Sunday, December 11, 2016

About That Macron Rally

Emmanuel Macron staged a massive rally in Paris yesterday. His team claims an audience of 15,000. His peroration inevitably calls to mind Howard Dean's famous scream after winning the Iowa primary, which was widely mocked and ended up sinking his candidacy. Macron's will survive. It may even prosper. Many wondered before yesterday whether En marche! really had legs. Apparently it does. This was a good crowd by any standard, and certainly larger than any of the other candidates have turned out to date.

But what about substance? Macron gave a speech of Castro-like proportions: 1 3/4 hours of nonstop talk by the candidate. I have yet to see a full accounting of the details and am not about to listen to the entire speech, but what I have seen is vintage Macron: a clarion call to transform attitudes toward, for example, risk-taking, coupled with a laundry list of mini-measures intended to effect the desired transformation: convert unemployment insurance, say, into "solidarity wages" that would be paid to failed entrepreneurs as well as unemployed workers. Will this produce a French Facebook or a host of corner grocers hoping to compete with Félix Potin? And would a French Facebook, if it arose, resolve the deep problems of the French economy?

These are no doubt the wrong questions to ask. The right question, at least for the short term, is whether the patented Macron formula of lofty goals coupled with long litanies of wonkery will mobilize the masses in sufficient number to drive Mélenchon and the eventual Socialist candidate from the field, catapulting Macron into a position where he might edge out Fillon for the number 2 spot. Or, failing that, will he make a strong enough showing to start in pole position for the left's 2022 nomination?

I think it's a long shot for both, frankly, but I have to concede that Macron does seem to have galvanized a segment of the population to embrace him as the candidate of "change"--always a desirable position in an era when publics everywhere seem convinced that the status quo has run its course and something new is required. I just can't read how large a segment of the population that is. On my Facebook feed this morning I read a post by a young entrepreneur who attended yesterday's rally and was convinced. For him, the long speech was a Saul on the road to Damascus experience. But commenters immediately retorted that Macron was a "bobo populist," whose appeal would soon find its limits. On the other hand, I've heard from two older friends, one a French diplomat, another an academic, that Macron represents precisely the mix of youthful energy, decent values, and deep familiarity with the workings of the economy that for them represents a revival of hope in an otherwise dismal field of candidates.

Macron took pains to differentiate himself from Fillon by insisting that he would leave the legal work week at 35 hours, for example (although he then called for firm-level negotiated modifications), and promised to increase the number of civil servants rather than eliminating 500,000 of them, as Fillon as said he would do (but Macron did not say how he would pay for them).

We shall see. I myself have yet to succumb to the Macron magic. His economic nostrums do not strike me as particularly insightful or likely to succeed. His energy and intelligence are not in doubt, but the breadth of his base remains to be seen. Thus far, his most obvious qualities are his ambition and his chutzpah. Neither is particularly endearing. But perhaps I expect too much from politics in an era that seems determined to yield too little.