Last spring, just as it looked as if the West’s war against populism might falter, Emmanuel Macron burst onto the scene, upending France’s presidential election with a whole new battle plan. Rather than ignore or dismiss his anti-establishment opponents, Macron attacked the left- and right-wing demagogues head-on — while also cribbing from their methods. The result was a centrist insurgency that embraced openly liberal institutions and internationalism.
The strategy worked: In May, the 39-year-old Macron defeated the nativist Marine Le Pen in a second-round landslide, becoming France’s youngest president in modern history and scrambling his country’s politics in the process.
“He completely broke the right-left divide” in France, says the Hudson Institute’s Benjamin Haddad, who served as Macron’s representative in Washington during the campaign. “He understood populism far better than other pro-Europe, liberal leaders.”
Prior to the presidency, Macron’s career had zigzagged from banking (he spent four years at Rothschild & Co.) to public service. In 2014, President François Hollande tapped Macron to become his economy minister, and the protégé soon outshone his boss by pushing through a series of pro-business economic reforms. Then, in August 2016, Macron split with his mentor and the Socialist Party to “undertake a new step in [his] struggle,” as he put it, and “build a project that will serve only the general interest.” That project was his own political movement, La République En Marche.
Macron quickly found creative ways to harness the French public’s disgust with the establishment and desire for change. En Marche appealed to the center-right by promising to achieve economic renewal, military strength, tighter borders, and a more visceral sense of community — on a European scale. The party also earned anti-establishment credibility by crowdsourcing new and diverse parliamentary candidates and established more than 4,000 local grassroots chapters. And the voters loved it: One month after the presidential vote, En Marche and its allies won 360 of France’s 577 National Assembly seats in the subsequent legislative election — all just over a year after it was founded. (Though it’s worth pointing out that a record number of French simply abstained from voting in the parliamentary elections.)
Since his victory, Macron has defied expectations and achieved huge breakthroughs on labor reform despite fears of massive pushback from unions that never fully materialized. But his promise of a popular new “French renaissance” has met resistance in other areas, as controversial budget cuts, a reduction in corporate tax rates, and slashes to housing aid for students drove down his poll numbers in early fall.
Macron’s biggest accomplishments, however, have been on the international stage, where he has helped fill the void left by the United States as it turns inward. He has successfully managed U.S. President Donald Trump by standing up to him on the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal — and giving no ground during handshakes — while simultaneously forging a relatively warm rapport with his American counterpart (including hosting Trump at a Bastille Day parade). That’s a feat few other world leaders (most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel) have accomplished.
Macron is also restoring confidence in the European Union’s creative potential, at least among EU officials. He’s fast becoming the key driver of new EU proposals on military cooperation and financial and regulatory reforms and has promised to push the EU’s sclerotic bureaucracies into the digital world. “He’s bringing back ideas of having a political Europe, not just a vast technocratic organization,” Haddad says. Macron is also working to forge a grand bargain with Merkel to kick-start the Franco-German engine that has traditionally powered Europe.
To truly succeed, Macron must still fulfill the promises he made to voters of reviving France’s economy. Despite his labor reforms, he has struggled to elicit support for his budget cuts and plans to overhaul France’s unemployment benefits system, and even his former mentor Hollande has slammed him for helping the rich get richer by proposing to cut France’s wealth tax. While Macron’s popularity slid this summer, he has since bounced back — the latest poll numbers show 46 percent of French people are satisfied with their president. And France’s economy does seem to be finally springing back to life; one might even say it’s on the march.
Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Macron is France’s youngest leader since Napoleon.