Reverent strings marched Emmanuel Macron to the lectern at the Louvre on Monday, 7 May. He had just claimed historic victory against the far-right populist Marine Le Pen. Ode to Joy, the unofficial rallying cry of the European Union, was the song to mark that ascendancy, suggesting that he was one to usher in a new age: a politician for our times, who claims to be from that faraway land beyond left and right.
This, at least, is the myth that Macron has been cultivating since the start of his campaign. He is seen as the harbinger of a new political class: independent, young at just 39, intellectual, and pragmatic. Macron has pitched himself as a different kind of centrist, and the media has agreed: empathetic to social issues with a faith in a free, globalised market. His task now is of equally mythic proportions: to prove that this myth can become a reality.
Centrism has been shaped by stability-seeking moderates around the globe, who are now placing a burden of hope and conviction on the shoulders of this lone Frenchman. Who can blame them? While Macron’s task is a difficult one, the outcome of his Presidency, if successful, might just suggest that centrism is the right vehicle for the long road ahead.
And it is a long road, riddled with quagmires and bandits who threaten at every turn. It is too early to assert that Macron’s win marks a shift in the global political narrative. What it instead proves is that a single political trend cannot accurately be drawn across international elections. Instead, we must look to divisions. What’s emerging across the globe right now is a tension between two forces: the populist right and the ‘sensible centre’. The battle between Marine Le Pen and Macron was the tension between these two forces made incarnate.
Where is the left? It seems that it’s no longer holding up as a feasible alternative. Oddly, its working class base has shifted to the right, citing nationalism and a desire to be heard. While the last 12 months have seen the emergence of dark isolationism in Trump and Brexit, they also produced victories for European Union integration, with Alexander van Der Bellen in Austria and liberal Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. Too often we forget that both forces are at play in an equal contest. It just so happens that the populist right has held sway in larger countries like the US and UK, where there the emanating media is louder.
Macron has won out, marking a supposed victory for centrism. Except it’s not quite a victory: a large part of Macron’s win came down to the failures of others who sought the Presidency from establishment parties on the Right and Left, in François Fillon and Benoît Hamon. More importantly, protest votes against Le Pen were a significant factor and few French citizens actually voted for Macron’s centrist policies. His 66.1% outcome is therefore not a mandate for centrism but rather a reaction against the populist right. There is no doubt that circumstance favoured Macron, but perhaps it did so for a reason.
In his victory speech, Macron did not shy away from the reality of his task. He is the leader of a newly created party, with no friends in the assembly yet. His ability to act with conviction will rely on the results of the June legislative election. The pivotal moment in his victory speech was his reaction to the crowd’s booing of Le Pen and her supporters. Macron seized the opportunity to recast his election as a bridge-building moment. He calmed the crowds: “No, don’t boo. They expressed anger today. Dismay. And sometimes conviction. I respect them.”
This is what sets Macron apart. He acknowledges that the right must be heard, that its rising popularity with the working classes stems from alienation, not necessarily ignorance or fear. To bridge the divide, it is up to centrist leaders like Macron to exercise a politics of genuine dialogue: “I will do everything … to make sure there is no reason at all to vote for extremes”. This was a telling moment for what could possibly come out of leader-driven dialogue from the sensible centre. Macron’s place as an independent at the head of En Marche! gives him a unique opportunity to recast the practice of politics; to forge bridges, rather than divisions, from his own policy platform. Such an advantage is what makes the task more achievable for him than it was for Turnbull at home in Australia, where a capable centrist has been bound by established party identities.
Perhaps Macron realises that his leadership will only succeed if he remains on the ground. Not above the stars, but with the people on the dusty road. For that is the advantage of centrism, and for once, even if by accident, centrism has a mandate. Macron must engage the two forces in dialogue. Easier said than done, but for just a few seconds, why not cue the Ode to Joy?