As Stephen King memorably wrote in “The Shining,” ghosts are real; “They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” This is precisely what is happening now in the French presidential election, as — more than anything — the ghost of Charles de Gaulle is propelling Emmanuel Macron to victory.
Reading a copy of the French Fifth Republic’s constitution, so personalized is the document to fit de Gaulle’s personality that I conjure an image of the great man’s military kepi. It is easy now, after 64 years of this Republic, to forget that de Gaulle was brought from political exile in 1958 at a time of crisis, both to save France from the political ructions over Algeria that were tearing the country apart, and to replace the weak, legislatively dominated chaotic failure that had been the Fourth Republic.
Instead, de Gaulle — understanding his people’s historical affinity for a strong, centralized executive, a trait apparent from the time of Louis XIV and the Bourbons through both Bonaparte emperors — gave France what it wanted; a centralized state, with an “elective monarchy” at its head. While prime ministers appointed by the chief executive would deal with the anodyne day-to-day functions of the state, the president, unbound, could focus on foreign policy, geostrategy, and high matters of state affecting what de Gaulle liked to call “French grandeur.”
For all that this can sometimes seem faintly ridiculous to outsiders, de Gaulle understood very well what his countrymen organically longed for. As he put it: “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France.” This notion of French grandeur, of a great (if elected) monarch rising above the din and commonplace of everyday life to rule, jibed with what many of his countrymen yearned for. In squaring the origins of the Fifth Republic’s strong role for the executive with this mystical French yearning, de Gaulle’s creation has in practice been far stronger than the four Republics that preceded it; the Fifth Republic has the political legitimacy that comes only 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 on to something Gaullist and profound. Aware that the French want a strong leader, striding the global stage and reassuring his people that France, somehow, remains a great and respected global power, Macron has played the Jovean role to the hilt. But in doing so, he is only delving into the old successful Gaullist playbook, connecting with France’s longstanding political culture.
With just six weeks until the first round of French presidential voting on April 10, Macron finds himself in a commanding political position, thanks to the ghost of the general. A survey reported in The Times finds Macron comfortably ahead with a projected 25 percent of the vote, with far-right populist Marine Le Pen next at 18 percent, followed by far-right television star Eric Zemmour at 14 percent, center-right candidate Valerie Pecresse at 12 percent, and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon rising to 11 percent.
Of those, most are too far to the political extremes of left and right to give Macron any reason to fear. Only Pecresse is ideologically moderate enough to give him a potential electoral scare. Indeed, early polling after her emergence as the main center-right candidate put her neck-and-neck with the incumbent. However, following an amateurish start to her campaign — complete with a disastrous speech at her largest rally —Pecresse is quickly fading from view.
Instead, Macron — channeling his inner de Gaulle — has stolen 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 on behalf of Europe as a whole failed to stop the Ukraine crisis lurching into all-out war, this has not hurt him electorally. Rather, the French people seem to have thought it was better he tried and failed, than merely diplomatically receding into the woodwork.
Instead, in line with the ghost of de Gaulle, Macron’s poll numbers have slightly risen, 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. With the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz just coming into being, 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. One of the oddest side effects of the Ukraine crisis has been the rise of Macron to grasp the Gaullist mantle. In doing so, and in connecting with the French political culture that the general knew so well, Macron has done nothing less than assured himself of a second term as France’s elected monarch.
This post was originally published in Arab News.