France shows how to rise above party divisions

APTOPIX France Elections
French President Emmanuel Macron waves as he leaves a polling station on June 11.

All who are distraught at the state of U.S. politics should pay attention to the rise of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The recently elected Macron, who had never before run for office, is set to win a parliamentary majority Sunday with a brand-new centrist party. Its candidates are mostly political novices who have no ties to the two traditional French parties of the left and right.

It’s as if a younger, more charismatic Michael Bloomberg had taken on both Democrats and the GOP and been handed victory by voters fed up with ugly partisan warfare. And as if he fielded a third-party slate of newbies for Congress that was then swept into power.

A fantasy? No doubt. And Macron’s feats are rooted in aspects of the French system that differ from ours.

Yet this 39-year-old Frenchman has upended political mantras we now accept too easily — that the political center is passé, that populist movements will inevitably grow, and that conventional parties must gravitate to the extremes to win. So, despite the differences in our systems, it’s important to look at why and how Macron did what he did.

First a little history. As economics minister in the last Socialist government, Macron sought to loosen restrictive labor laws that foster high unemployment, including a 20 percent rate for those under 25. Frustrated by rigid unions and an inept Socialist president, he quit and founded a new party, En Marche (Forward). No one took him seriously at first.

But Macron was onto something important, says Pierre Vimont, former French ambassador to Washington and now a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “He understood that people were looking for a new way of doing politics. He stepped outside both parties.”

The two traditional French parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, were considered center-left and center-right, but were increasingly beholden to their militant wings.

“Macron was trying something different, the idea that what we need is a government of national accord, to bring in people from both sides who put the good of the country ahead of [partisan] interests,” said Vimont, “The French are tired of politicians fighting each other all the time.”

Sound familiar?

But why did the French trust Macron? After all, politicians calling for change are not a new invention, and populists have adopted that slogan. And, I’ll admit, when I heard Macron in the first TV debate of the campaign I thought he sounded too wonky.

Part of the answer, said Vimont, involved timing. “This was possible in France because of the state of the country,” he said. People had given up on economic reform — four previous presidents having failed to produce it — and the country was gloomy.

“Then comes Macron, young, eager for change, saying France is still able to do great things,” Vimont said. Macron radiated optimism, in contrast with the fear-mongering of the populist Marine Le Pen.

His youth helped, and the French were fascinated by his personal story: a long marriage to his former high school drama teacher who is 24 years his senior. But most important, his economic message crossed party lines: Loosen labor laws that discourage hiring and lower taxes on small and medium businesses, but keep a social safety net; open France to trade but also to immigration. Reform the European Union (in tandem with Germany), rather than reject it.

Of course, Macron was also lucky. The early favorite, Republican candidate Francois Fillon, tanked due to a corruption scandal and Le Pen proved unexpectedly inept.

But the novice pol took advantage of every opening. Many assumed his presidency would be hobbled by his new party’s inability to gain many seats in the National Assembly. But he found candidates for every constituency — half of them women, many young, many minorities (a rarity in French politics). His new party already has more members than traditional parties; the average age of En Marche candidates is 43, compared with the 60- to 70-year-olds that dominate the outgoing assembly.

The En Marche slate of nonpoliticians includes an economist who arrived in France as a 4-year-old refugee from the Rwandan genocide, a renowned mathematician, a famous female ex-bullfighter, a fighter pilot, and lots of owners of small- and medium-size businesses, according to the New York Times.

Of course, Macron’s victory doesn’t solve the problem of France’s rust belt, where Le Pen voters are still wary. And it’s far too early to know, whether he can change labor laws given the French history of union strikes and violent street riots that forced previous presidents to back off.

However, there’s much that U.S. politicians can learn from the French president’s achievements so far.

First, the political center is not dead. Macron proved that elections can be won by a smart centrist who appeals to voters across partisan lines. True, U.S. election rules make it much harder to create a viable third party than in France. More attention needs to be focused on how to change these rules.

But bottom line, a centrist candidate who can rise above party divisions can woo disheartened voters and trump a populist’s appeal.

Second, Macron’s successful recruitment of fresh faces for every available district should be taken to heart by Democrats if they want to make gains in 2018. Attractive, local candidates, not ideological purity, won him parliamentary control.

And last, a system that seems frozen and bitter — as France’s did, as America’s does now — can be changed if the right leadership emerges. If the French leader can follow through on his promises he may start a new trend among Western democracies. That is something Americans should ponder as they root for Macron to succeed.

trubin@phillynews.com