Emmanuel Macron has suggested that France still wants a king, and that it “should think and move like a start-up.” In his official portrait, he included two iPhones as “symbolic objects.” At the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July, he reportedly brandished one of the iPhones in an impassioned defense of free trade. He has proposed policies that would weaken unions and is trying to pass an agenda that includes 11 billion euros in tax reductions and 20 billion euros in tax cuts; this would, according to one study, mostly benefit the top ten percent of France’s wealthiest families. He has dropped 26,000 euros on make-up since May, when he made history by winning the presidency as a “neither left nor right” independent candidate.
This is all preferable to the alternative: President Marine Le Pen, and another Western democracy falling to the tide of far-right populism. But Macron’s iPhone-wielding Sun King act contrasts starkly with the praise American liberals and centrists lavished on him. Barack Obama endorsed his candidacy. “Macron proves that that kind of [centrist] agenda, message, and politics can be incredibly powerful and winning,” Jonathan Cowan, the president of Third Way, told the editorial board of USA Today in July. “Macron tapped into populist desire for change against the stale status quo, but he channeled it in a constructive, rather than destructive, direction,” John Avlon enthused at The Daily Beast. “We need an American Macron to lead a new centrist party—America on the Move?” Max Boot tweeted in June.
But say a prayer for Macron’s Jupiterian ambitions, and for the Americans who love him: His low approval rating is now the most exceptional thing about him. It sits at a remarkable 37 percent, pulling him dead even with our very own Donald Trump. “Macron is more unpopular at the three-month point of his first term than any of his immediate predecessors—François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac— were at the same point, according to Ifop, the Paris-based polling firm,” The Washington Post explained. His unpopularity is very good news for Le Pen and her xenophobic party the National Front—and a serious warning to anyone concerned with preventing the rise of the global far-right.
Suave, clean-cut, and well-spoken, Macron the candidate seemed like the product of a centrist basement lab. He never pitched himself as a progressive savior. Instead, he perpetuated a pretense that is popular among a Bloombergian Western elite: that what voters really want is a candidate who combines progressive social positions with an economic agenda that is friendly to corporations and austerity-minded bureaucrats.
His policies, if enacted, would transfer wealth from the French working and middle classes to the upper class, and would only worsen an austerity crisis that he helped create as a minister in the previous government of Francois Hollande, the most unpopular president in French history. “All in all, it’s a program nearly guaranteed to aggravate the problems at the heart of France’s political crisis: unemployment, inequality, and poverty,” Cole Stangler wrote in Dissent in April. “These are the same forces driving growing numbers of French people to withdraw from politics altogether—or worse yet, cast ballots for the National Front.”
If Macron is an avatar for anything, it is not for genuine progress but for the presidency as product placement. A former investment banker, he promotes a soft tech-utopianism that reinforces rather than challenges the very forces that drive inequality and popular disillusionment with Europe’s technocrats. According to The Financial Times, Macron’s premier, Edouard Philippe, laughed at suggestions that Macron’s policies are conservative. “Yes, what did you expect?” he said.
Much of the confusion surrounding Macron stems from a misreading of why he won the presidency and why his new party, En Marche!, won a majority in parliament. Voters were always skeptical of his actual agenda: A third of registered voters refused to vote for either Macron or Le Pen in the presidential runoff, “by far the highest rate in recent presidential elections,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Macron was the beneficiary of the total collapse of France’s two traditional parties, including the Socialist Party, which swept into power in 2012 on promises of taxing the wealthy and rolling back Berlin’s punishing austerity regime, only to crater when Hollande changed course and became a dogged supporter of austerity.
Macron was able to position himself as a political outsider, a man apart from France’s loathed political establishment—never mind that he served in Hollande’s administration, first as deputy secretary-general of the Élysée, then as minister of economy and finance, and in both positions established himself as an ally to the finance industry. Contra his maverick branding, he is not a real political outsider. His abysmal poll numbers are only the most obvious sign that his approach to politics is deeply, depressingly familiar. Marketing may put you in office, but it can only get you so far. You also need a philosophy, and Macron’s is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
There is no exact American analogue to Macron right now. Democrats and Republicans are both distrusted but there is no indication yet that a majority of voters would consider voting for a third party. But within the Democratic Party a similar choice is taking shape between a genuine vision for change and a centrist status quo—as well as a similar risk of producing a Macron-like presidential candidate in 2020.
On the one hand, Democrats have reason to hope. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, consistently tops popularity polls. Single-payer health care, one of his signature issues, is increasingly popular too; Rep. John Conyers’ Medicare for All bill boasts the most co-sponsors it’s had since he started introducing it in 2003. The party’s platform now backs a $15 minimum wage. Democrats promising increased public spending—on public schools, specifically—just flipped two deep red seats in the Oklahoma legislature, and a Sanders supporter flipped a similar seat in the New York State Assembly in May.
It’s still too early to tell how successful a progressive populist strategy will be—populists lost special elections in Montana and Kansas, for example—and a populist candidate can’t immediately solve years of Republican efforts to gerrymander districts and suppress the vote. But the evidence strongly suggests there is a hunger for something bold and new.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons to worry. Despite the zeal of its base, which has led to competitive races across the country, Democrats are lagging behind Republicans in fundraising. The party’s leadership is ambivalent about the party’s platform, and has suggested it will compromise on social issues like abortion. Centrist groups like FTW and New Democracy and Third Way have sprung up alongside progressive alternatives like Our Revolution, and they boast the support of big names in official Democratic circles. Like Macron, the party has positioned itself as the only sane alternative to a right-wing fascist; but like Macron, the actual contours of its agenda are mostly vague, and when they are discernible they often reveal an overarching commitment to the status quo.
The lessons of Macron’s young presidency are clear. After decades of rising inequality, after years of inadequate and often counterproductive responses to the financial crisis, voters want real change, of the kind that strengthens entitlements, not weakens them; that makes it harder for corporations to lay off workers, not easier; that will raise taxes on the rich, not coddle them. An American Macron cannot fill that role; worse, it could play right into the hands of those on the right who are working toward a very different kind of change. Macron’s struggles reinforce a conclusion that has been a long time coming: Democrats must move left. And fast.