Emmanuel Macron and the Sense of Reality

After the French presidential election completed its two rounds in late April and early May, France, Europe and many around the world breathed a sigh of relief that Emmanuel Macron’s victory had put a stop to the know-nothing populism evident in the Brexit referendum and the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump to the US presidency. In that sense, Macron’s arrival at the Élysée Palace indeed represented the “Revenge of the Enlightenment” against the forces of obscurantism.

Yet embodying a welcome symbol of reason is not enough to govern. Since the moment he achieved power, Macron has demonstrated an equally important imperative: the recognition of the facts for what they are, not what he would wish them to be. In this regard, he is more than a pragmatist, he possesses what Sir Isaiah Berlin called “the sense of reality.”

Macron, like other political leaders in other ages, laid out his personality and governing philosophy in a book. His is called Revolution. Its first sentence reads: “Confronting the reality of the world will bring us renewed hope for the future.”

Macron has confronted the reality of the world — and begun to change that reality—in five notable ways since he took office.

First, by winning a handsome parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in early May, he secured a mandate from the French people not only to lead but to govern. It is not important that the turnout was just below fifty percent: the people had already voted for him twice and many felt little need to do so again. The media and the political class had predicted that the traditional parties would score better than Macron’s new movement, En Marche! (Onward!), which after he became president was renamed La République en Marche! What the politicos and the commentariat missed, however, was that Macron had very realistically and practically incorporated the need to win the parliamentary elections into his strategy much earlier than they knew or cared to notice. As a result, En Marche! was ready to field candidates in virtually all parliamentary districts.

Second, Macron has turfed out both the old left and the old right together. He did this from a standing start in only a year. This is one of the most astonishing political achievements of modern history and deserves to be regarded as a New French Revolution. It dwarfs Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 even if it was in some ways modeled upon it. But neither in France nor elsewhere has this New French Revolution been recognized for what it is because in turning the French political establishment inside out, Macron, instead of weakening the institutions of the Republic, has significantly strengthened them. His political position and that of his movement cannot be defined as left versus right, or rich versus poor, or for that matter globalists versus populists, because it is so inclusive. His prime minister, Édouard Philippe, is the primary protégé of Alain Juppé, the senior statesman who a year ago everyone thought would be president. The finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, was also a presidential contender from the right. The government, which achieved parity between women and men, includes private-sector and civil society representatives—a government of experts.

Third, Macron has, from the second he was sworn in, restored the dignity of the deliberately monarchical Fifth Republic presidency and clarified the distinction between the president and the prime minister—“a president who presides and a government that governs.” He has spoken to the press formally and with restraint following major events, such as the G7 meeting in Taormina, Italy, or the G20 in Hamburg, Germany, but has eschewed off-the-record briefings and casual media contact. He has given only one interview and that was to a panel of European newspapers, not just French journalists. He convened the Senate and National Assembly together at Versailles to make a broad statement of political philosophy for his presidency. The next day, while his prime minister was setting out his legislative program to the National Assembly, Macron was being winched down from a helicopter 200 nautical miles off Brittany to spend four hours as commander-in-chief in the nuclear submarine Le Terrible, diving under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in international waters.

Fourth, Macron has made clear, and his prime minister has done so repeatedly, that the reforms France needs will be implemented. These include tax reform, simplification of the labor code, and cuts to public spending. None of these will be easy and they remain to be put into effect, but the rigor and clarity with which they have been presented already have restored pride, confidence, and energy both within the government and more broadly across society.

Fifth, Macron has asserted France’s place in the world with firmness and vision. From the white-knuckle handshake and “Make Our Planet Great Again” responses to Trump to the respectful but tough dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the majestic setting of Versailles, from the stream of world leaders (including Michael Bloomberg and Arnold Schwarzenegger who no longer hold public office) received for discussions at the Élysée Palace to the initiatives he has espoused both in support of the Paris Climate Agreement and Paris’ 2024 bid to host the Olympic Games, and above all in his patent devotion to the European ideal and determination to act jointly with Germany, Macron has made it plain that France is a force to be reckoned with in world affairs and on every topic of global importance.

This week Macron receives Trump, not as an individual but as president of the United States, for the annual Bastille Day military parade. Trump, whose own presidency has become bogged down in crises, will be shown what a successful early presidency actually looks like. Despite the minor setbacks so far in Macron’s term, from all of which he has quickly recovered, and bearing in mind that his policies must still show they can meet the burden of proof, Macron, and the France he leads, have been well served so far by his sense of reality.

Nicholas Dungan is a nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Relations program. You can follow him on Twitter @Nicholas_Dungan.

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Image: French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and US President Donald J. Trump arrived for the start of the first working session of the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. Trump will attend Bastille Day celebrations in France on July 14. (Reuters/John MacDougall)