Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Macron and the uprooting of France

‘Whoever is uprooted themselves,’ wrote Simone Weil, ‘uproots others.’ France will not be a happier country five years from now if the only legacy of a Macron presidency is further uprooting.

Photo: Flickr/Lorie Shaull
Photo: Flickr/Lorie Shaull

For months the world has waited with bated breath for Emmanuel Macron to save France, Europe and democracy by succeeding in his outwardly improbable campaign to become the next French president. Now that he has, it is time to ask: what, with the 'Far Right' duly slain, does he actually have a mandate for?

A great many things separated Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, not the least the vexed question of the European Union.

His En Marche! 'party' is presented as a shake-up of the establishment. But as far as French policy in Europe is concerned, what Macron has been elected to do is maintain the status quo. There will be no deviation from the course France has been on since the Treaties of Lisbon (2007) and Maastricht (1992).

Some have called it a soft 'coup'. Little more than a quarter of voters are actually enthusiastic about the kind of socially and economically liberal future Macron stands for. Patriotic, socially conservative voters have struggled to forgive him for his campaign assertion that there is 'no such thing as French culture, only a culture in France. And it is diverse.' Alone among the first round's four top-polling candidates, Macron is an out-and-out Obama-esque liberal globalist.

Refusing to hide either his Catholicism or attachment to French culture and calling for a rapprochement with Russia, even Macron's main 'centrist' rival, François Fillon, threatened to shake this cosy world up. It's a fact that still makes the former's sudden appearance as an 'independent' candidate groomed for public life by the existing administration and retaining close ties with it seem more than a little convenient.

Certainly, the form of democracy has been respected, but has its spirit?

To take a single example, France has had since Charles de Gaulle a venerable history of strategic independence. A fortnight ago, some 60% of first-round voters cast their ballots for candidates seeking a degree of distance from Washington and a better relationship with Moscow. They won't get it.

In her disastrous debate performance last Wednesday, Le Pen remarked acidly that whoever won, 'France will be led by a woman' – either herself or German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to whom she alleged Macron will continue France's impotent 'submission'.

To his credit, this is what Macron seeks to avoid. The problem is that the logic of monetary union means that only by surrendering more national powers to Brussels can Paris hope to wrest control of Europe's destiny back from Berlin.

To save the euro, Macron plans to put Paris's weight behind another round of European integration, creating a Eurozone finance ministry to police member-state budgets, issue collective Eurozone bonds, and effect fiscal transfers between members. He has mooted the creation of a Eurozone parliament. This is the road to a post-national and post-modern United States of Europe, which much of the European elite has been quietly working towards for a lifetime.

This could have presented Le Pen with a rich vein of questioning. She let it slip through her fingers. Her complete failure to press Macron about his plan was a shame not so much for her electoral fortunes (she is clearly unfit to be president) as for French democracy. Macron's views on Europe's destiny demand a vigorous interrogation they didn't get. Unspeakably, she let Macron get away with presenting them as Europhiles like to present them: historically inevitable.

Much of the French electorate is under no illusion about the sovereignty France has surrendered in recent decades. In 2005, 55% of French voters voted against a European constitution, only to have it imposed by treaty anyway. Dissatisfaction with the slow strangulation of national politics that membership imposes has only grown as more and more powers are transferred beyond the people's review to Brussels.

This anger will continue to be ignored. If Macron gets his way, France will sign itself up for a new round of European integration far deeper and more heedless of national sovereignty than that envisaged (at least in their public statements) by the euro's original architects, but demanded by the logic of the project they set in motion. It was fitting that in celebrating his victory on Sunday night, Macron took to the stage to greet his supporters not to the strains of La Marseillaise but Beethoven's Ode to Joy – the European Union's official 'anthem'.

I am not sorry Le Pen is not president of the Republic.

But despite her legion deficiencies, what Le Pen tapped into was the perfect legitimacy of frustration with the logic of an ideology of European integration that allows Europeans the privilege of democracy only on condition of renouncing more and more of the actual content of national politics, if not the whole notion of the nation as repository of the common good and community of political action.

Though she ended the night winning more votes than any Front National candidate before her, Le Pen (who had temporarily stepped down from leadership of the party) won only two départements, both in the heavily de-industrialised, semi-rural north.

It was here in 1936 that the French Catholic (and sometime royalist) writer Georges Bernanos chose to set his Diary of a Country Priest, a novel that purports to record the sufferings of an anonymous young priest amid the spiritual disenchantment of a modestly well-to-do countryside, where the old taproots of church, tradition, nation and work were being dug up in favour of science, commerce, progress and easy middle-class comfort. Bernanos's vision isn't exactly the situation that France faces today, but it is in many ways an earlier iteration of it.

In Wednesday's debate, Macron accused his adversary of preaching an escape from history. What the class he represents is too little aware of, however, is how captive it is to its own.

To bien pensants in Paris, Brussels and Berlin, it is an article of faith that at the root of all of the 20th century's many and terrible miseries was 'nationalism', an excess of patriotic feeling. Dismantling loyalties to Europe's ancient kingdoms (and glorious modern republics) is for this reason inseparable from the European Union's ultimate raison d'être.

But this is not how it seemed to a young French patriot, about Macron's age, in London in 1943. Writing in support of De Gaulle's anti-fascist Free France, Simone Weil attributed her country's ignominious 1940 defeat not to a surfeit of deeply-rooted patriotic feeling but the characteristically modern malaise brought about by the deficit of it, earlier described by Bernanos.

Le Pen may or may not be finished. But the spiritual needs she has, however inadequately, spoken to – for belonging, for rootedness in one's own country's traditions, history and past – will not for that reason vanish. Humanity's ability to fulfil its nature as a truly political animal depends on it.

Ultimately, Macron is a proponent of a France ouverte – an 'open France' comfortable with further European integration, globalisation and the continuing high levels of immigration that have turned the country into one of Europe's most culturally and ethnically diverse (or divided, depending on your point of view).

When Macron waltzes into the Elysée, the Paris elite will be tempted to hail the inevitable march of history. Yet squarely two-thirds of first-round votes went to candidates (including the far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, who promised an EU renegotiation and referendum) in open rebellion against overlapping elements of the borderless, internationalist and ultimately deracinated future that many voters, especially those in the provinces, perceive as being prepared for them by their betters. The conditions are ripe for a stupendous act of cultural and political overreach.

'Whoever is uprooted themselves,' wrote Weil, 'uproots others.' France will not be a happier country five years from now if the only legacy of a Macron presidency is further uprooting.

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