An Admiring But Cautionary Open Letter to France’s Political Establishment

The West is breathing a sigh of relief at Macron’s decisive victory over Marine Le Pen and the forces of rightwing nationalism. Indeed, there is much to take heart in this abrupt halt to the far right’s electoral momentum, the failure of Russian hacking and American fake news, generated by the American far right, and the embrace of the EU as a flawed but nonetheless valuable institution. But lest we resemble the White House after the House health care vote, we should keep that Lafite Rothschild on ice and recognize that the job Macron – and France – face now is vastly more difficult than winning the election.

Many observers have noted the similarities between Macron and our former President, Barack Obama. George Will wrote that “the French are… too interested in style not to appreciate and appropriate that of others” and then declared Macron to be a “Gallic Obama.” Both are telegenic new-generation political leaders comfortable among (and to) the elites. Both were elected with a strong mandate to heal their ailing economies and restore faith in government’s ability to improve the lives of the working class.

But there is one particular similarity between Obama and Macron that commands our attention. Of recent U.S. Presidents, Obama had by far the least executive experience, the smallest political network, and a weak and deeply divided political party that could do little to support him. Even with a supportive Congress in his first two years, he could only pass a stimulus package and a health care bill – the latter without any Republican support. Through executive authority and other smart moves he accomplished more than the electorate gave him credit for – rescuing the auto industry, restoring jobs growth, the Paris Accords – but he did not do nearly enough to halt the growing political traction of the American far right. The result, we all know, was the election of Trump as his successor.

This is precisely the danger Macron faces. Even in the best of times, running the world’s 10th largest economy is no place to get OJT. There is no conceivable way he can succeed without the established left and center networks joining to give him excellent advice, true loyalty, and steadfast political support. Without a strong network of loyal subordinates and advisors, which Obama never formed, he won’t have the depth of advice he needs. Without broad political support from France’s center and left parties, he will not have the running room to make enough progress before the next Presidential election.

Watching from across the Atlantic, it was magnificent to see the center-left losers of the first round election immediately endorse Macron. Had Hillary Clinton received that sort of support from the supporters her first-round rivals she would almost certainly now be President. France should indeed be proud of the way it united to defeat the forces of division and hate. The core challenge is to maintain this unity while governing in order to make progress.

It will undoubtedly take a degree of compromise and political selflessness that is out of fashion, certainly here in the States. If it helps, France, gaze Westward as often as you need to and look at a country that elected an inexperienced leader who was unable to deliver enough on his pledges of change, especially in our rust belt. To us sitting in dystopian Trumpland, your country’s very existence hinges on Macron’s success. You have truly earned yourself a chance that the U.S. and Great Britain both squandered, but you’re only now at the starting gate. If you need some moral support, call us – or better yet, just turn on American CNN. That should do it.

Peter Fox-Penner is a Professor at Boston University. All his affiliations are listed at www.bu.edu/ise.

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