving as Minister of the Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs under French President François Hollande, he launched his own political movement, En Marche!, and is running for president as an independent. Macron is only 39, and has never been a party politician. As recently as three months ago, few observers gave him a chance. But he quickly assembled a strong team, and has rallied support among younger voters.

Macron has been polling around 20% for the election’s first round in April. That appears insufficient to advance to the election’s second round in May, when the top two candidates will face off to determine the winner.

The first-round front-runners have been Le Pen, hovering at around 27% in the polls, and François Fillon, who served as Prime Minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy. But Fillon’s candidacy is now in doubt, following allegations that he employed his wife and children in fictitious positions while serving in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, left-wing candidate Benoît Hamon has surged in the polls since winning the Socialist Party primary, and is now approaching 20%.

Although Macron has positioned himself against the old left and the old right, he is neither a left- or right-wing populist, nor a traditional centrist. He hails from the left emotionally and intellectually, but he rejects traditional “class politics.”

Macron is campaigning for votes from all parts of society. He has reached out to workers who feel betrayed by the “system” and threatened by globalization and new technologies; and to teachers and health-care professionals who recognize that public education and health-care services need deep reforms to sustain the social solidarity that they underpinned in the past. But he is also seeking support from innovators and entrepreneurs, who want a freer regulatory environment and improved access to resources.

He has not yet formulated a full program. But Jean Pisani-Ferry, one of the best policy economists in France, recently resigned as director of the government think tank France Stratégie to become Macron’s program director. So far, Macron has emphasized a type of social solidarity that makes more social benefits universal and portable, while advocating more preventive health care. He views such social policies as complementary, not counter, to growth-enhancing measures, and is calling for more support for innovative business.

In contrast to other mavericks, Macron’s campaign will be positive. He will likely avoid vituperative attacks on other candidates, and make the case that France has more to gain from cooperative reforms than from declaring war on “experts,” the press, capital owners, union workers, immigrants, or other specific groups.

Macron is thus a foil to today’s populists. By employing fact-based arguments and appeals to humanist and democratic values, he is trying to modernize and rejuvenate the left – his “home” – as well as parts of the right. And he is a strong believer in Europe who supports proposals to establish a eurozone finance minister.

In today’s Europe, there are countries that want to integrate more closely on the basis of the euro, and countries that favor a looser cooperative structure. The United Kingdom, for example, is leaving the European Union, but may want to maintain a European continental partnership, as described by a group of influential Europeans. Such an approach resembles what I previously described as “two Europes in one.”

Macron envisions a more integrated Europe based on subsidiarity. He advocates local decision-making whenever possible and effective, but also supports national and European-level decision-making where this is appropriate; the key is that processes should be flexible and enable citizen participation. He recognizes that shared sovereignty will make Europe more influential, thereby empowering its citizens. And he views globalization as a good thing, but understands that it must be managed through durable, efficient international agreements and institutions.

The opinion polls are currently bouncing wildly, owing to the Fillon scandal and a surge in support for Hamon among left-wing voters outside of the Socialist Party. But if Macron qualifies for the second round, he will pose a greater threat to Le Pen than an outright left-wing candidate would. He could be the one to upset the Nationalist International’s applecart.

Indeed, a Macron victory could launch a counter-trend to the populism that is sweeping the globe, by giving hope to all who are sympathetic to the left or right, but anxious about populism and hyper-nationalism. The alternative could be a Le Pen victory, and a further step back toward the 1930s, when too many countries turned their back on international cooperation and collective solutions to shared problems.

After the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, the French presidential election could now be a tipping point. It is still a long time until the first-round vote in late April, and we have learned to expect surprises and not to put too much faith in early polls. But it seems that the unusual candidate Macron, rather than the populist mavericks to whom we have become accustomed, could win out.