As President Trump heads back from his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, a number of Americans are sighing wistfully for the president we don’t have. Macron’s American admirers see in him everything that we lack in Trump: The new president is young, attractive, concerned about the climate and possesses commanding power in parliament. In short, Macron represents what Democrats here have lost. The French dodged their bullet; we didn’t. Macron stemmed the nationalist tide sweeping across Europe and restored order to the free world reeling after Brexit and Trump. Or so the story goes.
With Marine Le Pen’s National Front as the only alternative in the French runoff earlier this year, Macron was the right and necessary choice. Yet Americans should beware of developing too much of a love affair with France’s latest president: After all, Macron does not provide a truly progressive blueprint that we should or even could emulate here.
American liberals have been quick to embrace Macron. During France’s election, former president Barack Obama called and formally endorsed him. Painting this simply as an effort to stop Le Pen would be a half-truth: Obama reached out before the first round, where a more progressive candidate by the name of Jean-Luc Mélenchon would go on to win the youngest segment of the voting population. Obama was not opting for a lesser evil but an unabashed embrace of centrist politics. As political commentator Joy Ann Reid put it, “Macron found a way to thread the needle between far right and far left populism/socialism. He’s culturally liberal but economically pragmatic.” Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, was another visible leader in the Democratic establishment who argued that Macron provides a model for progressives here. Enthusiasm for him extended to the popular level. When Macron attended the G-7 Summit in late May, he ignited social media fan fiction over his “impossibly romantic first date” with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
At first, Macron’s liberal boosters seemed to be getting what they bargained for. Macron stood up against Trump, publicly airing his disagreement with him for pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord while saying, “Make our planet great again.” There was his pre-emptive white-knuckled handshake with Trump which demonstrated firmness.
But look closer, and a much more complicated picture of Macron’s politics emerges. To start, he won the presidency with a weak mandate in an election in which over a third of French voters abstained or cast white ballots. His party En Marche! won an overwhelming majority in parliament only amid record-low turnout. This weak mandate, coupled with his effort to push through controversial labor reforms without debate in parliament, does not sound deeply democratic.
Macron, who took Trump to Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb, has himself earned comparisons to the French emperor, something he doesn’t entirely seem to mind: He has previously said that France needs a king and Jupiter-like president. Macron has also given other offensive and sometimes utterly bizarre commentary. When he was recently asked if Africa would implement a Marshall Plan for Africa, he described Africa’s economic problems as “civilizational.” After the president skipped the traditional Bastille Day news conference, an administration source explained that Macron’s “complex thought process” didn’t lend itself to interviews with journalists.
Macron has emphasized tax cuts for businesses and limits on public spending. When the new French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe spoke to FT and was told that these were right-wing measures, Phillippe allegedly burst into laughter and responded, “Yes, what did you expect?” Macron has made a concerted effort to lure capital to France, particularly bankers leery of Brexit. When Macron speaks of revolutionizing and transforming France, in sounds more like a Silicon Valley-style neoliberalization than pro-worker reform that might benefit the poor and working class. Americans, at the very least, should know that this has not been to solution to the plight of workers.
Depending on who you ask, Macron’s politics are either masterful compromise or the art of standing for everything and nothing at the same time. He spoke out against France’s colonial complicity in Algeria only to apologize after his comments caused an uproar. Regarding the Muslim burkini, Macron thinks the dress is not religious but ideological and opposed to gender equality. Still, he thinks it is wrong for police to forcibly remove burkinis. Yet again, he supports a partial ban. This is against a backdrop in which Macron has low regard for civil liberties — mosques can be closed if Macron’s Interior Ministry does not like what is said in them — and in which he plans to make France’s state of emergency permanent.
It is unclear whether Macron’s policies will bury the nationalist xenophobic current feeding on economic discontent or further it. Nevertheless, Democrats here should not look to him as the progressive model to emulate here. The Democratic establishment’s attraction to Macron is fueled by nostalgia for a bygone era. Lacking a successor to Obama, it is as if some now look to Macron to imagine an uninterrupted order in which the center is stable, and nothing has changed. But that world is gone now, and dreaming of France won’t bring it back.