When I think of Emmanuel Macron, now the favorite in France’s presidential race, I think first of his youth. And two images spring to mind.
That of John F. Kennedy as limned by Norman Mailer in the famous article that appeared in Esquire three weeks before the 1960 election. Kennedy was mysterious, Mailer said, and flew under the radar of his time. His election was an existential event more than a political one—because it reunited America with its secret aristocracy.
The second image is that of Alcibiades, the Athenian general and statesman of the fifth century B.C., even younger than JFK, whose desire burned so intensely that, according to Plato, he could deliver up the worst as well as the best, the most improbable of reversals no less than the most noble of accomplishments—the latter when attuned to the voice of “virtue.”
That sums up Emmanuel Macron.
On the one hand, we have the whiff of personal adventure; the movement whose motto (“En Marche!”) was grafted onto its leader’s initials; the vaguely vitalist fervor; the return of the romantic to politics with its hints of possible excess and hubris. Also, the art of not being a grandfather and the related, overly “youthist” dismissal of old-fashioned politics: Too bad about the mighty oaks we felled, and never mind if all that thirsty passion sometimes seems to suggest a mania for the new at any cost—that is, a simplistic certainty that moving forward for its own sake is better than staying put.
And, on the other hand, we have a master who, like Socrates to Alcibiades, waits around a far bend in the long road to oblige the young man to account for his impetuous ardor.
In the present case, it will not be Socrates but the French people who will summon him. And the question to be posed to him in the election (and, if he wins, on the first day of his young reign) will be less whether he “knows virtue” than whether he has any reason for being there other than (like so many of his fellow politicians) ambition, perseverance and the will to win or go down fighting—all variations on what amounts to the same hollow politics.
In other words, one can wear oneself out wondering, as all Macron’s competitors do, whether or not he has “a program”—which has never stopped those rivals from poaching from that supposedly nonexistent program.
Or whether he is, as one hears, the clone of François Hollande, his unacknowledged scion. His secret plan: to be the Christian to a presidential Cyrano whispering lines from the bushes, a new type of surrogate mother designated to gestate and propagate an idea conceived by a stymied father. (Alas, to me he is more likely to turn out to be Brutus.)
Whether he is too solitary or too encumbered.
Whether he lacks support and is wrong to turn people away.
Whether he will command, if elected, a governing majority, or whether the victors in May will not be the vanquished a month later.
One can shout—and those who do are bordering on ignominy, going down a peg from the poet Charles Péguy to the politician Martine Aubry—that Macron loves “not people but money” and ask him point-blank to reveal the identity of his “large donors.”
None of these questions is decisive.
For all of them are parts of a paradox that seems to have been reinvented for him 25 centuries after another Greek, Zeno of Elea, claimed to prove that Achilles would never catch the tortoise, try as he might.
The latter-day Zeno began by predicting that Achilles-Macron would not get moving; and then, if he did, that the conservative primary in November would become his tomb; and then that the center-left primary in January would seal that tomb in marble and lead; and then that centrist François Bayrou, if he jumped into the race, would deprive Macron of vital support; and then that he would make him look old-fashioned.
In short, our anti-Macron Zenos have never ceased pointing out the crack in the edifice, the ash under the glory, the smoke about to burst into flame. It is a strange mental quirk of our election experts that allows them to say that each of Macron’s wins have pushed him a little further, and irretrievably, from ultimate victory.
But all that hardly matters since, things being what they are, and this demiurge of the self having at each step dodged the fate decreed by the oracles, the only question that counts is what he will say to his master—that is, I repeat, to the French people—when he renders his account.
Will he persist in his demonstrated willingness to cross ideological Rubicons?
Will he be able to make a bouquet, as he likes to say, out of the roses and wildflowers of France’s beliefs?
What will he do with the merry-go-round of empty political talk stripped of sense by the old parties, all of which are in various stages of rigor mortis?
Since, like Montaigne’s bees, he plunders thyme and marjoram from everywhere, will he keep the honey for himself, or will it go into the crucible of a new political language?
And these crossovers between the umbrella parties, the slow torture inflicted on the major movements, will they merely serve to transform En Marche! into a Noah’s ark for elephants of the left, dinosaurs of the right and old warhorses of all stripes seeking shelter from the rain? Or are they a prelude to a broader and lasting recomposition?
And Macron’s way of holding a point of view and its opposite—right and left; France and Europe; or, in Algeria, patriotism and repentance: Is it cynical calculation? Is it indecisiveness? Or is it the sign of a new willingness to smash the friend-enemy doomsday machine that is the secret poison of the Fifth Republic and has pushed it so often to the verge of civil war?
What will it be? Authoritarian Carl Schmitt or liberal Tocqueville? The answer cannot be both.
And what is the right way to emerge intact from populism? That is the question.
I prefer Emmanuel Macron because, given the other choices, I know of no better way of countering those who, out of aggressiveness or bitterness, are shipwrecking the Republic or delaying its surge of renewal.