There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth, Nietzsche said. Credit: Getty

April 21, 2020   6 mins

Love him or hate him, you have to accept that Emmanuel Macron has an extraordinary capacity for thinking and talking.

The French President’s vast interview with the Financial Times last week won headlines largely because of his warning of a possible “unravelling of the European Union”.

That was just a tiny part of it. Macron speaks (and speaks and speaks) sometimes eloquently, sometimes pompously, always thoughtfully. His subjects are Covid-19, globalism, democracy, climate change, fear, humanity, sovereignty, multilateralism, Africa and the absolute necessity for the EU to support its most fragile members through the greatest crisis of our lifetimes.

If I had to sum up Macron’s argument in a few words, it would be these: there is no going back to the world before 2020. If we in the West want to preserve those things that we value most — democracy, openness, some level of prosperity, the environment — we must learn the lessons of Covid-19 and do things differently: more manufacturing close to home; more focus on people, less on finance; more national and European sovereignty; better, not less, multilateral or international cooperation.

“That’s where I find myself,” said Macron. “Ready to fight and promote what I believe in while remaining available to try and comprehend what seemed unthinkable.”

It’s easy to mock such stuff. I once coined the word “Macronsplaining” to describe the young French president’s ability to talk endlessly on any subject pitched at him (like “Just a Minute” on Radio 4 except that Macron never finishes inside 60 seconds).

But all the same, Macron is extraordinary. Compare his willingness, and ability, to wrestle intellectually with the greatest crisis of our lifetimes with Donald Trump’s ignorance, narcissism and bluster; Boris Johnson’s evasive eloquence; and even Angela Merkel’s belief that Germany’s rigid, pre-Covid approach to Europe can be re-assembled Humpty-Dumpty-like without change.

I spoke to a senior member of Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party. He says that the French president is, if anything, less calm in private, and more apocalyptic, than he appeared in his FT interview.

“He is rather angry and even scared at what may come next,” the ally said. “He fears that, if the crisis is prolonged, we are heading into a period of profound political and economic instability.”

“There will be a boulevard for populists, on both the far Right and the far Left — anti-foreign arguments, anti-European arguments, anti-global arguments. But he also believes that, with care, there will be a great hunger for stability and reassurance, a desire for proven leaders and rejection of further disruption.”

In other words, Macron may be an intellectual or a revolutionary-in-a-suit but he has learned to think like a politician. He is worried not just about the world’s future — but also his own.

The next French presidential election is two years away. In April-May 2022, France is likely to be still suffering the economic, and maybe even the health, consequences of Covid-19.

By “thinking the unthinkable”, Macron is trying to map the landscape of the post-viral world. He is also trying to extend the opportunist run of luck which made him President of the Republic in his late thirties — a run which had faltered before the coronovirus knocked the world off its axis.

In 2016-7 Macron “rode the wave” by spotting the opportunity offered by his boss, President François Hollande’s unpopularity and launching his own political career and party at the age of 38. Now he wants to climb aboard the post-Covid bandwagon, rather than be crushed by it.

“I’ve always relied on destiny,” he says at the end of the FT interview. “And deep down that’s the simplest thing to do. We must always be available for destiny.”

You can read that two ways — the arrogance of a man who is willing to abandon previous certainties to remain in power; or the intelligence and agility of a man who is willing to think ahead in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.

All the Macron achievements of the past three years — and there are many — look likely to be dwarfed or ruined by  Covid-19. French unemployment had fallen sharply for the first time in a decade; there are suddenly nine million people on a temporary unemployment scheme (the most generous of its kind in the world with state funding of 80% of net salaries). How many of those jobs will survive the crisis?

All the main features of Macronomics have been made redundant or politically damaging.

The President who brought state spending under control? That is no longer much of a sales pitch when the French health service, despite its generous funding, has struggled to cope with the C-19 crisis.

The President who made French labour laws more flexible to allow France to thrive in a global world? That offers few advantages if globalism is to be rolled back.

The President who promised a stronger European Union and a robust Eurozone capable of surviving great crises? That will be an electoral curse if Covid-19 splits the EU-27.

Macron, as he points out in the interview, has always argued for European industrial and economic “sovereignty” to avoid Chinese and American domination in a global world. He can argue that this, at least, has proved correct.

That, however, is not the Macron portrayed by domestic opponents of Right and Left, who paint him as a “neo-liberal” or “ultra-capitalist” who does the bidding of his puppet-masters in “global finance”.

Macron 2020 is finding ways to abandon or recreate Macron 2017. He gropes towards a new definition of Macronomics. He calls for a new leap towards European unity and a new multilateral world order.

He is clear on Europe — “we are at a moment of truth”, either the EU becomes “more than a market” or it will cease to exist.

Much rides for Macron on the EU leaders’ summit tomorrow. He angered the Germans and Dutch by saying that mutually guaranteed European debt to help Italy, Spain and others post-crisis was the “only solution” to save the EU from populism and nationalism.

This is not the first time that Macron has appeared to undermine his own position by making dramatic public threats of this kind. If the Germans and Dutch reject the Macron ideas, he will be left looking weak and foolish.

The EU being the EU, the outcome this week will probably be neither black nor white. Other EU aid plans will be agreed and the French idea for a temporary system of mutual bonds will be carried over for discussion once the worst of the crisis is over. A Macron victory? He will spin it that way.

On the other questions, he was at his most vague and waffling but at least had the “humility” (a word that crops up a dozen times) to admit it.

“So I believe there will be some major anthropological changes which I am unable to describe, and I say this with a lot of humility, but there will be profound ones, I am sure … I believe that we are about to exit a world which was hyper-financialised … [but]  there are some elements of global interdependence which force us to rethink a true governance and therefore multilateralism.”

Hmm. That needs a little more work, Monsieur le Président.

In his television address to the French nation last Monday, Macron also spoke of the need for a “re-founding” of traditional political ideas and arguments, starting with his own.

“We have been reminded of how vulnerable we are. Perhaps we had forgotten.  Don’t let us say that this proves everything that we said before…We must abandon our well-trodden paths and ideologies and re-invent ourselves — me first and foremost.”

He went on to say that he planned to contact “all strands of our nation” in the weeks ahead to consider what such a “new foundation” might involve. This was interpreted in the French media as a Macron plan for a “government of national unity” — a phrase that he never used.

Sources close to the President suggest nonetheless that he might dissolve the government and appoint a new Prime Minister for a “rebuilding” phase after the worst of the crisis is over. Macron’s generally good relationship with his ex centre-Right prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has broken down in recent weeks. There have been “moments of tension” (English translation: “slanging matches”) when Macron accused the government of being too slow or incompetent.

In public opinion polls, both Macron and Philippe have received modest personal boosts but 32% of French people in an Opinonway survey last weekend said that they “distrusted” the government’s handling of the crisis, compared with 8% in Britain.

Given the US and UK governments’ greater evasions and mis-steps, this may seem rather unfair. But France is France, a country quick to blame and slow to praise.

Macron and his government have made mistakes. They were one or two weeks late in imposing a lockdown. They failed to provide sufficient tests and masks and were misleading about the reasons.

But they were very quick to introduce generous economic support for business and individuals. Thanks to rapid thinking and innovation, such as the use of medicalised high-speed trains to take gravely ill patients to less-affected parts of the country, the health system has more or less coped.

The demand for intensive care treatment, initially forecast at 14,500 places, reached 7,000 beds in early April but has since been falling back steadily. The number of deaths in France is following a somewhat lower curve than Italy or Spain. The mortality figures announced daily (now totalling 20,000) are more or less complete, including a grim toll in care homes (unlike the partial figures issued in some other countries).

Macron’s hopes of surviving the crisis politically have perhaps also been boosted by the lamentable performance of his principal likely rival in 2022, the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. She has said everything and its opposite since the crisis began. Her confidence rating, never high, has fallen.

All the same, new times will create new politics and maybe new, unexpected challengers (as Macron was in 2016-7).

According to the senior ally I spoke to, President Macron knows that he must re-invent himself if he is to win a second term in 2022. He wants to be able to say that he, before others, grasped that life can never be quite the same again.

“If you look at our the last five presidents before Macron, only two were re-elected, Mitterrand and Chirac, and they both re-made themselves constantly,” the senior LREM figure said.

“Both Giscard and Sarkozy fell victim in part to global crises (the first oil shock and the 2008 financial crisis). They proved unable to re-invent themselves. Macron has at least understood that necessity. Will people buy it? I’m not so sure.”

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.