The former centrist saviour now appears Burkean. Credit: Regis Duvigneau /AFP/ Getty

December 2, 2020   6 mins

Surely no world leader can have experienced such a rapid fall from grace in the eyes of America’s liberal press as Emmanuel Macron. When he defeated Marine Le Pen to assume the French presidency in the spring of 2017, American commentators, traumatised by the election of Donald Trump just a few months earlier, immediately elevated him to the pantheon of saviours of liberalism, alongside the other claimed colossi of postmodern liberal statesmanship, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau. 

When the Gilets Jaunes protests threatened to unseat Macron from behind his gilded desk in the Elysée, the extremely heavy-handed crowd control methods employed by the French police were brushed off, if they were remarked upon at all, as the necessary response of the liberal state to urban disorder. Despite the inchoate and ideologically-fluid demands of the protestors firmly coalescing on the side of the radical left before the protest wave finally fizzled out, the Gilets Jaunes were framed as a right-wing populist revolt as if by necessity.

Macron was no longer the last-ditch defence of French liberalism from the radical right: he was the anti-Trump, a liberal strongman willing and capable of keeping the world safe for Washington Post commentators by rolling back the then-seemingly unstoppable wave of populist anger, at the helm of a country more or less interchangeable with Europe as a whole in the American imagination.

It is a marker of how far US commentators have self-radicalised since then that Macron is now the target of the New York Times and Washington Post, after daring to criticise their new race-centric ideological passions, and the complex algebraic equations of moral worth and political validity which derive from them. 

Following a wave of brutal jihadist murders targeting innocent French civilians, it is Macron who is the villain in their eyes, for launching a counterattack against the Islamist insurgency within France. There is only one permissible response to jihadist terrorism for European leaders, it seems, which is to light some candles and resolutely ignore the situation until the next attack: to take any meaningful action to prevent future violence is to find yourself accused of Nazism by the American press which idealised you just a few short years ago. 

Once lauded as the liberal bulwark against Europe’s nativist far-right, Macron is now morally suspect for tackling the continent’s Islamist far-right; Europe’s “anti-Trump” is now only comprehensible as a Trumpian figure in the eyes of the New York and Washington press, but there is increasingly little value in paying attention to the hysterical wailing of American commentators.

Instead, we can more profitably assess how far Macron’s worldview has evolved in the nearly four years since he came to power by reading his latest long interview with the Groupe d’Études de Géopolitiques thinktank, published earlier this month. Macron is fond — perhaps too fond — of sharing his important thoughts with the world in long, expansive interviews, and his latest interview is perhaps the purest distillation of the genre. 

Yet by cutting through the lofty generalities to examine the specifics of how Macron now views the world, we see him as he sees himself, a liberal of the right, and a defender of the French and European Enlightenment against Chinese totalitarianism, the seductive lures of Europe’s radical right, and the counter-Enlightenment obscurantism of both jihadists and Americans.

Macron begins by asserting that the multilateral framework of what is still nostalgically termed the liberal international order no longer functions. “The UN Security Council no longer produces useful solutions today,” he declares, and “some, such as the WHO, find themselves hostages of the crises of multilateralism,” the latter diagnosis surely being derived from the COVID experience. Indeed, he notes, “we have a crisis with the multilateral framework of 1945: a crisis in terms of its effectiveness, but, and it is even more serious in my opinion, a crisis in terms of the universality of the values upheld by its structures.”

That crisis, for Macron, is the growing rejection of the very ideological underpinnings of liberalism by the rising civilisation-states of Eurasia, and by the resurgence of political Islam as a force in international politics.

On the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, Macron observes that what was birthed by the crisis of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa was not the expansion of liberalism on which his predecessor Sarkozy gambled so much, but instead “the return of the mindset of certain peoples and of religion in politics,” and “an extraordinary acceleration of a return of religion on the political scene in a number of these countries.”

The liberal triumphalism of the post-Cold War moment, “based to a great extent, both academically and politically, on a fiction that was the ‘end of history’ and an implicit idea that was the ongoing spread of democracies, individual liberties, etc” was misguided, Macron declares; instead, the clearly observable result is that, contrary to the aspirations of both the Arab Spring protestors and their external supporters, “authoritarian regional powers are re-emerging, theocracies are re-emerging”.

Liberalism is no longer in expansive mode, then, but is instead fighting a defence for its own survival, even in its core European territories: “the fight against terrorism and radical Islamism is a European struggle, a struggle about values,” he declares, where our “struggle today is against barbarity and obscurantism.” The forces of jihadism and autocracy that defeated the Arab Spring abroad now threaten Europe itself even in our own heartlands. Indeed, he continues, “the combat of our generation in Europe will be a combat for our freedoms. Because they are being overturned. And so it will not be the reinvention of the Enlightenment, but we will have to defend the Enlightenment against obscurantism.”

The obscurantism Macron speaks of is not purely external: he also warns of a political current within Europe, “a crisis of the post-1968 and 1989 Western societies,” a form of what he confusingly terms “neoconservatism” but which we could perhaps better term “reaction” or neoreaction, “which is challenging 1968,” and which, he declares — no doubt with an eye on the ever-present electoral threat of the radical right — is a rational and understandable response to the failures of neoliberalism.

The Washington consensus which underwrote post-Cold War neoliberalism, Macron muses, “turned into a dogma whereby the truths were: less state intervention, privatisations, structural reforms, opening up of economies through trade, financialisation of our economies, with a rather monolithic rationale based on the accumulation of profits.”

Whatever the benefits for the workers of China and the CEOs of the United States, the result for the middle class across the Western world was disaster: “it has reduced part of our population to a feeling of uselessness, with deep economic and social, but also mental tragedies: our middle classes in particular, and part of our working classes have been the adjustment variable of this globalisation; and that is intolerable.”

Identifying himself with the “struggle against this mechanism of capitalism,” the former investment banker now portrays himself as a sceptic of Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism: but it is perhaps more accurate to say that he sees himself saving liberalism by cutting away its excesses, saving liberalism from itself in the economic sphere in a way analogous to his rejection of the American excesses of liberalism in the cultural and political spheres.

The Washington consensus is dead, he declares, and the time for a “Paris consensus,” no doubt under his tutelage, has begun. What this means in practice is not elaborated on with any degree of specificity — he comes out for a vague form of a Green New Deal — but it is hard to avoid the impression Macron’s economic strategy is subordinate to his already expressed  geopolitical musings.

Indeed, and with a degree of triumphalism, Macron now declares that his vision of European strategic autonomy, so controversial when he first advanced it, has been borne out by events. “Three years ago, when I spoke about European sovereignty and strategic autonomy, I was taken for a lunatic,” he muses, “and these ideas were dismissed as French whims,” but no-one’s laughing now. The German defence establishment, represented by the craven Atlanticist submissiveness of the defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, may still complain, but “fortunately, the Chancellor [Angela Merkel] does not share this point of view.” 

Assuaging the outrage of think-tankers by stressing Europe’s close bonds of alliance and friendship with America, he nevertheless emphasises the continental bloc’s need to “prevent the Chinese-American duopoly”; indeed, he repeatedly links the two rival superpowers when he argues Europe’s need to assert technological and political independence from both.

A geostrategic Europe, with a sphere of influence in Africa which he terms a partnership, is at the heart of his vision: chiding Africa once again for its excessive birth rates (and for the first time linking it to Europe’s demographic decline, a dynamic where “for one European country demographically disappearing, in the same period, one African country appears”) and for the abuse of Europe’s asylum system by African economic migrants, Macron posits a Euro-African relationship where France’s post-colonial interests and those of Europe as a whole are perhaps uncomfortably elided.

Yet it is surely in his vision of Europe as a commonwealth, a continent where we share a sense of belonging and ineffable political values despite our division into discrete nation-states, that we see Macron’s evolution most clearly: the defender of the French Revolution’s values has become an unexpected Burkean. It is not just that his horror at the tyranny and fanaticism of what became of the Arab Spring shapes his worldview, as the French Revolution did Burke’s, with his drift to the right deriving from a similar claimed desire to save liberalism from its own worst excesses.

Macron also echoes Burke’s conception of Europe as a political unit, an orderly and pacific civilisation of its own, and a commonwealth of shared values to be defended against internal and external challengers. Whatever divides us Europeans, he asserts, in a quote which could be lifted directly from Burke’s 1796 Letters on a Regicide Peace, “something unites us. We know that we are European when we are outside of Europe. We feel our differences when we are among Europeans, but we feel nostalgia when we leave Europe.” 

But above all, Macron observes, citing our moderate economic ideals, our belief in the value of culture, and our neighbourly relations with the Middle East and with Russia, “we are not the United States of America”. He is surely fortunate then, in the reaction he has now solicited from the other side of the Atlantic: if the basis of Macron’s creation of a geopolitical Europe in his own image is that of our deep and essential difference from the United States, then he has no greater ally than the American press, which draws the dividing lines between Us and Them more clearly with every passing day.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.