By Jimmy Quinn
Emmanuel Macron arrived in Reims on Friday a triumphant frontrunner prepared to take his republican crusade into the first round of the presidential election.
As if to rebut the weeks of criticism alleging the non-existence of a coherent program, the founder of En Marche ! made it a point to walk the audience through each component of his campaign proposals, recently released in full, drawing applause and attacking his opponents throughout, before moving on to articulate his conception of French culture, the first of six components of his platform.
Perhaps the dynamic centrist would have preferred not to have released an in-depth program, though, and perhaps the other major candidates thought they stood to benefit from forcing his hand. In a sea of waving French and European flags, voters can forget that the task of governing comes with difficult choices and mutually exclusive policy tracks.
Macron, for good reason, chooses to campaign in the broad language of emancipatory French republicanism. He appeals to the better side of people, the one that seeks to confront a world of challenges with the values of the French revolution, as he defines them. He’s selling, above all else and like each of his competitors, a particular worldview, which has thus far been driven home largely by his rhetorical ability.
The most significant difficulty the En Marche ! movement faces is keeping its centrist coalition intact during each of the two rounds of the presidential election, while managing to pick up new votes during second round voting. Macron’s gaffes regarding the colonization of Algeria and the 2012 protests against gay marriage angered voters on the right and the left respectively. They show how especially easy it is for a centrist candidate to get caught in the middle of messy arguments with enemies all over the political spectrum.
While he has been successful to this point in reaching out to the center-right and the center-left, his challenge will be to say one thing and hope that each of France’s political constituencies hears a different message with which it can identify. To win, he’ll need to convince supporters of Francois Fillon to come over to his side rather than Le Pen’s (and the polls show he has a narrow advantage in this regard), and supporters of the two leftist candidates to coalesce around his second round campaign.
By unveiling specific policy proposals, Macron has moved from the realm of wooing a diverse group of political factions with inspiring rhetoric to the bloody battlefield of debate on the issues, a possibly problematic terrain where it is easier to alienate voters. Fighting for a parochial ideology on the left-right divide will only lose him votes; selling a broad and optimistic vision is his winning strategy.
And indeed in Reims, he seemed to stick to that at which he is best, exciting crowds about that vision. He used “the sleeping beauty,” as the city is called by some of its inhabitants, as a background that allowed him to celebrate the culture of France.
Walking back his assertion last month in Lyon that there is no single French culture–a line that puzzled even some of his supporters–he described France’s essence as constantly in flux, with different streams and rivers flowing out of a common national identity. France has always been buffeted by cultural currents beyond its control, and the realistic path is to embrace this aspect of national identity.
The nationalist right, on the other hand, likes to portray French culture and civilization as a unitary object that is passed down from generation to generation. It is sacred, immutable, and under attack. And in the city where kings were crowned, where the First World War wrought destruction on a devastating scale, where the Nazis formally surrendered to the allies in May 1945, where Adenauer and de Gaulle reconciled the previously unbridgeable divide between their two nations, the possible next president of the republic rejected that view in the strongest possible terms.
The project he carries is both patriotic and European, he says. Some would allege incompatibility between these two characteristics, but this seeming contradiction, as well as the others that animate his campaign, might only give Macron’s movement more strength and allow it to transcend the traditional political divide. The existence of these surface-level inconsistencies reveals much about what En Marche ! seeks to be: everything the French revolution was, and all that politics must be in the modern world.