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France’s Vanishing Center

American Purpose editorial board member Patrick Chamorel draws parallels between two French presidents of the center, Giscard and Macron. Can Macron modernize the economy, keep the EU together, and stop his country from falling apart?

Patrick Chamorel

On December 2, 2020, former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing fell victim to the coronavirus virus, at age ninety-four. Nearly forty years have passed since the end of Giscard’s seven-year presidency in 1981. Few Americans—and even Europeans for that matter—are properly familiar with him today. They should be, though.

Indeed, Giscard was one of the towering political figures of his time on the French, European, and global stage. Interestingly, of his five subsequent successors at the Élysée Palace, the only one whose rise to power and vision for his country, Europe, and relations with the United States mirror his own is today’s French President Emmanuel Macron. Like Giscard, Macron also is an elite outsider, struggling to modernize the French economy, keep Europe together, and stop France from falling apart.

Not So Humble Roots

The meteoric rises of both Giscard and Macron to the French presidency are striking. After graduating at the top of their classes from the most prestigious schools, they climbed the political ladder faster than even their elite peers. Giscard became a member of the National Assembly in 1956 at age thirty, and was appointed finance minister by President Charles de Gaulle at age thirty-six. Macron, too, served as finance minister—at age thirty-seven—but unlike Giscard he never ran for elected office before his successful 2017 presidential campaign, which partly explains why he won the presidency at thirty-nine, nine years younger than Giscard.

The trajectories of the two men connect in another way: even though Giscard and Macron were core members of the French elite, they won the presidency as outsiders. Giscard broke with de Gaulle to found his own rival party within the center-right majority. Macron launched his centrist reformist party, La République En Marche (“The Republic Forward”), in 2012, despite having served as Socialist President François Hollande’s close aide. Both men exploited exceptional political circumstances on their way to the highest office, with Giscard making his move after the passing of President Georges Pompidou, and Macron benefiting from electoral fear of his opponent, Marine Le Pen.

Both Giscard and Macron shared a vision of the kind of change the French sought and a conviction that they could best provide it. Both strived to underline the contrast between their own youth, modernity, and optimism and the more conventional approaches of their predecessors and rivals. Giscard was often called the French JFK, a comparison that could apply to Macron as well, and both mastered the English language better than any of their peers.

Patriots and Pragmatists

Giscard and Macron have been the only presidents to seek and occupy the elusive political center in French politics. Even though Giscard hailed from the right and Macron from the left, they each pragmatically believed the entrenched dichotomy between right and left to be too inspired by ideology, too divisive, and not suited to their technocratic vision of modernization and problem-solving. The political philosophy that has inspired them is in line with classical liberalism, which has been one of the historic strains of the center-right and, to a lesser extent, the center-left. The late historian René Rémond called that political tradition “Orléanism,” and contrasted it with the more authoritarian “Bonapartism” best illustrated by de Gaulle.

Classical liberalism’s main supporters in France have always come from the most privileged sectors of society and have favored pro-business agendas. Giscard defined himself as a “traditionalist with a taste for change.” Macron values change even more but could hardly be called a traditionalist; he is arguably closer to the “bourgeois bohemian” culture of a large section of today’s educated urban youth. The two never hit it off personally, and in the first round of the 2017 election, Giscard backed the center-right candidate instead of Macron.

Yet the policy orientations of the two men converge. They blend economic and cultural liberalization with resolute support of European unification around the Franco-German nucleus. No other president of the Fifth Republic pursued those priorities with more intensity and consistency, even though Nicolas Sarkozy was an economic liberalizer and François Mitterrand a Europeanist. Giscard legalized abortion and put an end to the public monopoly of the media. Macron passed liberal economic reforms such as making labor laws more flexible.

Unexpectedly, Giscard encouraged more immigration by allowing the families of foreign workers to settle in France—a policy he tried unsuccessfully to reverse and which he said was the one he regretted the most. Macron’s pro-immigration majority further broadened the eligibility criteria for family regrouping and asylum.

Even though Macron is as staunch a Europeanist as Giscard, his record has so far fallen short of Giscard’s, who instituted the European Council and universal suffrage for the election of the European Parliament and laid the foundations for the euro. Of course, Giscard had a strong partner and friend in Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and France yielded more influence in Europe before German reunification and Eastern European membership in the EU. Both French leaders admired the United States and sought more transatlantic cooperation. However, the oil crises in one case and Donald Trump in the other forced them to scale back their ambitions.

The parallels between Giscard and Macron extend to the extraordinary challenges their presidencies faced. The two oil shocks of the 1970s ended the high growth and low unemployment France had enjoyed since the end of World War II. Macron has had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic, and, domestically, with both the year-long domestic revolt of the “yellow vests”—the greatest social upheaval since the May 1968 events under de Gaulle—and radical Islamist terrorism.

Some of those crises helped reveal common shortcomings in Giscard and Macron—specifically, a difficulty in connecting with ordinary people. Giscard could not shake his aristocratic demeanor and sense of superiority, while Macron is accused of being out of touch with la France profonde due to his unfamiliarity with local politics. Paradoxically, these two authentic democrats pursued liberal policies while concentrating power at the top.

Macron’s Do or Die in 2021

A full parallel between Giscard and Macron is bound to remain incomplete until the next presidential election set for May 2022. Against all odds, Giscard failed in his 1981 reelection attempt. The defeat sent shockwaves throughout France and Europe and across the Atlantic. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the new president was a Socialist—and coalition partner of the Communist Party—with a radical economic program, including the nationalization of the major banks and industrial companies.

Giscard never had another opportunity to run for the presidency. Even his dream of becoming the first European president under a European constitution fell apart when political support for the idea crumbled. These setbacks gave the French, and Giscard himself, the sense of a brilliant career cut short.

Should Emmanuel Macron lose the upcoming 2022 election, the consequences could potentially be much more dire than in 1981. The risk is that the most likely alternatives to Macron are on the extremes of the political spectrum. France is a much weaker and more divided country today than it was forty years ago. At least Mitterrand’s 1981 victory helped the Left accept the institutions de Gaulle had created in 1958 and inaugurated the process of regular alternations in power between the Right and the Left. Moreover, Mitterrand managed gradually to marginalize the Communist Party, while his Socialist Party would ultimately tilt toward the center-left. No such benefits could be expected from a Marine Le Pen victory on the far right or a Jean-Luc Mélenchon victory on the far left.

The Shifting Landscape

The Macron presidency has not been able to root out the underlying causes of the decades-long drift to the extremes of a growing proportion of the French electorate; defiance of the political system only continues to grow. Since the oil shocks of Giscard’s presidency, France has kept accumulating problems—slow economic growth, high unemployment, uncontrolled immigration, rising crime, terrorism and the threat of radical Islamism, deepening social divisions, growing skepticism about Europe, and a loss of international influence—without the political will or capacity to solve them. A benevolent but strong state has lost its authority to the point of appearing adrift, and France’s identity has been increasingly challenged. Giscard’s victorious 1974 campaign slogan for “an advanced liberal society” would today be interpreted as a provocation and guarantee defeat.

In 2017 Le Pen was rejected by a wide arc of voters, from the Gaullists to the far left, enabling Macron to win the presidency by a whopping 66 percent to 34 percent. But this impressive margin of victory is unlikely to recur in 2022. Macron is no longer the brand new, promising candidate he was in 2017. His surprisingly wide electoral margin masked what was actually a very narrow political, policy, and sociological base. None of Macron’s main policy orientations is supported by a majority of citizens. The majority leans toward less economic liberalization, less cultural progressivism, less Europe, and less immigration. It seeks more social protection, a tougher approach to law and order, and a more resolute fight against radical Islamism.

The broad partisan alliance against Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally Party that benefited Macron so handsomely is unravelling. Over the last two years, Macron’s majority party has never appeared to be more than a heteroclite collection of second-rate parliamentarians divided on key issues such as immigration, Islam, and secularism; forty-four members have already left the party, threatening its majority status. As France’s political realignment continues, the political center is unlikely to survive Macron’s presidency, whether it ends in 2022 or 2027. Even the far Left has a chance to qualify for the runoff in 2022, as Macron’s political base has shifted to the right. An unlikely runoff between candidates of the far right and far left would expose France to the risk of civil war.

However, Macron can still avoid the fate of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Even though his popularity hovers barely above 40 percent, it has been trending upward since the first coronavirus lockdown. Opinion polls from late January show Macron winning (just barely) against his most likely runoff rival, Le Pen, at 52 percent.

Macron’s France is very different from Giscard’s. The hole France has dug for itself looks a lot like the hole many Western democracies find themselves in today. All things considered, let’s hope the comparison between Giscard and Macron will lose some of its relevance when Macron seeks reelection in 2022.

Patrick Chamorel, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is senior resident scholar and a lecturer at Stanford in Washington, Stanford University.  He also teaches in the Ford Dorsey Master in International Policy at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

Illustration by R. Jay Magill, Jr. Magill, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a writer and illustrator based in Berlin whose work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Believer, the Boston Globe, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

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