By Noah Daponte-Smith
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
By this point, it’s hard to deny it: Emmanuel Macron is the single most captivating personality in modern politics.
It’s not only the precociousness with which the former banker captured the French presidency in May, sweeping aside the remnants of the old order and the vicious nationalism of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. It’s not just the verve with which he has approached the initial days of his five-year term, pushing a bold plan to reform France’s labyrinthine system of labor laws at the stroke of a pen if the legislature lets him have his way. Nor is it just his sheer audacity and undisguised ambition, of which his regal address to the French Parliament amid the imperial grandeur of Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles is only the foremost example.
It’s also the sense that what is happening in France right now is something of genuine world-historical importance — something that, if successful, could transform our current model of global governance along with French politics and society. If Macron lives up to his promise, he could well reinvigorate our stagnant world order and infuse Western society with a welcome dose of the confidence and self-assurance it so sorely lacks at the moment.
This project begins at home. There, Macron will soon face what could be the toughest fight of his presidency: his attempt to revise his country’s sclerotic labor laws, which mandate that companies across an industry conform to the wages negotiated by unions with outsize political clout and make firing workers a complex process at best. If France is the “sick man of Europe,” its labor policies are a major reason why. Macron understands that undoing those policies, and liberalizing the labor market, will allow the French economy to compete on a more equal basis with Germany in the Eurozone and with the United States and Canada overseas. But in a country bearing a storied history of civil strife, any attempt to shake up the economy is likely to meet fervent, violent opposition in the streets; Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, learned as much last year, when his effort to push through a similar program failed in the light of vicious opposition from unions willing and able to mount public protests. Macron hopes to outflank the unions, passing his reforms by presidential decree, with minimal involvement from the legislature, during the country’s prized summer vacation. The protests, though, ought still to begin soon afterward. Will he hold firm then?
As his revolution in domestic policy gathers steam, Macron seems set on accomplishing something similar in foreign relations. Against the Euroskeptic Marine Le Pen, his campaign made much of his full-hearted embrace of the European Union, identifying it as a crucial component of France’s future. Whereas Angela Merkel once opposed any effort to reform the E.U. or the Eurozone, now she has shifted her tack, declaring that she might, under certain circumstances, be willing to negotiate a Eurozone budget and fiscal integration. Macron has already made an impression on the German leader. A strengthened rapport between them — aided, of course, by the success of his domestic reforms — could result in a settlement that addresses the dilemmas at the heart of the Eurozone, creating a European Union that seems less like a vast feudal territory run for Germany’s benefit and more like an engine of global growth and world leadership.
This is all complicated by the question of Donald Trump, a leader particularly inimical to the Europeans and their professed values. Merkel has enjoyed a deliberately frosty relationship with Trump. Macron has gone to some lengths to embrace his American counterpart. After a tense first meeting, their second encounter, in Paris for Bastille Day, was warmer; overseeing the Bastille Day parade alongside the French president, after all, is an honor granted to few foreign leaders. Macron recognizes that reconstructing the world order from the ashes of 2016 will require the American president and the resources he commands, whether the Europeans like it or not. As Merkel and Trump palpably detest each other, and as the animus of the British public puts Trump’s planned state visit to the United Kingdom on semi-permanent hold, Macron may come to be seen as America’s link to Europe. If he wishes to re-establish a global role for France, he is already well on his way.
The consequences of all of this are evident.
Much of the recent ambivalence about the future of the E.U., and the fate of Western liberalism more broadly, has resulted from the apparent sclerosis of those institutions: the feeling that, despite its past successes, the post-war Western global order has become incapable of meeting the needs of the present day, and some radically new system is required. This is the essential reason for the rise of populism in the West, and renewed economic growth and rejuvenated national confidence would go a long way toward counteracting it.
It is precisely such a deliberate renaissance that Macron’s project holds the promise of delivering. Whereas his fellow masters of Western liberalism drift endlessly into listless decadence, he has a vision and he intends to implement it. It is not one of succumbing to presumed historical inertia in the way that Merkel did in the great border-opening of 2015. It is rather one that takes history as a fabric that can be changed by the actions of individuals and nations and chooses to twist in the direction of France and the French, one that sees a seemingly-inexorable decline as the product of national miasma and poor leadership and simply seeks to reverse it. There is a national destiny out there, and Macron intends to grab it.
This is not an easy task, of course. The list of countries that have emerged from imperial decline to become engines of the modern global economy is a short one. It is possible that, by now, the rot has set in too deep to be corrected, and that reforming the French economy is a project no single politician could pull off. But Macron’s youth and vigor bode well, because projects like this one are inextricably tied to the personae of the men who lead them. The British Empire’s stand against Hitler proceeded from the implacable English stolidity of Winston Churchill. The stabilization of French politics in the early days of the Fifth Republic could not have occurred under anybody but de Gaulle. Likewise, it is Macron’s bounding dynamism that gives him any chance of success.
We should thus wish the new French president well. He will endure trying times in the months and years to come, but it is nothing less than the future of Western liberalism that is on the line. The world is better off with a successful European Union and a healthy Western liberalism than without. If Macron’s project pulls the pillars of the post-war order from the premature graves to which they have been assigned, the benefits will accrue to us all.