‘The Reign of Emmanuel I’, by Robert Tombs

The Reign of Emmanuel I

Robert Tombs

Friday 12th May 2017: Robert Tombs*, the Cambridge historian, reflects on the implications for France, the EU and the UK of a Macron presidency.

The ceremony at the Louvre last Sunday night, when Emmanuel Macron marked his victory with a one-man procession through its regal courts, must have struck some watchers (among them, I admit, the present writer) as somewhat embarrassing, and the speech that followed as rather bombastic. But national styles differ, and it went down well with his supporters. More importantly, as the French public realizes, it marks the conscious and unashamed reassertion of the 5th Republic presidency as a ‘republican monarchy’, above politics and even aloof from the electorate: ‘The French are like sheep’ commented the father of the system, Charles de Gaulle, who appointed himself their shepherd. The president was to be a ‘national arbiter’ who would direct the nation’s destiny, leaving political squabbles to lesser men in parliament. Macron’s close advisers make no secret of his intention of eschewing the vulgarity of the Sarkozy presidency and the clumsy matiness of Hollande, and following instead in the Olympian footsteps of de Gaulle and that would-be philosopher-king François Mitterrand, whose dramatic ascent of the steps of the Pantheon after his election victory in 1981 was an avowed inspiration for Macron’s Louvre epiphany. Joan of Arc is also, apparently, one of Macron’s heroes, which might be thought to bode ill for Franco-British relations. Be that as it may, Macron has announced his intention of ‘moralizing French public life’ and ‘turning a new page’ in its politics. ‘Vaste programme’, as de Gaulle once commented drily.A programme, moreover, that depends to an extraordinary extent on one man. French political psychology has a yen for saviours. These have often been elderly (of whom de Gaulle was the most illustrious), to embody national continuity at times of disaster. But very occasionally they have been young, embodying a thirst for novelty and change. Macron, as we all now know, is young, and is frequently described as ‘the youngest since Napoleon’. The real comparison is not with Napoleon I, who came to power as a military dictator, but with young Prince Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon III), who was elected president with an even larger majority than Macron in 1848 after all the mainstream political parties – republican, socialist, royalist – had collapsed into confusion. But Louis-Napoleon had a great advantage denied to Macron. As he himself put it, ‘my name is itself a programme’: he inherited the huge prestige of France’s greatest modern hero. Macron’s only personal advantages are, first, that he is not Marine Le Pen; and second, that he is very intelligent and, as events have shown, astute. The first of these advantages is the decisive one: any reasonable candidate was practically certain of beating Le Pen. As one of her opponents recently put it, the National Front is ‘a machine for losing elections’; and she herself has clearly realized this. It carries still, especially for older voters, the stigma of the Vichy regime and of the Algerian war. Under its creator, Jean-Marie Le Pen (himself a soldier in Algeria) it was a repository for all the most reactionary and embittered elements in France. Marine Le Pen has shown that this legacy cannot be jettisoned, and her intention is to create a new party. But this negative motive for supporting Macron does not give him a mandate for a programme of reform, and his rhetoric throughout has depended on eliding difficult choices and promising universal happiness. Despite the televised euphoria surrounding his victory, he is one of the least popular candidates to have been elected president (as his first round vote showed), and inspires deep suspicion on the Left.

Macron’s second advantage – which, by all accounts he is fully conscious of – is brains. He has always been the cleverest boy in the class. The French presidency gives huge scope to the man in the Elysée, and already Macron shows every sign of using it. For example, he has said that he has decided on his prime minister and government, but is not yet announcing them – although according to the Constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, and the prime minister chooses the government. He intends to be in charge of political tactics, rather than becoming the figurehead of the existing parties. This has recently been demonstrated rather cruelly – and admittedly amusingly – when Manuel Valls, former prime minister under François Hollande, announced that he was willing to join Macron’s new party La République En Marche [LRM], only to be told that his services were not required. Instead, hundreds of parliamentary candidates are being hastily chosen from some 15,000 volunteers, with high quotas for women and non-politicians. When the new government is announced, it will show how bold Macron has been in trying to create a new (or at least new looking) political force.

But though a president can dominate the political scene – and especially a newly elected president benefitting from a popular surge – he cannot govern alone. The June parliamentary elections will this show in which direction French politics are moving, and how much room for manoeuvre Macron will have. The elections should answer a number of important questions. First, have the mainstream parties really collapsed, and is Macron’s ‘new page’ really being turned? Will Les Républicains (centre-right) and the Socialists, mobilizing their institutional strength at the grass roots, still establish a presence in the first round of the elections, and go on to win seats in the second round? Or will they haemorrhage activists and voters to the benefit of Macron’s LRM? Could LRM even be the leading force in the new parliament, and if so, will its hundreds of enthusiastic amateurs hold together? Will the National Front (or its successor) win a substantial number of seats – a springboard for a possible Le Pen victory in 2022 – or will the movement clearly have peaked and gone into spiralling decline? Will Jean-Luc Mélanchon, the charismatic new presence on the hard Left, be able to build a new movement, drawing votes both from disillusioned Socialists and disappointed working-class Le Penists?

France’s electoral system of two rounds of voting, designed to favour large parties and electoral alliances, may not have that effect this time. With so much uncertainty and suspicion, the usual electoral alliances and withdrawals may not happen. Any candidate with 12.5% of the electorate can stand in the second round, and we might see a lot of three-way or four-way contests, which makes the outcome even more unpredictable.

In short, will there be a sufficient surge in favour of the president to confirm his mandate to be France’s latest saviour? If not, his freedom of action will be limited by the need to build shifting majorities for every measure, and like his predecessors he is likely to disappoint. ‘All political careers end in failure’ ought really to be a maxim of French politics, and especially when applied to the 5th Republic presidency. Even de Gaulle left office under a cloud, after being humiliated by the riots and strikes of May 1968 and disavowed in a referendum.

Macron wishes to be not only the saviour of France, but the saviour of Europe. His ostentatious Europeanism was shown in his victory ceremony, as he walked across the Louvre to the strains of the Ode to Joy. But he knows that the French electorate is increasingly disenchanted with the ‘European idea’. His solution is to get the Germans to accept a more free-spending and less austerity-focused Eurozone, with a budget and a finance minister – another ‘vaste programme’. So his chances of a successful presidency depend on a fundamental change of policy in Berlin. How will a Macron presidency affect Brexit? The French elite, of whom Macron is a thoroughbred product, is fundamentally attached to the EU as France’s great strategic achievement. Their annoyance with Britain for jumping ship is real, even palpable. On the other hand, an EU without Britain revives their dream of a Europe run by a Franco-German condominium. Furthermore, it seems unlikely than Macron and his government will want to add further difficulties to their already formidable list of challenges by precipitating a crisis with Britain, which would damage the French economy and negate our crucial defence relationship. So we can expect tough talk and moderate action. As Macron’s senior economic advisor Jean Pisani-Ferry put it recently on Radio 4, ‘we need to build a new relationship. There is a mutual interest in keeping prosperity that exists and has built over the years.’

*Professor Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. His recent publications include The English and Their History (2014) and, with Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present (2006). He is also co-author of Politeia’s Triggering Article 50 – Courts, Government and Parliament.

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