Depending on what the beholder chooses to emphasize, Emmanuel Macron looks a lot like Barack Obama, or looks vastly different from Barack Obama. Among the similarities: both the men started out as young upstart contenders for head of state of a powerful country; both have degrees from elite universities; both have a literary sensibility; both are comfortable with the globalist and tech-savvy zeitgeist of the 21st century; both have been deeply influenced by strong women in their lives; and both are socially progressive and economically centrist, or, for many critics, “neo-liberal.” The most notable difference is that Barack Obama, with an African parent, has a fundamental aspect of identity that is not aligned with the whiteness of the traditionally standard “American” of colonial America and the independent United States while Emmanuel Macron is gloriously standard white “French,” as he himself puts it “a child of provincial France.” One further difference, that is crucial though small, is that Obama’s course to politics took him through an intense phase of community organizing while Macron’s took him through successful international banking.
But why the comparison? Because there is one further, and major, similarity. Obama offered hope and optimism to the United States, in which a core population was beginning to express its growing disaffection with the inequalities of globalization. For all his successes, a substantial portion of this core population believed he failed them and their disappointment contributed to the election of Donald Trump. Like Obama, but at a later stage in the decline of the heartland industries of the West, Macron offers optimism to France. He is heard more skeptically than Obama was, in part because of the perceived failures of the last decade, in part because he is perceived to be aligned with globalized financial elites (no community organizing in his history, remember), in part because his political experience is much less than even Obama’s was, and in part because he does not have Obama’s oratorical skills.
Now, in 2017, Macron may well become President of the Republic of France. In the last days before the first round of voting, he posted an amusing video on Twitter – a call from Barack Obama, who wished him well. In a significant way, Macron, if elected, will inherit or will have the opportunity to inherit, Obama’s mantle. If he becomes President, he will need to engage the deep reformism that Obama only partially engaged. With the world economy growing again, he will be both in a stronger position than Obama in 2008 and will face a real possibility of initiating the end of both the European Union and the Fifth Republic if he fails.
Marine Le Pen’s gains on her father’s electoral successes, and her support from a large proportion of French youth (who face an unemployment rate above twenty percent), are striking and if a Macron Presidency is experienced as ineffective the next President of France might well be Le Pen.
So what does effective mean in this context? It means reconciling the gains of 21st century globalism and technology – which are redefining culture and redistributing work – with a real renewal of “la France profonde,” not just as a relegated patrimony but as areas of restored economic activity and cultural relevance. It means harnessing the technological drivers of economic growth in the 21st century without losing a practical commitment to human dignity as a social value in itself. It means renewing the cultural centrality and economic viability of French autochthony and ethnic whiteness while integrating the colors and cultures of non-white French communities. It means domestic transformation while managing the constant encroachments of a complicated world: a flawed European Union and euro zone; murderous acts committed by militants, including French citizens, who call themselves Muslim; a Russia that seems to want to return to world power status through covert activities as well as alliances with alt-right groups; a global economy that is decentralized and nimble; and a planetary ecosystem that is in great danger.
Does Macron have the ability to be bold, to listen, to build alliances across political boundaries internally and externally, to identify core purposes and remain steadfast when he, inevitably, faces opposition and failures? For that is what it will take. Obama had the same opportunity, along with the complications that were particular to the time and place of his Presidency.
Macron, if elected, will lead a new round of a fateful and sensitive experiment: can the paradigm shifts propelled by economic globalization, technology, demographic changes, and climate change be reconciled, peacefully and productively, with the affect of deep-rooted national identity that is correlated with white-European ethnicity that has enjoyed a seven-hundred-year ascent to geopolitical dominance but is now on the decline? Or is violence – whether direct or hidden, whether to protect or to exclude – inevitable?
Note: This piece was written on 4/26/2017. On May 4, 2017, a video endorsement of Emmanuel Macron by Barack Obama was made public.