France has saved the world! At least, that’s what far too many headlines and social media posts have proclaimed. The overwhelming landslide by Emmanuel Macron is definitely a victory over nationalism. But is it a vote for clear, rational centrist policies?
Judging by what is being celebrated, this is simply a negative victory at this stage in that a bogeyman has been slain. “It could be worse” is hardly a platform for running a government, let alone defining the future. But there is hope that Macron may yet provide the leadership that the world is desperately hungry for – an intelligent and decisive way forward. Time will indeed tell as Macron, and France, gets down to work.
The first task at hand is possibly the hardest one. Macron comes in without a single seat for his party, En Marche! (Forward!) in the National Assembly. He has a month before the new elections to assemble some kind of team. There is little chance that En Marche! will take the majority from the Socialists, but it may force a coalition. If that has to come with the Republicans or through some grand coalition involving three parties the result is almost certainly going to be chaotic.
So much for the clean mandate that a two-to-one landslide signaled.
France has a strong president system, so it may not matter all that much. Macron will have a lot of leeway to implement new policies, perhaps even more than an American president. But this points to a necessary continuous campaign for genuine popular support for everything that has to be done.
What evidence do we have that this is even possible?
What’s new about Macron is that as a centrist he is far from the “mushy middle” which has been floundering horrifically lately. It’s worth starting with the campaign slogan for this last election, Ensemble, la France! (France, Unite!). Compare this to the anti-Brexit “Better Together” or the Clinton “Stronger Together” and we see a message which is remarkably similar and yet completely different. More than just an exclamation mark, it’s a call to action. It’s a command in the second person, asking something of every French person as if there is a war to be fought.
This is what the center desperately needs.
But what, in fact, is the center and what does this mean to Macron? Again, we have only campaign rhetoric to go on but there is a lot of reason for hope. “We don’t need new ideas, we need new methods” is my personal favorite from the election cycle. It’s nearly impossible to get people excited by this alone, yes. But it’s about making government work in a new world which, in the case of France, includes serious questions about developing national identity within a European Union framework.
They played “Ode to Joy,” the European Anthem, at his victory rally. In German. Mon dieu!
The problem facing Macron is not that the right way forward is not known or, in most cases, obvious enough. There are a tremendous number of changes which have to be digested starting from national identity at the top through the nature of everyone’s workday routine, how they are paid, how their children will be raised, what constitutes a family, and how society is organized. And, of course, how the desperate refugees from a world ripped apart by forces like these and the backlash against them might be incorporated into civil society without exposing everyone to terrible danger.
The problem for the center is that we have to convince everyone that boldly moving forward is the only path and that curling up in an ever smaller ball and hoping it will all go away is simply not an option. We also have to convince everyone that government can indeed work for the people of a nation, standing as a valuable partner creating a decent and just and strong society.
This can only be done by example, which is to say that success has to be found somewhere. Pragmatism as a political force for getting things done has a strong appeal, but the limits are also very obvious. Obamacare is probably the best example.
Faced with a desperate need to bring some kind of order to a truly insane health care system, Obama quickly formulated something which he felt could be passed and implemented. Compromise was built into the structure of the plan at every level. The goal was to get something out there and bring some level of order to chaos – bypassing the debate over this system versus that or this ideology versus that tradition.
The result brought health care to millions – and created a political storm which may soon take it away.
It may seem that we don’t have enough time for solid political debate to burn its natural course across the landscape, and in fact we do not. But if you focus on the long term there is little question that this will happen one way or the other. Again, with Obamacare as the example, the pledge to repeal it is meeting the reality of sentencing millions to a likely death. The only thing the House could do is shamefully punt.
Was it better to just get something up there and let the politics sort itself out? I think so, but in the meantime we have President Trump and all the other collateral damage that is resulting. This is related to, if not because of, the decisions made to create Obamacare without any doubt.
Macron appears to have the emotional heft that, sorry to be writing this, Obama himself lacked. That level of energy and engagement is going to have to be sustained long after Marine le Pen has faded back into the fringes. Yet Macron has good counter-examples to learn from as well some clear demonstration that he is a quick study.
This can work, but the road is hard. It will take a populist effort sustained over a long haul with constant calls to mobilize long after the most dire threat has been dispatched. If France has indeed saved the world it will be by providing an example we have not yet seen of new leadership for a new world. Connection, authenticity, transparency, and energy all need to be harnessed and put into service. It must be personal but it also must be social. Macron, currently standing alone, cannot do this himself. It must be bigger than him, engaging hearts and arms and brains across an entire nation.