Here he is in his official state portrait—the serene half-smile; the piercing blue eyes; the buff pecs taut against a spotless white shirt and the perfect cut of his navy blue suit, signs of purity amid authority and service.
Here he is framed by French and European flags, staring ahead, engaging the viewer rather than looking upward in the conventional politician’s gaze upon a bright future. The usual French executive setting is a book-lined, wood-paneled office, but here there are pollarded trees in two neat rows behind him, a glimpse of the natural, the vital, the ordered, while invisible sight lines rise from his manly shoulders to a point in the heavenly blue sky. Here is Emmanuel Macron as he wishes to be seen, strong enough to out-handshake Donald Trump, smart enough to defeat the system of entrenched political parties, dubbed by an adoring media as Jupiter, and occasionally even…wait for it: Napoleon.
The term Jupiter describes a particular arrangement in French politics, which is usually a contretemps of parties (the latest entry into this year’s fray is le parti animaliste, whose posters feature a winsome kitten). In the recent legislative election, some 17,000 candidates ran for 577 National Assembly seats. And, in a country where some people cast blank ballots with their own sketch of a cock and balls, it’s not unusual for the president to share power with a prime minister from another party, a situation known as co-habitation. But a Jupiter is a president whose party commands an absolute majority in parliament, so the term applies to Macron, whose France on the Move (en marche) party has consigned the left and right to the margins of influence. Now France has a president who promises to draw from both camps while declaring that they are equally archaic. Left and right are so over, say the weeklies swooning over “MACRONMANIA.” Never mind that a record number of French voters stayed away from the polls, or that Macron’s approval rating is lower than any of his predecessors when they entered office. Jupiter does not trouble himself with such details. All bodies revolve around his gravitational field as he pulls France toward a future in which ideological considerations pale before the sheer force of his syncretic will.
If you look at Macron’s program, it’s clear that he’s a classic neoliberal, combining social tolerance, amity toward immigrants and minorities, and gender equity (his party has doubled the number of women in the Assembly) with an economic strategy that veers decisively toward pan-European capitalism. High on Macron’s agenda are changes to France’s labor code that would make it easier to fire workers, allow businesses to negotiate directly with employees rather than through their unions, raise tax rates for people of modest means, and fire 120,000 civil servants. If the legislature won’t cooperate, he promises to enact these reforms through presidential decree—all in the pursuit of what Angela Merkel recently described as “liberating work and capital.” Macron is a true believer in a Europe where France and Germany dominate a continent divided between a prosperous north and a financially colonized south, with an eastern flank drawn to authoritarianism. Still, this is not the inevitable course for France. Macron must move cautiously or risk the ultimate verdict of his nation’s politics, which happens in the streets. Union members march by the hundreds of thousands whenever the government tries to weaken labor rights, strikes may occur without warning, and disruptions are so common that busses are regularly rerouted because of a manifestation. In my own quarter of Paris, anarchists smash bank windows and spray-paint ATM machines. Still, there is wonderful street food at French demonstrations, and it’s not a mark of self-indulgence to pause from rioting for a freshly prepared crêpe.
With demos regarded by many as a part of the democratic process, it seems unlikely that, at least at the get-go, France will lose its famous 35-hour work week, or that President Jupiter will try to rein in the best national healthcare system in the world. Macron is more likely to pick on the less popular beneficiaries of the welfare state, such as pensioners and public sector workers. But where will the saved money go? To the capable, his supporters believe, but a more rigorous analysis reveals that the winners would be those Mitt Romney called “job creators”––in other words, the affluent. Nevertheless, the myth of a dynamic neoliberalism is tempting in France, where the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent and nearly one in four young people struggle to find careers. This is the result of a contract system that substitutes temporary work for the security that older employees often enjoy, and it’s one of the great failures of a socialism that isn’t really socialist anymore.
How to create a dynamic economy that doesn’t transfer wealth from the needy to the rich? How to create opportunity for the young without tossing aside the elderly? How to do this amid a rapacious globalism in which capital is so mobile that it makes national sovereignty redundant except in the behavioral realm? Because the left hasn’t been able to answer these questions, while the right’s answer is a sure path to civil strife, a politician like Macron—who, as every French skeptic knows, is a former banker—seems like a new start rather than Tony Blair with a hipper tailor and a much better physique. Experience suggests that the voters who chose Macron will soon know the toll that neoliberalism takes on ordinary people, but right now it seems like the most important thing is to shake up an overly entrenched system. This is why even a formerly flaming radical and current eco-activist like Daniel Cohn-Bendit (remember when he was known as Danny the Red?) endorsed Macron.
But beyond the pull of Jupiter, Nemesis awaits. His name is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an independent leftist whose witty assaults on propriety (he refuses to follow the rule that deputies in the Assembly must wear a necktie) and high-tech sallies (he’s appeared in several cities at once via hologram) are combined with a program that reflects the traditional French focus on class. Think Bernie Sanders…then again, don’t, because Mélenchon wants a 90 percent tax rate on the rich. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s another French tradition: xenophobic populism via the National Front, whose badly defeated leader, Marine LePen, must now fight for her political life against militants like her father, a hardcore bigot whose dog attacked and killed Marine’s cat. LePen wants to rename her party the Patriots, the latest attempt to cover a persistent smell by rebranding it as perfume. If she succeeds, we may see another of those brawls that make French politics so much like a struggle between small factions of anarchists. Or—who knows?—we may see the return of Sarko, a/k/a Nicolas Sarkozy, the slithery conservative whose major claim to infamy was taking campaign money from Muammar Gaddafi before helping to overthrow him. Most of my Parisian friends think the return of Sarko is even less likely than a another major flood from the Seine. But I remind them of what Louis XVI said: “Après mois, le déluge.” Consider that, Monsieur Jupiter.