Inside Emmanuel Macron's Fight to Bring Centrism Back to Europe

Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche!, or Onwards!, and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, delivers a speech during a campaign rally in Lyon, France, February 4. Robert Pratta/REUTERS

The 3,000 screaming French expats who greeted French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron at a London rally in February were gunning against the establishment. Macron's face was frozen in a fixed grin, and he gave stiff waves. Thirty-nine and short, with dark locks, a strong jawline and an unwavering stare, Macron draws comparisons from aides to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign because of his youthful promise of change. "Don't boo or hiss at my rallies," he told the crowd, channeling the former U.S. president. "That is for people without hope."

Jérôme Grand d'Esnon, a senior operative in the center-right Republicans party who chose to back Macron over his party's candidate, François Fillon, says that above all, the French want change: "Our system is completely at its end. People want new faces. It's as simple as that."

Though he served as an economy minister in Francois Hollande's government, 39-year-old Macron is a relative newcomer on France's staid political scene. His party, En Marche! (Onwards!) is a fledgling group of defectors from left and right, and his platform picks and chooses ideas from both wings.

Though polls suggest that he will beat the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the election's second round in May, even winning the presidency won't guarantee an easy ride. In June his movement must fight the elections to France's National Assembly against the established machines of the Socialists on its left and the Republicans on its right.

Many of a president's powers depend on the support of a prime minister, and a president can only appoint one who commands majority support among members of the National Assembly. "The challenge is clearly now the parliament elections," says Grand d'Esnon, who says that Macron himself is aware of the issue. "He can only be powerful if he has a majority [in] the parliament."

Read more: Can Emmanuel Macron can pull off a boldly liberal French presidential campaign?

For all its youthful appeal, can En Marche! forge a clear identity and mount a parliamentary campaign strong enough to provide Macron with that majority? And if not, who will Macron need to rely on, and how will they shape his politics?

There is little indication of how Macron will fare in the National Assembly elections—there have been no opinion polls since Macron entered the race in November. The outcome will substantially affect how Macron could govern if he won the presidency.

Where the power really lies

If Macron secures an En Marche! majority, then he can presumably hope to deliver on all, or the vast majority, of his program. But if he can't win 289 seats, Macron will have to rely on the support of other parties to pass legislation.

If he doesn't win outright, he will have to make a deal. But his claim to be "beyond right or left" would be undermined if he were hamstrung by being tied to a party of either side. A pact with moderate Socialists, many of whom are discontented with their party's hard-left candidate Benoît Hamon, seems plausible— his foreign policy is staunchly pro-EU and he favors increased public spending, particularly on renewable energy.

But a deal with the Socialists could also mean that liberal Republicans who vote for Macron this time flock back to their old home when the next presidential election rolls around in 2022, and senior Republicans in En Marche! might suddenly depart, causing disruption. His economic policy is well to the right of the Socialists—he wants to relax France's rigid rules on the 35-hour workweek and shave 60 billion euros ($64 billion) off the annual budget—meaning a deal with the Republicans might be useful to get things done. But that would likely annoy his core supporters, many of whom come from the left.

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche! (Onwards!) and candidate in the French presidential election, visits the International Agricultural Show in Paris on March 1. Regis Duvignau

Macron has insisted that En Marche!, which is fielding candidates in every French constituency, can secure a majority by itself. But there are obstacles. At the moment, En Marche! is identifiable less by what it is than what it isn't. When asked to summarize what the party stands for, Arnaud Leroy, a deputy formerly aligned with the Socialists and one of the first to rally behind Macron, answers by defining it against the far-right: "I think [En Marche! is] maybe the last chance for the French democracy before the end with Marine Le Pen," he tells Newsweek. That message may secure Macron "never Le Pen" votes in the contest's second round. But it's less relevant as a message for the parliamentary vote.

Others talk about the party in terms of its mold-breaking position in French politics. The use of "left" and "right" as political terms, now common across the world, began in France: in 1789, members of the National Assembly divided into royalists who sat on the president's right, and pro-revolutionaries on his left. "Only observers and French journalists care about whether En Marche! is left or right," says Benjamin Griveaux, a party spokesman. "We'll do things we believe in; that makes our political offer coherent."

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Supporters say this allows the party to pick the most appealing ideas from all parts of the political spectrum—as Griveaux puts it, "reconciling the first two words of the French national motto: Liberty and Equality." But it is an untested proposition. Philippe Marlière, professor of French and European politics at University College London, says that for a new center party to spring from nowhere and achieve major representation is unprecedented in French politics. "There is a view in France that the political center doesn't exist," he explains. "To say in a French context…that left and right is over, that it's about ideas, and people, and persona, and candidates, it's already a very strong position, something new, and I really don't know now how this will [play out]."

A political balancing act

A parliamentary majority might be easier to achieve if Macron could count on a flood of defections from Republicans and Socialists. Some have already made the jump—the party counts 50 senators and National Assembly deputies among its supporters, Griveaux says. If Macron achieves a particularly strong result in the presidential election, that may make joining his side more tempting.

And En Marche!, significantly less hierarchical than France's old parties, might appeal to a creative, independent-minded political operator. As Jérôme Dubus, a Republican who decided to back Macron earlier this year, says: "There's nothing traditional about it, it's always about debating, discussing things. And there's no hierarchy, it's fairly free of form, which makes it really enjoyable."

But defecting to Macron's party before the parliamentary elections would come with problems. Grand d'Esnon says that friends still backing the Republicans often call him, admitting: "You were right," but they cannot defect themselves because of the risk of losing their own constituency under the En Marche! banner. It is, he says, "a real obstacle" to Macron picking up more defectors from among Republicans candidates or deputies. Neither Grand d'Esnon nor Dubus have formally switched allegiance to En Marche!; both remain as Republicans who just happen not to back the party this time round.

In short, says Marlière, a Macron win would take France into the unknown, and the legislative elections will help set the shape of the new political landscape. "There is a new reconfiguration of French politics," he explains. "What kind of shape will it take? It's too early to say. You need to go to those elections to see how things play down and shape up…it's a very messy, uncertain situation."

Macron himself doesn't shy away from risk. "If you're shy, you're dead," he told a briefing with English-speaking media in London last month. But the fact remains that a vote for the charismatic former economy minister is a vote for a president whose true power is yet to be decided.