How Macron can fix Europe´s despair

16.05.17 Publication:

Macron begins his first full day as president of France bearing a heavy weight
of expectations. To say that he holds the fate of the West and its liberal
democracies in his hands would be to go too far, but his success or failure in
office will be hugely influential. That said, his extraordinary journey to the
Elysee Palace has already displayed one of the great strengths of the open,
liberal society: its ability to evolve and to renew itself.

            Authoritarian political systems can
endure for decades, but in the end they either crash, as the Soviet Union did
in 1991, or they adopt democracy in order to preserve social peace, as South
Korea did in the late 1980s. Democracies can backslide, as the hordes of
pessimists about liberalism point out, as has happened in Russia, Turkey and
Hungary. More often though, if their institutions are well established, they
evolve and adapt and revive.

            That is what we are witnessing in
France. Macron is a case of the destruction or at least severe defeat of
discredited mainstream political parties. But he is also a case of renewal, of
how in the moderate centre of politics a young man from a classic establishment
background, a former banker indeed, has been able to create a new movement,
supported not by extremist hotheads but by the middle classes.

            Macron’s arrival at the Elysee does
not mean that the moment of peak populism has passed in either Europe or
America. That depends on whether he, and people like him in other western
democracies, succeed in addressing the despair and disillusion that has fuelled
support for his opponent, Marine Le Pen, or Donald Trump in America, or similar
populists of far-right or far-left in other European countries. But it should
mean that the moment of peak liberal self- flagellation has passed.

            In both Europe and America, liberals
should indeed feel guilty, but not for being liberals. They should feel guilty
for having failed to live up to their own values, especially in the decade that
led to the worst financial collapse for 80 years, that of 2007-08, and in the
decade that followed.

            The sins that the Macrons of this
world need to expiate are first of all the sin of complacency – of being blind
to the growing sclerosis in societies and economies caused by powerful interest
groups, especially the financial sector and its grip on politics and public
policy, especially in America but also in Britain and France. Second, though,
is the sin of omission, of failing to recognise that liberal societies have
always depended upon a harmony between the openness which brings new ideas and
achievements, and the equality of citizenship and political rights that makes
change acceptable and absorbable.

            This is particularly resonant in
France, land of egalite, fraternite and liberte. Powerful interest groups,
often bringing people on to the streets in the name of equality, have actually
defended unequal privileges, creating a land divided into insiders and
outsiders. Macron rightly made the need to remove such divisions, between the
highly insecure and the overly protected, one of his campaign mantras. To do
something about it, and restore both the sense of equality and the dynamism of
France, will be a tall order.

            Yet tall orders can be surmounted.
His first task in doing so is to win a working majority in the parliamentary
elections that France will hold next month, on June 11th and 18th.
He and his party stand a good chance of doing that, such is the disarray of the
mainstream Socialist Party and Republican Party. But then, he will need to
build a domestic consensus for liberalising and equalising reforms.

And to do that, his work will become easier if he can make
the European Union feel to French citizens like a help rather than a hindrance,
a conversion which will require the forging of a new partnership Germany, preferably
to launch a series of initiatives – on infrastructure, the euro, defence and
migration. He is a devoted pro-Europeanist, but in expressing that devotion he
will need to channel his presidential predecessor Charles de Gaulle, who saw
Europe as a way to make France’s voice louder in the world.

            Macron has one little-noticed
advantage: that he is not the first 39-year-old leader to leap from almost
nowhere to run a major European state in recent years, so he can learn from the
mistakes made by the pioneer: Italy’s Matteo Renzi.  In 2014 Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever
prime minister,  also without having been
elected to national office, though in his case having got to the top by taking
over a well established party organisation, the Democratic Party, rather than
creating his own.

            In his nearly three years in office,
Renzi looked like a bundle of energy and achieved a handful of significant
reforms. But the living standards and hopes of Italian citizens barely
improved. Meanwhile, Renzi’s reputation as a fresh, innovative outsider swiftly
declined as he surrounded himself with cronies from Florence and seemed to play
the same sort of political games as had his predecessors. He got nowhere in
trying to persuade Germany to alter its European policies.  In December last year he crashed and burned,
resigning as prime minister following a resounding defeat over constitutional

            The lessons for Macron? Don’t waste
your political capital on reforms that make little difference to ordinary
citizens. Look for measures that can have a real, noticeable impact on jobs and
living standards. Make your presidency a permanent campaign so as to build a
consensus for change, rather than hiding in the Elysee, surrounded by a coterie
of friends. Bang the drum for equality, for openness and for Europe as a
solution, not an obligation or burden.

            In the battle of ideas about how to
run a modern society, President Macron is going to be one of the crucial