Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election could be mistaken for the plot of a novel that no publisher would accept. And then the one who finally does, finds himself with a runaway bestseller.
An incumbent president, François Hollande, decides, for the first time in modern French history, not to seek reelection. A group of conservative bigwigs, including a former president, pick each other off, opening the field for a candidate, François Fillon, whom everyone believes to be above reproach, until his past catches up with him.
The governing Socialists, after sucker-punching their prime minister, Manuel Valls, split their support between an apparatchik, Benoît Hamon, who earns his single-digit finish in the first round, and a radical leftist, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who trick-or-treats as a revolutionary and worships dictators and his own hologram, but stumbles on the threshold of the second round.
The far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, then commits a sort of public suicide at the end of the main presidential debate. Like a character in a farce, she drops the mask of respectability that her handlers had made her wear and, after an embarrassing rhetorical striptease, reveals the face of the leader of a die-hard fascist party.
Suspension of disbelief
Then, at the last minute, the Macron campaign’s computers were hacked, releasing a trove of emails revealing that members of the candidate’s party had engaged in nefarious activities, like paying their employees, reserving tables at restaurants, and exchanging files for each other to read. And in a fatal tweet, Le Pen’s top aide seems to link himself to a cyber attack most likely conceived, if not executed, several thousand kilometers to the east.
And, at the end of these implausible twists and turns, at the moment of truth in a drama that has stretched to a new limit the “willing suspension of disbelief” that Coleridge believed “constitutes poetic faith,” a young man, practically unknown a year ago, accedes to the presidency of France.
Task of truth and unity
Well before the detailed history of this campaign – disastrous and magnificent, senseless and miraculous – is written, France’s new president will have to confront the challenges posed by circumstances of his victory. He will have to get things done while convincing us that he can get things done. And he will have to keep in mind that rejection of Le Pen is not the same thing as endorsement of his program.
From the first hours of his term, Macron will have to apply himself to the task of truth and unity that, as a perceptive reader of the Christian philosopher Paul Ricoeur, he made the focus of his campaign. And he will have to resist those of his supporters who, in the heady glow of victory, would have him be both demiurge and thaumaturge.
Europe’s youngest president
Like the eleventh-century Danish King Canute, who commanded the waves not to strike his throne, and then, setting his throne on the beach, demonstrated the fragility of his empire to the flatterers and dreamers who imagined him to be master of the universe, Macron will have to behave modestly. As he did with the workers at a Whirlpool plant in northern France, he must bring the work of politics back to its right and reasonable proportions.
But we are not yet at that point. For the time being, my only wish is to greet a man who, with a throw of the dice, abolished chance and the hazards of the road before him to become Europe’s youngest president.
Not that youth has ever been a convincing argument on its own. Like the rest of us, I am aware of the warning from Ecclesiastes to the country whose king is a child.
Many forms of conservatism
But I also know, as Machiavelli knew, that there is in the enthusiasm of youth, in its bold drive, in its furia, its virtù, in its desire, something to which fate may cede more readily. Was that not the case, in 1789, with the French revolutionaries Hoche and Saint-Just, with Bonaparte the first and Napoleon III (until Macron, the youngest president in the history of France)? Was it not also the case with Benazir Bhutto, Joan of Arc, John F. Kennedy, and Theodore Roosevelt?
And I know that there are too many forms of conservatism in this country, too many potential blockages and thromboses, too many fanatics who swore as one, before Macron’s election, to spurn the banker who would be president and to fling him from the Tarpeian Rock. I know that there are too many populists on the left (notably the bitter Mélenchon) and on the right (the pathetic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan skittering away from the cameras Friday night after leaving the cathedral in Reims, where France’s kings were crowned), who, under a fig leaf of scorn for finance, betray the true spirit of France.
The malaise of French civilization
I know that the sad passions slumbering in those forms are so virulent that it has become nearly impossible for them to make room for the shared ideals that are the social bonds of republican democracy. And I know that there is, in the enthusiasm of today’s winner, in his joy, in his youthful optimism (an optimism at once measured, fervent, and didactic), something that responds to the malaise of French civilization.
The seemingly interminable moment between two electoral rounds, a moment in which France seemed to waver, has passed. Now begins the open combat between those who believe that freedom lives and those who have already buried it.
Both sides have shown their hands. The democratic world needs Macron to succeed.