Progressive politicians in the West have taken a royal beating recently. Americans responded to Barack Obama’s legacy by enthroning Donald Trump. Left-wing leaders in Britain failed to prevent Brexit. Canada’s Justin Trudeau has been dubbed a “stunning hypocrite.”
France’s Emmanuel Macron is next up to bat.
The 39-year-old former investment banker and frontrunner in Sunday’s presidential election is promising a sea change in the political order. While politicians across the globe court voters from far ends of the political spectrum, Macron’s remedy to extreme populist uprisings is to revolt from the center.
His socially-conscious platform has all the makings of a progressive fairy tale. With his boyish good looks and dapper suits, Macron’s claim that he’s “neither left nor right” has gone over swimmingly with urban voters and the French media. “We can no longer defend a political system whose practices weaken democracy,” he told an ecstatic and youthful crowd of 15,000 at a rally in Lyon, decrying what he’s described as a vacuous and complacent political status quo. “I am not saying that left and right no longer mean anything, no longer exist, or are the same thing.”
Unlike his closest rival to the left, Benoît Hamon, Macron champions an open French economy that eradicates inequality while remaining squarely pro-business. He’s an unabashed proponent of globalization who wants to deregulate France’s ailing industries and boost freedom of movement and trade. At the same rally, he warned against joining the US and UK, which are closing themselves off. “I am thinking about our British friends who chose to leave Europe (…) I am thinking about the withdrawal operated for several years by our American friends who may be deciding to abandon their historic mission, which is, by our side, to ensure peace around the globe.”
The ideals hark back to the glory days of charismatic centrists like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. If Macron can sell a disillusioned France on a modern version of their thinking, he might just stunt the spread of Donald-Trump-style populism across Europe and beyond. His election would bolster the fortunes of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, Italy’s Matteo Renzi, and Germany’s Martin Schulz.
As head of Europe’s second largest economy, Macron’s ascendence would also pave the way for a stronger European Union (EU), an emboldened NATO, and a steadier Group of Seven (G7), the agenda-setting club of industrialized powers. This kind of unity, his backers argue, is the only way to confront the grave security and environmental problems that elude countries in isolation.
The question is whether Macron has proven to voters that he can pull it off.
What is a progressive, anyway?
There’s a sense of déjà-vu across Europe about Macron’s candidacy. Having never run for office, he has maintained a consistent lead among 11 candidates in the polls on the basis of an upstart party, En Marche! (On The Move!), which he founded only a year ago. Twenty years earlier, Blair came guns blazing onto Britain’s electoral scene with his own version of radical political progress: the Third Way.
In Blair’s case, it was an attempt to save his flailing party from divisive British politics. He had taken over the Labour party in 1994 as its youngest leader since World War II, after more than a decade of crushing electoral defeats. Inspired by the success of president Clinton in the US, Blair convinced his traditional left compatriots to embrace entrepreneurship, low inflation, and big business, all while revering social justice. In 1997, under a growing faction within the Democratic party, the New Democrats, Blair trounced the opposition during the general election, ending 18 years of conservative rule.
Clinton and Blair joined forces to exalt the Third Way as a new ideology at a conference in New York. European leaders, including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, soon joined the cause, which they championed as “progressive governance.” By the time Blair left office in 2007, he had pulled off three consecutive general election victories and a decade of economic stability.
Macron takes on every progressive failure
The road ahead for Macron is a lot murkier. The complexities of the globalized economy Blair and Clinton fought for now weigh heavily on voters. And yet, there are no clear answers.
To the entrepreneurs, expats, and liberal business leaders that define Macron’s base, he exudes the charisma of a rock star, an audacious heir to Obama’s legacy. At political rallies, he has passionately defended the EU and open borders, bouncing with jubilation to cheering crowds, even during declarations as dry as “I want more management autonomy.” But the former economy minister and banker’s command of free trade’s benefits haven’t translated for French voters worried about jobs and security.
Macron has enjoyed (link in French) being compared to Blair, who once charmed the whole of France by extolling the virtues of globalization to the French National Assembly in its native tongue. By contrast, many French voters found fault with Macron when he spoke English to woo a pro-EU crowd in Germany, a rare gesture for a French president. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, his closest opponent, pounced on the move, tweeting in response: “Presidential candidate Macron goes to Berlin to do a conference in English … poor France!” Florian Philippot, Le Pen’s right hand man, said Macron “has no respect for our language” and “doesn’t believe in France.”
There is also the problem of Macron’s elite status, a huge drawback in the era of the everyman. The “bankers’ candidate,” as Le Pen describes him, has tried to combat this by stressing that he was “born in a provincial town, in a family that had nothing to do with the world of journalists, politicians, or bankers.” The media has fueled his elite image, but it has also scandalized his marriage to his former school teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, a woman roughly 20 years his senior, questioned his sexuality, and in the process diminished his gravitas.
His biggest problem, though, comes down to real policy. It will require more than spirited soundbites to reconcile the mess his progressive predecessors left behind. Financial crises, mass migration, and the rise of automation have made painfully clear that globalization isn’t working for everyone. An upper middle class life is the promise of the Third Way, but that is precisely whose fortunes have stagnated in the global economy, to the benefit of the extreme rich and poor (pdf).
In the wake of the financial crisis, rising income inequality hit France harder than many other wealthy countries. Factor in France’s stubbornly high youth unemployment rate, and it feels easy to question Macron’s vision to the core.
That the world now runs on tweets and memes hasn’t helped. His boiled-down explanations of the tradeoffs inherent to globalization often ring hollow. Le Pen has consistently hit a nerve in dismissing Macron’s rhetoric (paywall) as vague and spineless. “You haven’t said anything. Every time you talk, you take a little of this, and a little of that, and you never settle on anything,” she sniped at Macron in their first televised debate.
What it would take to win
Of course, every French candidate is grappling with these problems to some degree.
Macron is banking on the notion that he’s the only one peddling genuinely new ideas. His rivals, he argues, are the ones who stand for the establishment. To those tempted by Le Pen’s xenophobic, protectionist message, Macron has reminded them of her party’s fascist roots, saying, “Marine Le Pen is truly the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen,” the party’s former anti-semitic leader, whose reckless image Marine resolutely rejects. And to those drawn to the 100% tax rates proposed by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a stalwart of French politics since the 1970s, Macron has warned against France becoming “Cuba without the sun.”
What hangs in the balance goes far beyond French politics. Europe’s centre-left politicians have flocked to Macron as their best hope in preventing the spread of the far right across Europe, and of protectionism across the globe.
“The seeds are there and beginning to flourish,” says Matt Browne, a European politics expert at the Center for American Progress, about hopes that a Macron presidency will spur on like-minded politicians.A triad of Macron, Canada’s Trudeau, and Italy’s Renzi in power would be “the linchpins of a new global, progressive movement,” he says. The efforts of Blair, Clinton, and Obama wouldn’t have been for naught, and the grand experiment of globally open, market-driven democracies would get a second shot.