I met Emmanuel Macron in March 2017, at the conclusion of writing a profile for the Sunday Times, on a train to Bordeaux. I remember I was impressed by his ability to explain complex things. But I did not leave entirely dazzled. I felt like I was interviewing a jukebox. Or, perhaps, that I had met a man who was the French embodiment of The Economist.
Macron spoke like the serene unsigned editorial itself: “Europe,” “NATO,” “the rules-based international order.” I nodded along. There was only one growth model and what France needed to do was get closer to it. Tax cuts, privatizations, supply-side reforms—they were painful, yes, but they all had to be done. Only growth, faster growth, would end the French malaise.
I was struck by his memory, by his ability to summon up so many facts and briefing papers. It took me a few minutes after I’d met him to remember that what he was saying was not in fact as complex and sophisticated as he made it sound. Again, that Economist trick.
When the final results came in I was happy. A strong, sound pro-European had won the highest office in one of the big economies. Spooked by Trump and Brexit, I exhaled a sigh of relief. France would be under a steady, if not transformative, hand. The European order would be safe from the worst kinds of French populists for five more years.
What had I got wrong? As I wandered the streets of Paris in January, I recalled how I had expected riots to accompany a “no deal” Brexit in 2019. I had never imagined France would get there first. I had not expected that the man on the train would find himself leading such a chipped regime so soon after a landslide victory.
Or for the populist threat to actually have gotten worse.
The 39-year-old Macron, so young and full of energy, had confused the meaning of his own election, mistaking an accidental victory for a policy mandate. Covering the run-up, neither I nor the friends and colleagues of Macron I interviewed had any illusions about why he was going to win. A freak occurrence—a “dossier” of leaks— had sunk François Fillon, the center-right candidate who might have otherwise cruised to victory. Nobody spoke in terms of a “mandate” for Macron. France overwhelmingly knew what it did not want—François Fillon’s dirty dealings, Marine Le Pen’s National Front—but was much more ambivalent about what it did.
It didn’t vote, overwhelmingly, for the Economist growth model.
But this was exactly how Macron interpreted his election, and the implosion of the Socialists and Les Républicains in the legislative elections that followed. What aides dubbed the “Jupiterian” presidency was the manifestation of this mistaken thinking.
Macron pitched left and right during the campaign, but afterwards only delivered Economist politics. Instead of courting left-wing voters with identity politics and egalitarian rhetoric, or offering right-wing voters some anti-immigration and Euroskepticism to leaven the medicine, he did neither. Like many a French revolutionary before him, he became a purist.
The key mistake behind the “Jupiterian” presidency was not with regards to the identitarian Right, however; this rump had never been folded into the En Marche coalition. Rather, he misjudged the Left. He thought that Socialist voters had somehow been transformed, perhaps by the power of his rhetoric, into pro-European liberals when they voted En Marche in 2017.
But the eruption of the “Gilets Jaunes”—the Yellow Vests—laid the errors of Macron’s thinking bare. It wasn’t the emergence of populist, violent, and often quite anti-Semitic protest groups itself that did it. Rather, it was that despite their apparent extremism and violent tendencies, a solid majority of the population sympathized with them. French egalitarian politics had not died in the summer 2017.
But this had not been his only mistake.
Mounting failures of personal judgment had damaged his credibility. From the Benalla affair to his prickly and curt manner: lashing out at discourteous questioners, be they workers, pensioners, or even school children, never thinking how this was calcifying his reputation as “the President of the Rich.” The fact that he built himself an echo chamber in the Élysée did not help. Nor the fact that he sought refuge in the idea the French “always” turn on their leaders out of a psychological lust for regicide.
Worse still, Macron’s errors of judgment further undermined him as a crisis manager—he veered clumsily between the shrill and the panicked at the worst of the protests. And he accumulated many failures as a diplomat, such as his crass attempts to seduce President Trump—as if international diplomacy was just a matter of pulling the flattery that worked on older, vainer men in Paris.
How had I missed all this profiling Macron in 2017?
I had made the mistake with him I often made in real life: the guy with the best memory is never actually the smartest guy in the room.
Only when I left the Paris of the Gilets Jaunes did it strike me there was something more. Because, I realized, it would be a mistake to think Macron’s failure was simply his own.
What if, more unnervingly for centrist pro-Europeans, the failure of Mr. Economist was a verdict not just on a man and his foibles but on the ideas themselves? When a policy package fails yet again to be seen as genuinely legitimate, maybe it is not only the fault of the practitioner but also the practice.
A certain strand of modern folk liberalism takes it on faith that “win-win” solutions always exist, and that they are best arrived at through rational deliberation. Over time, what was a theory of politics atrophied into a theory of best practices. It forgot the reality that when it comes to resources, especially in the immediate term, there will be winners and losers. This is the fundamental truth of politics, even politics in modern liberal democracies.
For much of the 20th century, however, the discontent of the losers has been mitigated by the understanding that sustained growth would continue. A kind of “win-win” logic existed as long as growth could be counted on. Politics was boiled down to disputes about apportioning the growing pie. But now, with well-distributed growth elusive, and technocratic fixes failing to bring it back, politics as struggle is back.
Macron is nothing if not a convinced modern liberal. He embraces politics, but only as a struggle between those who favor rational “win-win” solutions and those who, irrationally, do not. This failure of judgment is most apparent on the Champs-Élysées. It should come as no surprise that with inequality burning, supposedly “pro-growth” policies that are seen to favor the rich result in class animosities that liberals thought had been consigned to history. What triggered the explosion of rioting in France was white working class anger that the costs of climate change—and indeed, the costs of globalization in general—were being placed on them.
Macron’s failures with Germany on European reform stem from similar sources. Like on the Champs-Élysées, the problem in Berlin was that the costs of Macron’s Eurozone reform program were not seen as a “win-win” pooling of German power, but as a redistribution of German power away from Germans.
The Gilets Jaunes do not believe that ceding labor protections or disposable income now will benefit them in the long run, just as they do not believe Macron will expand the French economy. Meanwhile, the Germans do not believe that ceding their privileges built into the euro will benefit them, just as they do not believe that Macron will expand European power.
Indeed, Macron’s approach to populism might be making things worse. By disdaining the way French populists posit a “corrupt elite” abusing a “true people,” the President is pretending that class conflict is not there. By pushing beyond the pale the idea that a “selfish Germany” is abusing a “subjugated France,” the Élysée is also pretending that Berlin is waiting to be seduced rather than being rational.
And by making the gulf between fact and reality bigger, by insisting these conflicts are an illusion, the President is handing vast chunks of the working class to the worst kinds of populists.
To be sure, Macron is no fool. He understands that liberal politicians need to confront populists in a battle of ideas. But by failing to interrogate the fundamentals of those ideas he has turned himself from Jupiter into an Achilles.
This is the lesson Macron holds for English-speaking centrists. They need to embrace distributional conflict, not deny it: recognize it exists, between classes, between generations, and between nations. They must accept that sometimes conflict may even be necessary, and that positions can be irreconcilable. At minimum, they must start from this position, and from there proceed on their own terms. They can propose policies they think can generate growth, but without reliance on the happy illusion that there will be no victims. They should call out both nationalist dead ends and flawed “socialism in one country” experiments, but with the knowledge that their preferred alternative, too, is not “win-win.”
This is where Macron is better than The Economist. At moments, he has admitted there is “a crisis in contemporary capitalism”—in the interlinked problems of tax, tech giants, and finance. There have been flashes where, unlike The Economist’s recent “manifesto,” which seeks to reform the venerable tradition but in fact offers only surface fixes, Macron seems to grasp that the Western order is in a process of internal decay: that the rising costs the winners are placing on the losers is cracking it.
But he has failed to grab the nettle.
You can see it in his attempt to persuade the billionaires at Davos to pay their taxes. You can see it in the mission he has set his Finance Minister, to parlay his way to world minimum taxation. And you can see this in his failed vision for the euro.
The plans are good. Some of them are actually redistributive. But the way he has chosen to approach the problems—by kicking them up to Brussels—is telling. For Macron, Brussels is the only solution to the flaws of liberal regimes. By focusing on persuasion there, his own government kicks away distributional conflict at home.
Like his postwar heroes, Macron could accept that social peace can only be assured with serious redistribution of wealth—to the banlieues and to the roundabouts across rural France still occupied by the Gilets Jaunes. He could accept that the French working class needs to be rewarded by the status quo to fully support it, and that France cannot “seduce” but must confront Germany to redistribute power and outcomes within the Eurozone. He could accept that this means abandoning the cherished illusion Paris is an equal to Berlin, that it really is a state with much in common with Italy—in need of new, less decorous continental alliances.
But all that would mean rethinking the contemporary Western growth model—demanding not just a series of technical or constitutional fixes to Brussels but a fundamental break in how the ECB operates in Frankfurt. A change, when it comes to the billionaires, in the balance of power. A willingness to return marginal tax rates to what they were in “les trentes glorieuses.” And breaking with The Economist mindset.
This is the revolution which Macron’s failure of liberalism is hinting at, and it is one that the social forces he represents can either lead or continue to repress. Should they choose the latter, the Champs-Élysées is likely the future of French politics.