Ghost of Charles de Gaulle is the secret to Macron’s political success

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.

The French presidential race presents Macron with a daunting challenge

On the surface, things are looking up for the endlessly ambitious Emmanuel Macron, president of France. With the recent installation of the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz, Macron, at last, finds himself the senior partner in the pivotal Franco-German alliance, finally able to try to harness France’s over-sized geostrategic ambitions to the world-class German economic motor.

While the new Green German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has ambitions to remake Berlin’s foreign policy in a more pro-Atlanticist, activist direction, German foreign policy is traditionally made in the chancellery. If this holds true, Scholz — the Finance Minister in the last Merkel government — and his immediate allies can be counted on to continue with Germany’s weak, commercially-driven, neutralist foreign policy. This is all the better for Macron, who yearns to stride the world stage as a major player.

Even the United States, the perpetual foe of France’s self-aggrandizing instincts, seems to have fallen into line. Following the furor over the AUKUS defense treaty between Australia, the UK, and the US, in which Canberra unceremoniously ditched defense ties with Paris of favor of closer links with the Anglosphere, the Biden administration has raced to mollify a furious Macron. The practical result of this American charm offensive was Washington’s new rhetorical support for Macron’s dream of an independent European defense entity. This sea change has left the foreign and strategic policy field open to Paris.

But if things are looking up internationally, domestically mortal threats to Macron’s regime are brewing. With the French presidential contest set to get into full swing in the new year, the most recent polling numbers present Macron with a real challenge to his re-election prospects. The latest Politico poll of polls of December 15th found Macron with 24 percent of the likely first-round votes. Newly anointed Gaullist Party candidate Valerie Pecresse came next at 17 percent, with far-right populists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour just behind at 16 percent and 13 percent respectively. At present, Macron would make it through to the climactic second round of voting, but who his opponent would be is unknown.

What is clear is that, as the French presidential campaign gets underway, there are two scenarios potentially impacting Macron’s re-election, one secondary and one primary. The French president must have been thrilled when television star Zemmour entered the fray, as he is sure to split the far-right vote in the first round, diluting its overall threat to his presidency, as it is inconceivable that Le Pen and Zemmour (drawing on the same pool of voters) can both thrust ahead of Macron in the initial voting round.

This leaves the French President in the comfortable position of taking on a single far-right challenger in the second round, a result whose outcome would not be in doubt. For example, Politico’s estimation of present second-round voting intentions finds that he would defeat Le Pen comfortably, by 56-44 percent.

The only drawback to this highly favorable outcome for the Elysee would be that if in beating back Pecresse — a mainstream candidate if ever there was one — Macron so demonized her that Pecresse’s first-round supporters failed to come out in the second round to see off the far-right challenge to the country as a whole. While Pecresse’s supporters in aggregate are highly unlikely to support either Le Pen or Zemmour in the second round, they might be so turned off by Macron’s attacks that they simply stay at home.

A similar process is presently well advanced on the splintered left, where it seems increasingly likely that voters will not show up for second-round voting to put a mainstream rightist in power in order to keep a far-rightist from the Elysee, as they did in the last French presidential election. If this apathy extends to both the Gaullists and the Socialists, the traditional center-right and center-left parties respectively, and with the far-right bound to coalesce around whichever of its two candidates reaches the second round, Macron could find himself in real peril.

However, the second, more likely, political threat to Macron comes directly from Pecresse and the mainstream Gaullist Party itself. Present polling has Pecresse as the president’s likely challenger in the second round of voting. But Politico finds her only a nose behind Macron, presently trailing him by merely 52-48 percent in terms of voting intentions, almost within the margin of error. It is obvious that Pecresse is far more of a threat to Macron’s re-election than any other candidate.

Reasonable, presentable, experienced, and policy-oriented, Pecresse cannot be demonized by Macron as simply dangerously unsuited for the Elysee in the way he can tar both Le Pen and Zemmour.\

Better still, and unlike the personality-driven candidacies of the two far-rightists and Macron himself, Pecresse has a real party behind her, with organizational capacity, fund-raising abilities, and — best of all — longstanding traditional political loyalties throughout the country. Macron is taking on the Gaullist institution in France, and not just another personality.

This is precisely why, at this time of relative international success, the French president must worry about domestic political dangers which could undo all his grandiose hopes, both for himself and his country. 

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.