French President Emmanuel Macron told the US media he had “a lot in common” with US President Donald Trump on his recent trip to Washington.
He meant that both of them had been candidates from outside the “system” and that neither had a political past or record but had both scored an unexpected victory in the elections.
Now, both were shaking up a sclerotic system, Macron said, though some mocked him for omitting to mention that both also had “business” interests and connections.
The pundits were quick to underline the obvious limits of the comparison: one of the two is liberal, while the other is populist.
One strongly advocates free trade, collective security, the European Union and ecological issues, while the other is protectionist, says collective security allows too much freedom for free-riders, and scorns ecology.
One is articulate, is consistent and is a former student of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
The other is a fulminating tycoon whose only consistent feature is inconsistency.
I also think that the two are very different, but I would mention different arguments. The segments of the population in the US who feel that globalisation is a threat and an agenda that has not delivered on its promises elected Trump.
They long for the return of the old model. This is not necessarily pejorative, and these segments do not like multiculturalism and the constant bashing of Western culture.
Macron, despite his claims, is the son of the French establishment and a most brilliant one at that. He is the instigator and the representative of a revolution, a revolution of the centrists and the “knowledgeable.”
He is part of a coalition of technocrats, experts from civil society and young politicians fed up with the old way of doing things. He is a rebel against the French “political class” and the traditional political parties.
This coalition is firmly pro-globalisation and pro-European Union. It is highly critical of the old political parties in France, claiming that these have failed to adapt to the needs of the new era and to confront the challenges stemming from China’s rise.
Decline is not inexorable, this coalition says, but is the result of inertia, of poor decisions, of a lack of will and of an inability to build pro-reform coalitions. At least 25 years, maybe more, have been wasted.
Former French president Jacques Chirac bungled attempts at reform in 1995 and had to backpedal. In 1997/8, former Socialist Party prime minister Lionel Jospin foolishly reduced French working hours.
Chirac did nothing during his second term in office as president, feeling he had no mandate.
In the 2002 French presidential elections, Chirac scored 20 per cent of the vote in the first round, and his victory during the second round was easy to explain as he faced extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is considerably less appealing than his daughter.
Following this, former president Nicolas Sarkozy was unlucky, as he had to confront the 2008 world financial crisis.
Moreover, he paid too much attention to the media, and his manners unnecessarily antagonised many segments of the French population.
President François Hollande then ran for the presidency with a stunningly unrealistic leftist programme and lacked the legitimacy to reverse course.
However, Hollande was “food for thought” for Macron. The Socialist Party was Hollande’s curse, and its internal divisions forced him into permanent and sterile balancing acts.
Moreover, his appointments and firings had a lot to do with internal party politics, and competence and specialisation were not key variables.
The fact that Hollande was able to achieve some successes in such dire conditions verges on the miraculous.
Macron’s conclusions were sharp, and he saw the problem as lying in the French political parties.
He is a keen reader of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French 19th-century politician who said that political parties are an “evil inherent to democracy” and are necessary to liberty, but they also create a lot of problems.
For Macron, the French political parties reflect old antagonisms that are no longer relevant. On today’s and tomorrow’s issues, none of them can define positions that are accepted by all their members.
Worse, these members are increasingly out of touch with the real world, and their ageing leaders have been unwilling to step down, despite their failures.
It seems clear that Macron had reached these conclusions from the beginning. His choices regarding the composition of his electoral movement En Marche (On the Move) amply prove this.
Nevertheless, many unknowns remained, as in the elections the candidate of the mainstream right was the favourite. Moreover, this candidate ran on a platform that offered many similarities to that of Macron.
The right could rely on a diverse electorate, and it had a popular basis as well as a middle-class one. Its weak point was its cultural agenda, and the right-wing candidate,François Fillon, was too conservative and too Roman Catholic. The liberal and pro-globalisation groups in French society did not like this.
Macron was in a quandary. He understood (I think) that the presidential system in France offered him the opportunity to impose unpopular reforms, but he did not like France’s Gaullist and Bonapartist traditions focusing on authority and strong men.
We now know that Macron is a much better fighter than Fillon, who was not bad in debates, being often smart and wicked, but was prone to severe tactical mistakes. Macron has been lucky in that he knows how to seize opportunities.
He is not afraid of confrontation, and he likes debate, using it to crush opponents. In the event, scandal destroyed Fillon’s campaign, and he was unable to reach the second round of the elections.
During the first three months of his presidency, many critics said Macron had exceptional communication skills but was short on substance.
Nobody says that now. It appears that Macron was keen to launch his reforms as soon as possible, and his shows of communication were a kind of diversion on irrelevant topics.
Macron knows that many French people are wary of his reforms, and he knows his initial electoral base was narrow. However, he hopes there will be results before the next presidential elections that will vindicate his policies.
Nobody really knows whether Macron is a multiculturalist who understands that multiculturalism is deeply unpopular in France, especially in the right-wing electorate he is trying to seduce, or if he is a Gaullist who understands that presidential authority is unpopular among his base but successfully hid his true orientation during his election campaign.
During the campaign, the first possibility looked much more plausible. Now things are the other way around. All his staff agree he is a quick learner, so he might have changed his mind. Presidential authority, especially in France, can transform a man.
I would tend to put forward another explanation. The pundits have underlined Macron’s propensity to say “and at the same time” in his speeches. “I will do this, and at the same time I will do that” (something antithetical), he says.
He has claimed he is both of the left and of the right. He wants to take a firm strategic stand against Russia, and “at the same time” he will develop economic ties with it. I guess he would say he is both Gaullist and multiculturalist. But that would be impossible, even for a master of balancing acts.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly