Macron, par exemple

By Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler

Emmanuel Macron’s landslide win over Marine Le Pen this Sunday in the French presidential election shows that the best answer to rising right wing populism may not be a left-wing version of the same, but a bold and forward-looking centrism. America and the rest of the democratic world should take heed of how a proud, unapologetic, pro-global, pro-growth centrist turned back the tide on the dangerous right-wing populist wave that has unsettled the globe.

First, Macron positioned centrism as the radical force for change in France. “I do not propose to reform France,” he said. “I propose to transform it at its deepest level.” He railed against the policy orthodoxies of each of the leading parties and specifically rejected purity tests on the economic issues that had stifled France’s economy for decades (like stultifying labor laws, the shaky pension system, a bloated public sector, and usurious tax rates).

He even managed to make staying in the European Union a vote for change. An unabashed internationalist, Macron laid the predicate that “to weaken Europe is to let France alone face the threats of the present world.” Yet he also traveled to Germany and warned that Berlin’s mishandling of the Euro means it “would be dismantled in ten years’ time.”

America and the rest of the democratic world should take heed of how a proud, unapologetic, pro-global, pro-growth centrist turned back the tide on the dangerous right wing populist wave that has unsettled the globe.

Second, he made his brand of centrism a cause, not a fallback. En Marche, which roughly translates into “onward” and is the name of his political party, feels like it should have La Marseillaise as its soundtrack. He framed his candidacy as a fight for the spirit of enlightenment. For the French, who feel they pioneered modern democratic thought, this gives people goosebumps.

Sure, every candidacy tries to pin its particular moment in time as the crucible that will decide the next century. But the current era, which features a dangerous right-wing populism on the rise, may indeed be that. And as we have learned here in America, opposition to such populist forces are not enough. Those who are dismayed and disgusted by the populist uprisings in America and throughout the globe also need to believe that there is a cause beyond simply thwarting the bad actors. Macron’s reborn centrism provided it. “Our civilization is at stake, our way of living, of being free, of promoting our values, our common enterprises and our hopes,” Macron said. People stand in line to hear that.

Those who are dismayed and disgusted by the populist uprisings in America and throughout the globe also need to believe that there is a cause beyond simply thwarting the bad actors.

Last, he made the central promise of Macron centrism about issuing a challenge to the established order, not simply forging a compromise — which is often how people view centrists. That is not to say he eschewed the virtues of compromise (to the contrary, he embraced it), but he did not base his candidacy on being able to cut deals, find common ground, or simply get things done. Those are all virtuous goals and important for any leader or candidate. But they are process arguments, and it is simply not compelling enough when people are looking for a hero to enlist against the broken times we live in.

That is why Macron could challenge the party system, propose politically risky policies, and defend the unpopular European Union. That is why he didn’t need to talk down to voters or restrain his intellectualism. That is why he even shocked the political establishment by giving a major speech in English, which is like an American politician ordering bangers and mash at a Denny’s. And in the end, that is why three years ago, Macron wouldn’t have been recognized in a boulangerie, and now he is president of France and the leader of a brand new party he invented.

A reborn centrism that is bold, unapologetic, and forward-looking would most likely be housed within the Democratic Party, not a new party in America.

When you put it all together, Macron successfully made the French feel that voting for this unknown, soft-spoken centrist was casting a loud vote against politics as usual in France. To be sure, not everything that Macron did pertains to the American political system. A reborn centrism that is bold, unapologetic, and forward-looking would most likely be housed within the Democratic Party, not a new party in America. In addition, the issues in America and France aren’t entirely the same. But the toxicity of right-wing populism in both countries has the same roots: economic stagnation, fear of terrorism, angst over immigration, and the belief that the future for the country, communities, and people may not be as good as the past.

The challenge for centrists in America is to be as bold intellectually, politically, and policy-wise as Macron. Macron trusted in voters that a politics of passionate realism could succeed in France. In that way, he gave rebirth to centrism and may have saved a nation, a continent, and perhaps the world.


Jon Cowan is President and Jim Kessler is Senior Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank.