You can tell a lot about a person by what they place in their study, their “room of one’s own”, as novelist Virginia Woolf put it. The clues of who a person is – and what they value – are often in plain sight. Newly re-elected French President Emmanuel Macron is no exception to this rule.
Macron won a definitive win over his far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, by 58 per cent to 42 per cent. Macron’s resounding victory capped his aggressive second round campaign, where he successfully cast the far-right leader as no less than a threat to democracy itself.
But, in policy terms, Le Pen helped the president immeasurably. In the first round of voting Le Pen ran a canny campaign, focusing on detoxifying her brand with stories to soften her image as an extremist – such as her penchant for breeding cats. But in the second round, Le Pen was perpetually on the backfoot.
Macron cornered her into admitting she was planning to govern by referenda, defending her plans to loosen ties with Brussels, and explaining her uncomfortably close links to Vladimir Putin. Macron’s victory was built on being the last bastion of a republic he characterized as under siege.
But while this defensive agenda was vital for Macron, the secret to his positive campaign was lying on his desk. There lies a picture of Charles De Gaulle, founder of the French Fifth Republic, and increasingly Macron’s lodestar. As much as anything else, the ghost of De Gaulle kept Emmanuel Macron in the Élysée Palace.
It is easy now, after 64 years of its existence, to forget that De Gaulle was brought back from political exile in 1958 in a time of great crisis. He was called to save France from the political ructions over Algeria that were tearing it apart, replacing the overly weak, legislatively-dominated chaotic failure that had been the Fourth Republic. As the general put it in an exasperation Macron well understands, “How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?”
Instead, De Gaulle gave France organically what it wanted; a centralised state, with an “elective monarchy” at its head. He understood his people’s historical affinity for a strong, compact executive, a trait apparent from the time of Louis XIV and the Bourbons through both Bonaparte Emperors.
While prime ministers appointed by the chief executive would deal with the boring day-to-day functions of the country, the president, unbound, could focus on foreign policy, geostrategy, and high matters of policy affecting what De Gaulle liked to call “French grandeur.”
This can sometimes seem faintly ridiculous to outsiders, but De Gaulle understood very well what his countrymen organically longed for. In essentially binding the origins of the Fifth Republic’s strong role for the executive with this mystical French yearning, De Gaulle created a structure far stronger than the four Republics that preceded it. For the Fifth Republic has the political legitimacy that only comes with having a system that squares with a country’s specific political culture.
It is not an accident, then, that the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, has a picture of De Gaulle in his private study. Jeered early on in his presidency when he arrogantly compared himself to Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, Macron was actually onto something politically savvy.
Macron has played the Jupiterean role to the hilt. But, in doing so, he is only historically delving back into the old successful Gaullist playbook.
Macron—channeling his inner-De Gaulle–stole an electoral march on all his rivals, casting himself as a global statesman loftily looming over a field of parochial, angry, and mediocre contenders. While at first glance, Macron’s futile efforts at shuttle diplomacy with Vladimir Putin failed to stop the Ukraine crisis lurching into all-out war, this did not hurt him electorally.
Instead, Macron’s poll numbers rose, as he has occupied the international stage as the leading voice of Europe, and has conferred diplomatically as the equal of both presidents Putin and Biden – at least on the surface. Macron has filled the diplomatic vacuum as Europe’s foremost strategic voice, precisely as De Gaulle always strove to.
While symbolism, more than actual substance, is at play here, ghosts remain powerful things in politics. In grasping the mantle, and in connecting with the French political culture, Macron has done nothing less than assure himself of a second term as France’s elected monarch.