Emmanuel Macron’s achievement is immense. His rise to the French presidency was remarkable to watch, transforming from an unknown former economy minister into Europe’s youngest head of state, and the youngest French leader since Napoleon.
Barely a year after forming his political movement, En Marche!, Macron was successful in his bid for the presidency. He has now further defied critics to win a large majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French legislature, having transformed that movement into a bona fide political party.
In doing so, Macron heaped further embarrassment on France’s traditional main parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, who had already failed to get a candidate into the run-off of the presidential election. The Socialists fared particularly badly, with their presidential candidate Benoit Hamon again failing to reach a run-off, this time for a seat in the assembly. The Right has fared better, but has not escaped the mark of failure.
Many wonder aloud whether Macron’s success could be replicated elsewhere. The high tide of populism has not yet receded. The possibility of far-right politicians coming close to national leadership looms large in the imagination.
Across the world people look to Macron as the man who rose from relative obscurity to defeat the extreme Right and ascend to the highest office. They seek to emulate his great feat and how he did it. His way is said to herald a resurgence of centrism and liberalism, a route to reclaim the Western world after the election of Donald Trump and Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
But the lessons from Macron’s rise are not easy to interpret or to implement. His successes only reinforce how remarkable his rise has been, and how difficult to replicate it could prove.
Macron’s personality and temperament are as important as anything else. Without an august party with established electoral machinery, his personality came to triumph in successive national votes. And this, coupled with an intensely acute sense of timing, has given him success, in both presidential and legislative elections.
The fact that Macron is a first-rate talent goes without saying. A very young man, he has achieved a great deal. He is a uniquely impressive person. Observers emphasise his command of detail and personal charisma.
Macron’s sense of political timing is remarkable. He brought a movement into being and within a year contested two elections, presidential and legislative, winning both. This is unprecedented in modern France and largely unparalleled around the world.
Benjamin Haddad, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who worked on the Macron campaign, told me:
[Macron] understood the current two parties were much more fragile than experts believed. His win at the parliamentary elections shows it: winning an overwhelming majority with political novices. Basically he has managed to capture the “degagisme” (a neologism we use to describe the desire to get rid of the political class) without falling prey to populist extremist ideologies.
In this respect, he doesn’t go against the populist wave but captures it with a liberal message. Traditional politicians, too invested in the system, didn’t see it coming. Their main concern was to ensure they would make it in the second round against Le Pen and win.
So Macron picked up on the possible collapse of the Socialists, something he has now precipitated. He noticed that the Right was flagging too.
Some Republicans considered this year’s presidential election a settled matter. Yet their candidate, François Fillon, did not make it into the second round. Their dreams of dominating the legislature, regardless of who was president, have also been dashed.
The Republicans lost the support of some voters through their apparent embrace of Vladimir Putin and rejection of the Western alliance. This they share with the Front National and other radical right-wing parties across Europe. At the same time the Socialists have stagnated. François Hollande, labouring under record low approval ratings, did not run for re-election.
Macron saw that it was the moment for change, and he saw that it could come only from the centre. Haddad tells me:
Every sequence of it was planned and went according to plan: announcing his resignation last summer, launching his movement, not participating in the socialist primary, stealing oxygen from Hollande until he withdraws – all the way to revealing his candidates after the presidential election and winning the parliamentary. He is young and intellectual but has proven to be a ruthless politician: he has decimated the incumbent political class unlike anything we’ve seen since 1958.
Macron picked the right moment just over a year ago to launch En Marche! in Amiens, his home town.
After Hollande declared that he would not seek re-election, Macron faced either a broadly despised National Front opponent or a distrusted member of the Republicans. And all of this was done when many commentators said 2017 was too early, that Macron should have waited to build momentum for a run in 2022. Others dismissed his movement as pure folly.
Timing matters. William Ewart Gladstone used to say that his unique sense of timing was the reason he alone was capable of governing Britain. One must lead public opinion but never pre-empt it entirely. A reformer himself, Gladstone justified unpopular reforms, for example Irish Home Rule, which split his party, by reference to personal talents and sense of timing.
Just today, and in light of his party’s triumph, Macron has removed his allies in last week’s election, the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), from cabinet, precipitating resignations from all MoDem ministers. This is in response to a scandal which alleges that senior MoDem figures took fake jobs – something Macron has to be seen to oppose in his bid to combat sleaze in the French political system.
This is ruthless and necessary stuff, and in keeping with a broader skill at timing. Macron’s effective picking his moment shows he has that knack. This demonstrates that if liberalism and centrism are to succeed in this era of populism, each would need a leader who shares these traits.
Macron’s triumph is a personal one. It represents a series of incremental victories which stand testament to his personality, upon which so much has been staked, and his remarkable qualities. But this means his success can only be difficult to replicate and to equal.
This piece was originally published in The Telegraph.