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What Emmanuel Macron Grasped

What Emmanuel Macron Grasped

Commentary

5 min read

The achievement is extraordinary. Emmanuel Macron founded a movement and took the leadership of one of the world’s major countries in a little over a year. He did so, on a platform with remarkable ideological clarity: moving beyond old paradigms of left and right and pitting himself vigorously against the new populism sweeping Western politics.

I have long argued that the only way of pushing back effectively against populist discontent and anger, is by providing genuine answers to the challenges globalisation poses.

The chief characteristic of today’s world is the scope, scale and speed of change.

The chief characteristic of today’s world is the scope, scale and speed of change. And it is accelerating. Take a step back and undoubtedly globalisation has produced great benefits for humankind. More people globally have been lifted out of poverty and faster than ever before in human history.

But for many in the Western economies, globalisation has meant strains, cultural and economic, which have made people fearful and resentful.

The populist response is to ride the anger, to exploit issues like immigration and create an ‘enemy’ to blame.

What Emmanuel Macron grasped, is that the only serious response is not to ignore the concerns which are genuine and understandable; but rather to explain the answers which will truly advance the interests of the people.

So there has to be a strong defence of the values we must share in common against extremists who use religion as instrument of hate; at the same time as we do not confuse Islamist extremism with Islam.

We need an active Government to be on the side of the people displaced by economic change at the same time as we acknowledge that change will happen and that the promises that it can be stopped are false.

This politics of the progressive centre is the only way the populism can be defeated.

This politics of the progressive centre is the only way the populism can be defeated.   

The relief across the world at the Macron victory is therefore palpable and justified.

All of us, who believe in progress through making globalisation work for the broad mass of the people, want him, need him, to succeed.

But as he will know the hardest work now begins.

The American politician, Mario Cuomo, once said that ‘you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.’

When you come to power in such a manner, as Emmanuel has done, you find a huge sense of possibility surrounded by a vast carapace of expectation. No matter how you, as a Leader, try to lighten or diminish it, the expectation imposes itself, drawing people towards you, but mildly terrifying you at the same time because you know how quickly the collision with reality can fracture it.

What I learnt in a similar situation is as follows.

First, the most important thing is never to lose the strength of the basic appeal. People in France voted for something new and different, and for change which was not defined by past politics. Of course the problem with promising change is that people always support it in general, but unfortunately then frequently disagree with it in particular.

Nonetheless, that appeal will endure and should provide the ballast that protects and lifts the President as the inevitable crises of making actual change occur.

The truth is that France for over 20 years has been approaching the hurdle of fundamental reform, but never quite being able to jump over it. This has led people to assume that this baulking at the moment of decision will persist, just part of the unalterable character of French politics.

There is a completely different way to look at it. That at each electoral point in those years, the country has desired change, knows it is necessary, has tried all the alternatives and has finally come to the point where it will do it.

This is indeed what propelled the En Marche campaign and is the spirit which can sustain it in Government.

Second, the new President will know the reforms that he wants, but not every detail will yet be clear. The methodology of reform is important. The first thing is to analyse what will really move the needle. I spent my initial mandate doing reforms where the rhetoric did not match sufficiently the depth of what was needed. Yet enormous political capital could be expended doing them. Do the things which really matter was what I learnt. Make sure the policy will truly deliver the result.

The reality is that most people know the reforms necessary for France. The French economy has great strengths; but it could do so much better if Government empowered enterprise rather than shackling it. Such reforms are not about relegating the importance of social justice; on the contrary, they're the only way of ensuring it by providing the growth and jobs on which opportunity for the citizen depends.

Then distinguish carefully between strategy and tactics. The strategic objective is set in stone; the tactics can be infinitely flexible, combining the toughness of necessary reform with some sweetening to make it achievable.

Third, one of the oddest features of Western politics today is the dislocation between the real challenges we face and the policy solutions proposed by mainstream politics. The new generation of technology alone – notably the revolutions of AI and Big Data - will transform once again the way we work, live and think. Issues of tax and spending are debated within a narrow band of choices which are often utterly removed from the reality of contemporary society. Our welfare systems in the West are expensive yet often ineffective in helping those who most need help.

Many of the best ideas are not to be found in politics but outside of it. There is a global marketplace in ideas. Smart Governments today utilise that thinking.

Fourth, I found the most difficult part of governing was implementation. Bureaucracy is brilliant at managing the status quo; it is usually hopeless at changing it. In the end, I discovered the vital necessity of prioritisation and dedicated structures within Government focused exclusively on delivery, with teams specifically constructed for the sole purpose of getting the thing done.

Finally, there is Europe. It needs reform.  A programme for the reform of France set within the context of a programme for the reform of Europe is a far more attractive proposition. It correctly emphasises that changes in France are part of the changes vital all over Europe and gives European citizens the appreciation that their anxieties over Europe are being heard and acted upon. This could be crucial, not least in Britain!

A lot rests on the Macron Presidency. But the sentiment which gave rise to it is not confined to France. The 21st Century needs a politics which captures its spirit and defines its way forward. For sure, for the new President, the hard slog now starts. But the direction is good, the compass is sound and there are many, the world over, who are on the same journey.

Only a Strong Centre Can Defeat the Populist Surge

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