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Macron’s Election Signals Victory Of A New Kind Of 'Mainstream Populism'

Populism is no longer condemned to the extremist edge.
French magazine front covers feature the picture of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron. May 8, Paris.
French magazine front covers feature the picture of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron. May 8, Paris.

Alain Minc is a French businessman, author and political advisor who was one of French President-elect Emmanuel Macron’s earliest prominent supporters. His most recent book is “Vive l’Allemagne!” He spoke with The WorldPost from Paris about the French election.

How do you read the significance of Macron’s election? Does it signal the possibility of a new kind of post-ideological politics in Western democracies beyond the old left-right division?

First of all, it is a key European event. The most important consequence of the election is that it will now be possible to relaunch the European construction. Going forward, the link between France and Germany will be as strong as it was during the period when François Mitterrand, the French president, and Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor, first called for a European political union in the 1990s. 

Second, we cannot say this election has meant a final defeat of the populist tide. But it does mean its momentum has been stopped.

Third, as you suggest, this election has meant something new in political life. The new phenomenon did not begin in France but actually in elections in Spain two years ago with the emergence of the Ciudadanos, which is what I would call a “mainstream populist” movement. The populist means of politics connects directly with the citizens. By mainstream, I mean pro-European and pro-market — essentially the “social market” model of Germany that combines free-market dynamism with strong social protections.

This, too, is what Macron is all about. So, from the populists, Macron took the idea that political parties are not necessary, and he could directly connect to people at the grass roots. From Germany, he adopted social-market policies. He used populist means but is ideologically mainstream. He is unclassical in his method but classical in his vision. This is basically what Bill Clinton did in the United States. Macron is very much in that mold.

The key point for Europe is that populism is no longer condemned to the extremist edge. You may think that political parties are dying and you may think trade unions are weak, but you are no longer obliged to appeal to extremist passions to get elected and govern.

The mainstream populist phenomenon began in Spain two years ago with the emergence of the Ciudadanos.

If you add up the votes for far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and the abstentions and blank ballots, those that didn’t support Macron remain formidable. Given that, and given that Macron does not have a party organization, what are the challenges in forming a governing majority in Parliament?

He will have to put together a coalition of the center left and center right. I think this will be quite easy to do. On the other hand, we have discovered through this election that France is two countries in one. We face the same situation as the U.S. did in the last election with a divide of the cities and big towns versus the rural and rust-belt areas of the country. Macron won almost 90 percent of the vote in Paris. But the rural and rust-belt zone that is teeming with anger and frustration voted mostly for Le Pen or Jean-Luc Melenchon on the far left.

We face an unprecedented ideological problem that is very complicated. The welfare state was a redistribution system between the wealthy and the poor through the tax code. There were tools to try to even out inequality in that era of generalized industrial prosperity. But we don’t have the tools today to create solidarity between the cities and the countryside. We don’t know what to do to fix this problem. That is a challenge for all Western democracies, not just France. We know the question. We don’t know the answer.

Macron used populist means but is ideologically mainstream.

There have been periods in modern France when the president was from one of the mainstream parties and the prime minister from another — known as “cohabitation.” Since Macron doesn’t even have a party and must put together a coalition of the center left and center right in the Parliament to govern, will there be some form of cohabitation?

Cohabitation, as you say, is when the president comes from one end of the political spectrum and the prime minister from the other. That is not the case now. Any center-right or center-left prime minister under Macron would have voted for him. So the situation is quite different.

What we will see instead is “co-management,” not cohabitation.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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