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1. Maybe this new-party-with-a-charismatic-leader thing isn’t as easy as people imagined.

Macron’s initial victory was stunning; he went from a standing start, to setting up a new party then sweeping to power in a matter of months. Inevitably, it set minds racing – what if someone could do the same here? What if…what if I could do the same here? The marching bands, the banners, the magazine front covers. Just imagine. This Macron syndrome was misguided at the best of times – too many people disregarded the unique circumstances, or the entirely different electoral system, and went ahead and launched gimmicky but doomed new parties in the UK. The current state of Macron’s government suggests that not only is his success quite hard for others to replicate, it is quite hard for him to sustain, too.

2. The centre can be quite an empty place

There’s a fallacy about centrism which runs as follows: if there is a chunk of people on the right, and a chunk on the left, then imagine what vast numbers inhabit the middle. Just strike a balance and you will secure an unchallengeable majority! Except, of course, that view is founded on defining the centre as an average position between two poles – there is no guarantee that many people, or even anyone at all, occupies that actual mid-point themselves. Macron managed to build a coalition of voters, but the practicalities of government have revealed what divides, not unites, them.

3. Day-to-day concerns are at least as emotive as high-flown goals

Macron’s election pitch was a call to reach sunlit uplands, to open up the economy and revolutionise France through democratic consent. It worked, not least because it cast an implicit comparison with the hidebound and clunky older parties. But the gilets jaunes protests which have caused so much chaos lately represent that rhetoric crashing down to earth – yes, they’ve become caught up in many other issues and causes, some of them alarming and extremist, but they began in protest against a proposed fuel tax. A politician should have wide horizons and high goals, but they do need to bring people with them – particularly those for whom the theoretical ambitions equate to real-life pain.

4. A new man cannot necessarily banish old problems

It’s notable that while everything about France’s president seemed new in 2017, since then many of his experiences in government feel rather familiar. The battles over economic reform, for example, track those fought – and often lost – by predecessors including Sarkozy and Hollande. The structural issues faced by the French state, economy and society still dictate the form of its politics more than vice versa.

5. Today’s revolutionary can be tomorrow’s arrogant establishment

It didn’t take long for the new broom to become the unpopular government. To an extent, that’s a function of the populism Macron used to gain power – it is easier to criticise than to wield power. And to an extent it’s an effect of the sheer egotism required to found your own party and give it your own initials (En Marche/Emmanuel Macron). Moving into a palace, of any sort, doesn’t help but comes with the gig. It is difficult – perhaps impossible – to retain the appeal of the radical outsider while setting taxes, or limiting budgets, or making winners and losers in other ways. Imitators, would-be successors, and incumbents fearful of challengers are all watching closely.

6. International leaders look less shiny at home

We have a depressive habit in this country of looking at our leaders on the world stage, with our intimate knowledge of their flaws and weaknesses, and then taking their interlocutors at far more generous face value. Think of all the lavish articles in the British press about the resolve, strength and certainty of Macron, or indeed Merkel, in recent years – normally contrasting the British government we know to be troubled and weakened with the firm and steadfast occupant of the Elysee. And yet, we now know, the French President also has feet of clay. Perhaps we should be a little more sceptical of lionising international leaders from a distance.

47 comments for: Six cautionary lessons from Macron’s France

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