The politician France’s left needs — but does not want | Simon Heffer
Who is Emmanuel Macron? Not the next president of France for a start, barring some electoral miracle that it defies reason to try to imagine.
But he was, for two years, minister for the economy, industry and digital affairs in the Hollande government; and from the moment he was appointed in August 2014 he fitted like a square peg in a hexagonal hole. He resigned exactly two years and four days later, on August 30, it was said to launch a centrist campaign for the presidency, or possibly to enter the Parti Socialiste primary against his former boss, President Hollande.
Whatever route he chooses, the odds are stacked against him: France is not quite ready for the likes of M Macron.
The potential candidate is just 38. He has a curriculum vitae unlike those of most of his former colleagues in government. He was an investment banker, brought in by Hollande to try to build confidence in a regime holed below the waterline by the president’s ridiculously aggressive rhetoric, and policies, against business and wealth creation.
“My true enemy,” M Hollande infamously said during the 2012 campaign, “is finance”.
Scores of thousands of France’s brightest and best, mostly of M Macron’s generation, took him at his word and left the country, mostly for London. They were sped on their way by a top rate of tax of 70%.
Within a couple of years, Hollande realised he had gone too far, and needed to look as though he was repairing the damage: that was where M Macron came in.
The former economy minister’s individuality does not stop at his career. Born in Amiens, he is the son of a neurologist and a general practitioner. He is an accomplished pianist, and — here he becomes more central casting — he attended Sciences Po and ENA, those two finishing schools for the French bureaucratic mind.
Unlike many of their products, however, M Macron seems to have some capacity for challenging the system that has bred him. Rather than work his way up the greasy pole in the conventional sense, he left his job as a civil servant in the economics ministry and went to work for Rothschilds.
This made him precisely the sort of person that M Hollande hates. At about the same time, M Macron married his former French teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who happens to be 20 years his senior.
He had joined the PS in 2006, but — in the sort of move that would have torpedoed his political career in Britain — made no secret of the fact that he had left the party before he had become a minister.
He left Rothschilds when M Hollande was elected and became deputy general secretary of the Elysée. Two years later he replaced Arnaud Montebourg in the government. From that moment, it seems, his relationship with M Hollande deteriorated, until last April, when he decided to launch his own political movement, En Marche. Hollande formally rebuked him for this, but did not sack him, a mark of the president’s weakness and lack of room for manoeuvre.
En Marche’s launch was greeted by the rest of France, however, with a mixture of indifference and, by those who had heard of him, a measure of ridicule. He, though, is completely serious.
M Macron is what the British recognise as a Blairite. He suffers from his attachment to the despised Anglo-Saxon economics that the Blair government championed and that so many of his contemporaries came to Britain to participate in.
When, at some stage, the European left recovers, it will not be according to a template drawn up by M Hollande, Jean-Luc Mélenchon or, indeed, Jeremy Corbyn: it will be according to the Blairite vision that does not frighten the horses by threatening to expropriate wealth or aggrandise the role of the state. This is very much M Macron’s vision: but there is no sign that France, even a France as disenchanted with the exiting left, and with M Hollande, as the opinion polls suggest this one is, is remotely ready to make the sort of leap that a centrist figure such as M Macron would require of them if he were to become president.
The likelihood remains that two figures of the right — probably Marine Le Pen and Alain Juppé — will reach the second round next May, slugging it out for the future of France: and that, above all, M Macron’s association with the Hollande regime, however unhappily it ended, will count against him when he seeks higher office.
But the potential candidate is starting to make a fight of it. Most of his public pronouncements show him capable of seeing both sides of the argument — in September, he said he understood why certain municipalities wanted a burkini ban, but he could also understand why some were in favour. He says he wants to ‘transform’ France, but then so did Nicolas Sarkozy, who had a much bigger following and, it seemed, far more energy, and that came to nothing.
M Macron also has some unfortunately restrictive attitudes that place him in the mould of the more traditional French politician, such as having said recently that UK financial firms should not be allowed to sell into the EU after Brexit — the sort of protectionist view that one might normally expect from Mme Le Pen.
His base is simply too small for him to stand a chance — this time. But his recognition that Hollande-style socialism and statism have done France no good shows he has connected himself with reality. He has called France’s left “the dead star”.
He had better try to do well enough in the forthcoming campaign to prove he is not one too, and to live to fight again.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph