“Macron has faced down Trump, lectured Putin and confronted the French labor unions—all in less than three weeks.” It shouldn’t be surprising that the New York Times’s social media team managed, in this June 1 tweet praising France’s newly elected president, to crystalize the poverty of contemporary liberalism in under 140 characters: the blind escalation of a new Cold War as the gold standard for foreign policy; the continued embrace of neoliberal dogma despite its complete rejection by citizens; a firm handshake as a dignified act of anti-Trumpism.
More broadly, the role that Emmanuel Macron has come to play in the minds of neoliberal thought leaders and intellectuals is disturbing. Anglo-American “Macron-mania,” as it is appropriately called, reveals that while the Third Way may have lost its appeal to voters, who have resoundingly rejected Clintonism and Blairism, one thing holds firm: the smug self-assurance of centrists, despite all that might encourage reflection and self-criticism.
Establishment journalists in the United States and the United Kingdom, turning from the wreckage of their political systems, gaze longingly over at the former investment banker and innovation-happy Macron, and see a savior. The proud technocrat who wants to turn France into a “startup nation” is now firmly in power and enjoys an overwhelming parliamentary majority—a reflection not of a strong mandate but of widespread voter apathy and the intricacies of France’s two-round voting system. Never mind that 24 percent of first-round voters abstained or cast a blank ballot, or that well over 50 percent of first-round voters favored anti-austerity candidates from Marine Le Pen on the far-right to Benoit Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left. All this is enough for Anglo-American Third Way intellectuals to celebrate, after a year of surging populism, the zombie revival of the neoliberal center.
This love affair has been building for many months. In a Washington Post column published in February, Fareed Zakaria, one of the high priests of the Third Way, gushed that “the center can still win in Europe.” Embracing Macron’s smoke-and-mirrors campaign of sleek Apple Store-like aesthetics and youthful vigor, Zakaria rejoiced that politics is about little more than image, citing “social science studies” that “have shown persuasively that people connect to candidates on a gut level and then rationalize that connection by agreeing with their policy proposals.” The extreme center won’t change its mind, he implied, while acknowledging the broad disenchantment from its policies. The only way forward is to find figures enchanting enough to get people to vote against their own interest.
This newfound Francophilia is a symptom of the epidemic of escapism ravaging the Third Way intellectual establishment.
Around the same time, Pamela Druckerman of the New York Times rejoiced that the technocratic Macron enjoyed a political bump thanks to the spice of his “unconventional personal story”: his marriage to his former high school teacher. Otherwise, Macron would have appeared for what he is—a condensation of the French political class that is so loathed. “In a global election season in which voters want to break with conventions,” she wrote, this would be enough—forget a new social compromise, protections for the 9.7 percent of French people who are unemployed, and policies to reverse the inequality that is sapping western democracies. In a later column, published in the weeks leading up to the first round of voting, Druckerman, who lives in Paris, recalled that she “practically applauded on the Métro” after being handed a program by a Macron volunteer.
This newfound Francophilia is a symptom of the epidemic of escapism ravaging the Third Way intellectual establishment. One is forced to ask just how E.J. Dionne, Jr., in the wake of Macron’s victory, could so confidently write that “in the 1990s, President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of creating a ‘Third Way’ in politics between an old left and a new right. Under far more trying circumstances, Emmanuel Macron’s victory gives the Third Way a second chance”—as if the Anglo-American political experience of recent years could be discussed without reference to the popular disenchantment from the Blair-Clinton era. Karl Marx’s rejoinder to Hegel’s lesson that all historical events occur twice—first as tragedy and then as farce—rings ever true. Macron may have ascended the stage during his victory celebration to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” but you can bet that all Zakaria, Dionne, et al heard were the faint echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Michael Jackson singing “Don’t Stop” at Bill Clinton’s 1992 inaugural ball.
Macron-mania may also be the product of some personal score settling. Indeed, for the last thirty years many of these very same writers had come to develop something of an obsessive complex about French obstinacy in the face of the political shifts in the United States and the United Kingdom. France became, from the vantage point of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Economist, the “sick man” of the advanced capitalist world. While many sought to display their vigorous dynamism by eviscerating any and all sense of commonweal, redefining political “responsibility” as the enactment of policies making life more difficult for poorer Americans and Brits, the French were more reluctant to bid farewell to the old idea of social democracy. It’s hard to imagine Thomas Friedman, for example, embracing in the pages of the New York Times a “right to disconnect” that would protect employees from work email encroaching into their evenings. In France, the principle that working fewer hours for higher wages may be part of the solution to structural unemployment has long been a respectable opinion. Add to this France’s stubborn refusal back in 2003 to support the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, and the country was viewed as downright rogue, to use the nomenclature of the time.
French rejection of the Third Way turn is exaggerated. Macron, a former Socialist Party member, is the culmination of that party’s slow embrace of the Blair-Clinton model. A centrist to end all centrists, Macron is essentially the merging of France’s two establishment parties. For decades, these have already overseen the privatization of numerous state-owned enterprises and have enforced numerous changes to the French labor codes, with many politicians and business leaders eager to “modernize,” and fully willing to exploit the need for competitiveness with the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany to ram through unpopular policies. And the country has its own imperial backyard in its former African colonies.
But there is no point in denying that France was and remains one of the intellectual centers of anti-neoliberalism. Indeed as early as 1995, Ignacio Ramonet, then editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, one of the world’s most influential left-wing publications, warned against the “pensée unique” (which roughly translates to “single” or “exclusive thought”) taking over central banks, editorial boards, and economic ministries the world over. Ramonet qualified the neoliberal “pensée unique” as a “modern dogmatism,” cancelling out all other alternatives and interests. Claims by centrists to represent such values as “pluralism” stand in for little more than a call to speak politely; there really is no alternative.
Trump and Macron have more in common than many might like to think—namely, a deep and destructive cynicism about working people and democracy.
And the “pensée unique” is about to lay siege to the remnants of French social democracy. Public spending will be cut, so will corporate taxation. In the months ahead, the hallmark of Macron’s legislative agenda—the much-anticipated reforms to the labor code, building off the controversial changes that he oversaw as a minister under Hollande—will begin to take shape. The drafting of the law has thus far been conducted with a minimum of participation by the country’s unions; a wave of strikes and demonstrations have already been scheduled for August and September. To further shield himself from the public, Macron recently announced the cancellation of the annual Bastille Day presidential press conference on the ground that his thinking was “too complex” for journalists.
All this fits the model of what Macron fashions as his “Jupiterian Presidency,” ruling from on high with minimal mingling and participation from below, after the king of the pantheon of Roman gods. Calling the French parliament for an unprecedented “state of the union” at the bastion of autocratic power—the Versailles palace—Macron has only added to fears about his looming imperial presidency. Indeed, when Donald Trump comes to Paris for the July 14 celebrations, it will be clear that he and the golden-boy of the Third Way have more in common than many might like to think—namely, a deep and destructive cynicism about working people and democracy. Macron may be the revival of a Third Way, but one that embraces an increasingly authoritarian brand of “radical centrism” that is growing exhausted by the pitfalls of liberal democracy.
Yet the wise people in New York, Washington, and London are on their feet applauding. In 2014, Roger Cohen wrote confidently in his New York Times column that the “French dislike modernity. They mistrust modernity.” Three years later, and after both his home country and his adopted one began to turn their backs on Cohen’s brand of “modernity,” this same writer was singing an entirely new tune in the wake of Macron’s win: “Vive la France! Vive L’Europe! Now more than ever.”