Emmanuel Macron: Wrong man, wrong time?

In an article called “The French, Coming Apart,” Christopher Caldwell, drawing heavily on the work of author Christophe Guilluy, argues that globalization has effectively cut France in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas, Caldwell says, the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. However, other cities and towns have become “desertified,” with the empty storefronts and blighted downtown sectors Rust Belt Americans know well.

Caldwell writes:

Guilluy doubts that any place exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too.

Guilluy disagrees. For him, there’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.

Emmanuel Macron, likely to be elected President of France next month, is a perfect representative of France’s thriving class. Educated in Paris and trained for a senior civil service career at the elite École nationale d’administration, he has spent his entire career either holding government jobs or as an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque.

It’s true that Macron comes from the North. But geography isn’t key to Guilluy’s description of a divided France. Several of the dynamic cities he says have thrived under globalism are in northern France.

As far as I can tell, disaffected France — the France that’s been left behind — includes at least as many voters as thriving France, and probably more. Thus, one might expect that Macron would face major difficulties in a two-way race for president.

But even if Guilluy and Caldwell are correct that the traditional left-right divide has lost its status as the primary dichotomy in French politics, it still matters. And that’s why Macron is likely to defeat his nationalistic, populist opponent, Marine Le Pen.

The disaffected anti-globalists include rightists and leftists. Most leftists among them will reject Le Pen out of fear and loathing. Macron’s support among globalists and those profiting from globalization will be near-universal.

Thus, Macron is likely to win pretty decisively. But as president, will he be able to bridge, at least somewhat, the great divide in France?

It doesn’t seem likely. In fact, it’s not clear that Macron has any serious interest in doing so.

Marcron seems stridently anti-nationalist. He has apologized for French colonialism, calling France’s history in Algeria a “crime against humanity.” He is a fierce defender of France’s open immigration system. (By contrast, Francois Fillon, also a creature of the establishment, called for immigration quotas).

Macron’s policies have been described as “status quo [note: not surprising since he served for a time in the Hollande government], with a nod to the progressive currents emerging in the U.S. and Britain.” He’s a fan of the EU.

The status quo in France is hugely unpopular. The candidate of the ruling Socialist party won only about 6 percent of the vote in the first round, a number comparable to President Hollande’s approval rating. Hollande didn’t dare endorse Macron, whom he clearly favored, in the first round of the election for fear of ruining Macron’s chances.

Macron’s candidacy is viewed by his detractors as a gimmick and a trick — and not without reason. The gimmick was to bail out of the Socialist government, form his own party, and run as “neither left nor right.” The trick is to give the impression that he represents something new and different.

Even if Macron were to offer something fresh as president, it’s doubtful that he would be popular for long. The difficulties France faces are too profound. Macron is unlikely ever to be popular with the France that’s been left behind. And, barring strong winds at France’s back, the successful classes are likely to be disappointed with the nation’s economic performance.

This reality has some observers thinking that Le Pen might well prevail in the next presidential election five years from now. By that point, France may have experienced (1) Sarkozy’s lackluster center-right presidency, (2) Hollande’s disastrous presidency, which oscillated between left and center-left, and (3) (in this hypothetical) a Macron presidency that’s somewhere between lackluster and disastrous and somewhere between center and center-right.

Thus, by 2022, the French establishment may be out of gimmicks and tricks.

Whether Le Pen would be the beneficiary is another question. I think it more likely that the center-right parry — the Republicans — would be. Indeed, had it not been for Fillon’s scandalous employment of his wife in what appears to have been basically a non-job, the center-right candidate would probably be on the verge of becoming president.

It’s premature, of course, to predict what the French political landscape will be in five years. Indeed, it’s premature to dub Macron the wrong man at the wrong time. But it’s reasonable to wonder whether he might be.