Europe’s most dynamic political leader, Emmanuel Macron, pays a state visit to Washington this week. The French president has struck up a surprisingly cordial relationship with President Donald Trump, especially when you consider that Macron has emerged as the West’s most formidable opponent of the kind of populist nationalism Trump channels here.
Speaking last week to the European Parliament, Macron warned of a “European civil war” and urged the European Union to defend liberal democracy against a surging tide of illiberal nationalism. “Faced with the authoritarianism that surrounds us everywhere, the answer is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy,” he declared.
In effect, Macron has stepped audaciously into the vacuum created by Trump’s abdication of America’s historic role as keeper of the liberal democratic flame. Although some have anointed Germany’s Angela Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” she’s been preoccupied with shoring up a weak coalition government and stanching defections from her conservative base to the far-right Alternative for Germany party.
In addition to being Trump’s ideological opposite, Macron can be viewed as something of a beacon for progressives hoping to find their way back to the halls of power across the democratic world. As a progressive, young outsider who rode a wave of voter revolt against the governing establishment, Macron managed to capture the populist’s insurgent spirit without embracing their reactionary demands. That, in a nutshell, is the task facing other progressive parties as they struggle to expand their popular appeal.
Across the U.S., many Democrats seem to have the same idea. Following big off-year victories in Virginia, Alabama and Pennsylvania, and House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to pack it in, Democrats are positively giddy about the prospects for riding Trump’s low approval ratings and their own motivated base to big gains in this fall’s midterm elections
But Democrats face a structural problem: over the past decade, their base has narrowed both geographically and demographically. It’s true that Trump is the great unifier, if only of Democrats. Unity in resistance, however, doesn’t matter if your base isn’t big enough to win elections.
What’s sorely missing—both in the U.S. and throughout Europe—is a genuinely progressive alternative to populism. Saddled with shopworn ideas and unable to offer voters a hopeful and forward-looking counterpoint to today’s splenetic and vengeful populism, center-left parties are sliding into irrelevance.
Macron appears to be the great exception to this baleful trend. He grasped that neither of France’s dominant parties—his own Socialists, or the center-right Republicans—were strong enough to withstand the populist gale alone. So in the midst of a national election he formed an entirely new party, La République en Marche, which cannibalized the more pragmatic elements of both the Socialists and the center-right Republicans.
Challenging the status quo from what Macron calls the “radical center” was a breathtaking political gamble. He got lucky when a corruption scandal brought down his main center-right rival. In any event, Macron went on to defeat both Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right populist National Front, and ultraleft demagogue Jean-Luc Melenchon in the second round of presidential voting. Astonishingly,En Marche subsequently won 308 of the 577 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
How did he do it? I put that question to top Macron advisers and En Marche members during a recent visit to Paris. They emphasized the radical challenge Macron poses to France’s insular and petrified political establishment. The Macronistas regard him not as a centrist in the sense of lying between the mainstream parties, but as outsider come to revivify France’s distinctive political and cultural traditions. His governing philosophy is purposefully elusive, borrowing ideas from the left and right.
Macron immediately pushed through labor market reforms that make it easier to fire workers, limit wrongful-dismissal suits and awards, and allow labor negotiations to take place at the firm level rather than industry-wide. He’s advocating changes in unemployment insurance and working to merge France’s 37 separate retirement systems into a single universal system. Macron’s energy and decisiveness, his advisers believe, reinforce the impression that he is not a typical politician, but a young man in a hurry (he just turned 40) who actually delivers on his promises.
Meanwhile, Macron’s ambitious plans to strengthen the eurozone are meeting resistance in Europe. During the French election, Macron pointedly refused to bend to the prevailing winds of Euroskepticism blowing across the continent. On the contrary, he’s pushing for even deeper integration of eurozone economies, including creating a new post of finance minister, a joint budget for investment, harmonization of national business tax rates and even a separate eurozone Parliament. The idea is to put the eurozone on a par with the U.S. and Chinese behemoths. Among young people in France, “Macron has made Europe cool again,” says Lena Morozo of EuropaNova, a Paris think tank.
Ultimately, Macron wants France to take its place alongside Germany as the dual-core driver of a united Europe. “France has a voice and a role to play,” Macron has said. “But this role cannot be played and your voice is not even listened to, if you don’t perform at home.”
Finally, Macron understands the power of grand narratives in forging consensus in diverse, liberal societies. “Post-modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to our democracy,” he told Der Spiegel in October, “because it destroyed the idea of a convincing national myth, and with it the possibility of a feeling of national unity and purpose.”
Languishing out of power almost everywhere, progressives urgently need a coherent and optimistic account of the future they want to build. Instead of flirting with left-wing populism, they’d be better off embracing Macron’s call for a new radicalism of the liberal democratic center. “Why can't there be such a thing as democratic heroism?” Macron asked rhetorically in his Der Spiegel interview. “Perhaps exactly that is our task: rediscovering something like that together for the 21st century.”