Les Splendeurs et Misères du Commentateur Politique

26 April 2021

These are difficult days for the political commentator. The normal political thrust and jab has been overshadowed by the universal preoccupation with the pandemic. Commentary on Covid is best left to experts, and those who dare to wade in despite the murkiness of the available facts are likely to see their hasty conclusions quickly overturned. Consider, for example, the initial comparisons of Germany and France, to the latter’s detriment. Sweeping statements were made about the reasons for France’s failures and the superior wisdom of Germany’s leadership. This broad-brushed condemnation of France, mostly by French commentators, now looks to have been premature and superficial. Even cautious Germans can make mistakes, cronyism and corruption are human failings that exist north of the Rhine as well as south, etc.

The only good news is that the pandemic will have created enough work to keep a generation of social scientists busy explaining why things turned out as they did.

To be sure, there is a presidential election brewing in France, and in Germany the chancellorship is up for grabs. The rise of the Greens is noteworthy in France, but not as much as in Germany, where Annalena Baerbock promises to mount a strong campaign, while the French Greens cannot quite bring themselves, much less the entire left, to coalesce around the candidacy of Yannick Jadot.

So what is there to talk about that is unique to France? Emmanuel Macron, of course. It is inherent in the very DNA of the Fifth Republic that the character of the presidency is shaped more by the character of the President than by the constitution. Macron brought to the job a brash energy more reminiscent of the young Silicon Valley “founders” he professed to admire than of his predecessors in the Elysée, despite his studious efforts to invoke (or evoke) Gaullian grandeur, Pompidolian pomposity, Mitterrandian eloquence and intellectualism, Giscardian economic expertise, Chiraquian dash, haste, and peremptoriness, Sarkozian zingers, and, on rare occasions, even Hollandesque informality and ineptitude (think Benalla).

But the Gilets Jaunes and Covid put an end to the president’s sporadic efforts to remake the presidency in his own image. Whatever “vertical” authority he had succeeded in re-establishing has been sapped by the decentralized spread of the virus. The “flight to Europe,” which constituted the only social component of the initial Macron program, was of little avail in the fight against Covid, which has to be won at home in undramatic ways unsuited to Macron’s theatrical temperament.

Hence the president now finds himself in a position where he must either stand alone against Marine Le Pen if he is successful or find himself eliminated in the first round if he is not. The latest polls show him winning both bets: he remains the favorite among the non-Le Pens to win the first round, and if he wins, he still retains a healthy lead (57-43 at last count), though not as healthy as Xavier Bertrand (61-39).

The bloom is off the rose, however: he is no longer the fresh face and unknown quantity he was in 2017, and he can no longer boost his fortunes by contrasting his ambitious plans with the dismal record of the incumbent. He is now the incumbent, and while his record is not as dismal as Hollande’s, it has not made him many friends. On the contrary, he has generated considerable enmity–arguably, more than he deserves but nonetheless real. His freedom to maneuver was never limited by loyalty to any party, so he cannot say, as Hollande might have if he had run again, that he had wanted to push further with reform but was constrained by the ideology of his Socialist Party.

Macron’s ideology was only ever Macronism: whatever he wanted to do, that was what he stood for. Its chance of yielding noticeable results before 2022 was always limited, as I wrote back in 2017, but Macron’s whole approach to candidacy and office showed him to be a high-stakes gambler. And any chance of the big payoff was ended by Covid.

So we shall see.


Photo Credit: patrick janicek, Emmanuel Macron, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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  • Chris Miller says:

    What’s good about Bertrand, do you think? Safe pair of hands because more a man of the traditional right, rather than the ‘maverick right’ that Macron seeks to be? Has he come through successive governments of the right with clean hands, despite being Sarkozy’s principal supporter? Why would he beat Le Pen more handsomely than Macron?

  • DG says:

    Informative and as usual well written.

  • Geof says:

    “…was of little avail in the fight against Covid, which has to be won at home in undramatic ways…” Of all institutions, Governments, and by extension, the Bureaucratic Elites that run them, have had the biggest loss of repute from our helplessness against the virus. And at the end of the day, what is Macron but a technocrat so often lecturing from behind a big desk? What solutions have they given us – wear a mask? Very undramatic, indeed. Ironically, the Gilets Jaunes, all about redistributing power, may yet win.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    “The only good news is that the pandemic will have created enough work to keep a generation of social scientists busy explaining why things turned out as they did.” Je plussoie !

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