France’s re-elected President Emmanuel Macron wants to rule differently

CLASING HANDS Shrugging shoulders, Emmanuel Macron lingered for hours amid a crowd of well-wishers in a small market town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, just days after his re-election. At the end of a divisive campaign, the French President’s trip was designed as a show of healing and listening. The technocratic slayer of populism could still connect with the people the visit implied, and the second-term president would now listen to them more, too. It is time, Macron explained, for reconciliation and a “new method” for the consultative government: “We cannot get everything out of the world la-haut (in height).”

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From the leader rising to great heights to begin his presidency in 2017, this marks a turning point of sorts. The centrist, it seems, has grasped the full measure of what is at stake during what is likely to be his last tenure. (The constitution only allows two consecutive ones.) Because Mr. Macron’s challenge typifies those that face liberal Democrats across Europe as they try to hold the center against the forces of populism. And France, the eurozone’s second largest economy, is a key test case. If Mr Macron retains his 2027 majority in next month’s general election, the then 49-year-old could well emerge from a decade of stable, competent government in the heart of Europe. In France, a country that outsiders like to believe is always on the brink of collapse, that would be quite the consequence.

But France, too, emerges broken and fragile from this election. Mr. Macron is politically successful. But, as he recognized, he owes his victory in part to those who wanted to keep his opponent, the populist nationalist Marine Le Pen, out. Her campaign capitalized on and fueled the humiliation and anger felt by many French voters. Unless Mr. Macron finds a way to address political disenchantment and entrench the democratic center, in five years the young political pensioner will be handing over a France more ready than ever to put a radical populist in power.

Nobody accuses Mr. Macron of lack of competence, seriousness, intellect or imagination. He has some work to do to improve the distribution of wealth, although the record is not bad. In order to live up to the post-partisan aspirations of his government, he must realign it in favor of the Greens and the Left. But the main complaint concerns Mr Macron’s solitary exercise of power and the impression he can create of contempt for those less able or fortunate. How could a Macron 2.0 presidency listen more and dictate less?

A challenge will be to soften the style that accompanies the philosophy. Mr Macron’s political thinking centers on the concept of “emancipation”: creating fairer opportunities for individuals to improve their lives while maintaining a strong safety net for those who stumble. He has invested in better early education and nutrition in poorer areas and has greatly expanded apprenticeship training. Such projects are commendable and overdue. But they take time to show results and will leave some behind. The impression of disrespect for those who are still fighting undermines the real investment in making sure they don’t.

Another way to alleviate the feeling of voicelessness would be to give people more say between elections. Mr Macron has spoken about setting up a citizens’ assembly to discuss euthanasia, like the one Ireland has used to debate whether and how to legalize abortion. (He set up a similar one on climate change after that yellow vests protests, with mixed results.) He could encourage more local experimentation in school operations, for example against the country’s Jacobean reflexes. He could also try to make Parliament more representative. Ms. Le Pen won 41.5% of the vote, her best overall result to date; but her party holds only seven seats in the National Assembly. Mr Macron tried to introduce a dose of proportional representation in 2019 but was blocked by the Republican-controlled Senate. A cross-party commission could help reach a consensus this time.

Mr Macron will also have to work with the country’s irritated unions. He wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 or 65 and get teachers to do more for better pay. But he cannot simply push through such reforms. Michel Rocard, a socialist ex-prime minister and former mentor to the young Mr Macron, argued that the decline of both the Catholic Church and the Communist Party in France, which once gave structure and purpose to society, made institutions like trade unions more important, not less . They may have fewer members these days, but they still have influence. The conversations get tough. Even moderate leaders oppose Mr. Macron’s pension plan. It will take him uncommon finesse to consult more while still fulfilling the promises he was chosen to make.

Au revoir la haut

Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, will be Mr. Macron himself. In accordance with constitutional law, he exercised the full powers of the Presidency of the Fifth Republic of France. By nature, he keeps an eye on everything. This is a President who devours dossiers, ponders public policy, and independently studies issues to fill in the blanks left carelessly by others. Even his admirers say Mr Macron is not always an easy boss. Perhaps that’s why it took him so long to appoint a new prime minister, a post Rocard once described as “hell”. The re-elected president will struggle with that instinct if he is to make good on his promise to govern differently.

The test of Macron 2.0 is partly the same one all European leaders must face: How can the economy become fairer, greener and more competitive in times of war, inflation and rising energy prices? For Mr. Macron, it is also about whether he can find the right balance between ensuring policy coherence and efficiency on the one hand and avoiding dictation and lecturing on the other. Nobody, no matter how talented, can do everything alone or get everything right. And if Mr. Macron does not find delegating easy, there is a reason. He reminds anyone who wants to ask that if they had listened to others, they would not be where they are today.

Read more from Charlemagne, our European politics columnist:
Emmanuel Macron is now Europe’s standard-bearer (30 April)
Tariffs on Russian Energy are a Clever Way to Hobble Vladimir Putin (April 23)
Thank the elderly for keeping Europe’s extremists out of power (April 16)

For more coverage of the French elections, visit our dedicated hub

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