Populism is getting all the headlines, but la classe politique has awakened to the fact that something else is stirring in the French political id. L'Express, now owned by a telecomm magnate (is this the fate of all news magazines?) but still under the editorship of Christophe Barbier and his red scarf, has inaugurated its new look edition with a cover featuring Emmanuel Macron, who is supposed to embody "the reformist spirit" that the magazine hopes will reshape French politics. Other ambitious reformers in the Macron mold--as Barbier imagines it--are Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (and some, including this morning's France Inter editorialist, have taken to referring to NKM as Nathalie Kosciusko-Macron) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit.
What do these three have in common? EM and NKM share a generational bond, but DCB is a comparative geezer (my age, that is). Yet all rather ostentatiously eschew party ties and party ideologies in the name of solving problems. All three share, to some extent, a mind-set that might be called empirical, for want of a better term. It's not technocratic, though, since their idea of political empiricism includes a need to persuade people to vote for their preferred policies rather than to impose them as self-evidently superior because conceived by the finest minds.
L'Express would apparently like to see a party realignment in France. A new center would presumably organize around reformers like this trio, pragmatic, energetic, and more eager to solve today's problems than rehash old quarrels. Polls suggest that there would be a lot of support for such a Party of Pragmatism, which is in a sense what Juppé's high poll ratings stand for, much more than support for Juppé himself.
But the only one of these three who is a candidate at the moment is NKM. Many voices are urging Macron to get in, but for the moment he's playing his cards close to his vest. NKM, on the other hand, is playing a long shot. There's almost no chance she will become the Republican candidate for president, but that's not really what she's after. What she wants is to push Bruno Le Maire out of his current position as leader of the Republican quadras.
Does she have the means to do it? Maybe. Le Maire has lately toughened his discourse in an attempt to appeal to the party's right wing. In the short term, this is a paying strategy, but if the long-term direction of the French party system is toward a realignment in the center, then NKM's persistent opposition to the droitisation of her party could stand her in good stead.
But is she a good politician? She lost the Paris mayoral contest to Anne Hidalgo, who is no heavyweight. This morning on France Inter she seemed unsure of herself in an interview with Patrick Cohen, who immediately invoked the comparison with Macron by asking whether she supported the Macron-influenced Loi El Khomri. Even though this was the topic of the day because of yesterday's demonstrations, NKM hesitated. She clearly favors a labor-market liberalization of the kind envisioned by the law, but she did not want to endorse a measure sponsored by the opposition. But this is Politics 101. There are a hundred ways to say you'd do the same thing as your opponent only better, differently, in a wholly opposite spirit, etc. But it was as though she hadn't anticipated the question--an amateurish mistake. Yet this is the problem for all the politicians who are trying to steer a course between populisms. They have to find a way to say that they agree with rivals about the broad outline of solutions while differentiating themselves on other grounds. In other words, they need to reinvent the concepts of a party of government and a loyal opposition. NKM isn't there yet, and Macron hasn't yet tried. Cohn-Bendit is actually more imaginative than either in this respect, but he lacks the goad of personal ambition and isn't going to make anything happen by himself.