The first signs of rust on Macron’s iron hand
He is young. He is handsome. He is slim. He is dapper. He is socially liberal but economically conservative. In more ways than one, Emmanuel Macron reminds me of Michael Portillo in his prime in the mid-1990s — except Portillo’s bid to become prime minister went horribly awry. He was condemned to reinvent himself as a television talking head. Macron is now president of France.
Whenever someone is trying to persuade me that liberal democracy is in crisis and that populist demagogues and fire-breathing tyrants are taking over the world, I refer them to the talented Monsieur Macron. If Marine Le Pen had won last year’s French presidential election, the thesis of a democratic crisis might have plausibility. But Macron smashed her, winning two-thirds of the vote in the second round.
The man certainly has Gallic panache. Last week he paid a visit to Brexiting Britain calculated to inflame the Francophilia of the metropolitan elite, preceding his visit with an inspired offer: a loan of the Bayeux Tapestry. It was, enthused The Guardian’s Martin Kettle, “a historic cultural gesture on a par with Egypt’s loan of the Tutankhamun treasures a generation ago”. But it was also, he warned darkly, a coded diplomatic message: “Bad things can happen if a nation does not keep its promises to its neighbours” — and “England does not always win”.
The obvious response is, of course: “Donnez-moi un break.” Full marks to The Sun for its inspired Bayeux parody — the “Bye-EU Tapestry” — complete with “Boris de Mop”, “Goveus de Speccy” and “Faire Theresa”. Yet even the Brexiteers’ favourite red-top paid grudging respect to Macron, depicting him as “Hunkie Macron the Gaul”.
In recent weeks the French president has been ubiquitous. Eleven days ago he was in China. Last month he visited Algeria, Qatar and Niger. He is as active in Middle Eastern and African diplomacy as in European. And everywhere we see the combination of what Napoleon called the “iron hand in a velvet glove”. In the words of Thomas Carlyle, he is “soft of speech and manner, yet with an inflexible rigour of command”.
We saw precisely that combination in Britain last week. At Sandhurst, Macron amiably announced Anglo-French military co-operation in Mali and Estonia. On Brexit, however, we felt the iron fist. If the UK wants access to the single market, said Macron, it will have to continue to contribute to the EU budget and acknowledge European jurisdiction. In his words: “Be my guest” — which all Brexiteers know means: “Be Norway.” The alternative, he said, would be a deal “closer to the situation of Canada”.
So has France at long last — after the embarrassment that was François Hollande — found a new Napoleon, or at least a new Charles de Gaulle? Though not remotely a military man, Macron certainly rose through the ranks of French politics with Bonaparte-like speed: an énarque — a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration; a civil servant at the Inspectorate General of Finances; a banker at the French branch of Rothschild; the youngest minister of the economy since Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; and then, at the tender age of 39, president.
There was surely a conscious allusion to La Marseillaise in Macron’s choice of name for the new political party he conjured out of nowhere: La République En Marche!. (And march it did, all the way to a majority in last June’s elections to the national assembly.)
Even the man’s love life is like something from Stendhal. At the age of 15 he fell in love with one of his teachers, Brigitte Auzière, who was 24 years his senior and married with three children. To end the relationship, Macron’s parents banished him to Paris. It was no good. The couple married in 2009.
Any normal man older than 40 naturally wants Macron to fail. There was a brief moment of hope when his approval rating plummeted last autumn, but it has since recovered to above 50%, much to the chagrin of all whom he has surpassed.
The sole comfort I can offer is that the Frenchman Macron most closely resembles is not an emperor or a general but another president who sought to rule from the centre. If he is anyone’s political heir, he is the son of Giscard d’Estaing. Indeed, their early careers were almost exactly alike. Both men defected from their original political parties to found new ones. Both rose to the pinnacle of power at an unusually early age: Giscard was 48 when he narrowly won the presidency in 1974. And just as Giscard surprised his former Gaullist colleagues with leftward-leaning policies — for example, legalising abortion — so Macron is presiding over a far more right-wing government than his early record led most people to expect.
France’s sclerotic, overregulated labour market is being liberalised. The fiscal deficit is being reduced through cuts in public spending, even as taxes on income and wealth have been reduced. And Macron has embarked on a programme of privatisation, beginning with the sale of the government stakes in Renault and the energy company Engie. All of this is vehemently denounced by the veteran leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, which only makes Macron and his conservative prime minister Edouard Philippe seem the more reasonable.
In 1984 Giscard published a book with the title Deux Français Sur Trois — two French people out of three — arguing that this was the margin of popularity a president needed to reform France. Macron started out with precisely that majority. Yet the latest polls suggest he is now hovering closer to one out of two. And a recent U-turn suggests that the fist inside the velvet glove may be made of a substance softer than iron. Ever since the 1960s there has been a plan to build a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes in western France. But last week the government announced that it will not, after all, proceed with the project, leaving the site in the hands of the eco-warriors.
Giscard’s tragedy, which haunts him to the present day, was that he failed to secure re-election. Will Macron share his fate? The conventional answers are “Not if the French economy keeps on responding positively to the medicine he is administering” and “Not if Paris and Berlin re-establish their old partnership on all European questions”. Yet I keep thinking back to Michel Houellebecq’s brilliant satirical 2015 novel, Submission, published by a macabre coincidence on the same day as the massacre by jihadists of staff at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Houellebecq’s plot foresees, correctly, that a mainstream politician wins the presidency in 2017. Yet five years later only an alliance between the centre left, the centre right and the Muslim Brotherhood can defeat Le Pen. As a result, the Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Ben-Abbes, becomes president of France.
Today, as the talented Macron packs his velvet glove and prepares to head to Davos, Submission seems an absurd flight of fancy. But Giscard lost to François Mitterrand. Napoleon ended up on St Helena. And Portillo is on This Week with Andrew Neil.
Niall Ferguson is Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford