This piece first appeared in Jacobin.
The French presidential election later this month will be a major turning point in the country’s political history. Beyond the campaign’s many twists and turns — from François Hollande’s decision not to stand for reelection to the collapse of the mainstream right’s candidate, François Fillon — the fact that the two candidates most likely to face off in the second-round elections — Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen — do not belong to either the Socialist Party (PS) or Les Républicains (LR) represents a historic development.
Since the Fifth Republic formed in 1958, the PS and LR — or any one of the various Gaullist rights — have alternated power. This year, either social-liberal Macron, from the year-old party En Marche!, or far-right Marine Le Pen of the National Front (FN) will likely become president. Every pollster predicts Macron will win in a second round runoff.
Le Pen’s success, while extraordinary, fits into the FN’s long-term rise, which has seen the party win a substantial share of the French electorate since 1986, and with the rise of the radical right across advanced capitalism more generally. Macron’s surprising appearance, however, calls for a closer analysis.
New to politics (he became a public figure less than three years ago, when he became minister for the economy) and with a brand new political movement, Macron draws bigger crowds than any other candidate, saturates the media, and wins political support from across the political spectrum.
His successes do not solely come from his charm. Rather, sections of the French ruling class have responded favorably to his political project and generated serious momentum for his candidacy. Indeed, the mainstream press and media outlets have given him overwhelmingly positive coverage, showing the extent to which he enjoys the support of key figures within the French power structure.
The ruling class supports Macron because he can help transform the Fifth Republic’s political-institutional system and preserve its capacity to dictate government policy in the years ahead. Macron’s election would radically realign French politics, clearing the way for a reform agenda that has faced numerous obstacles over the past twenty years.
Straight Outta the ENA
Macron belongs to the inner circle of the French ruling class, what Pierre Bourdieu dubbed the “state nobility.” A number of sociologists, from Ezra Suleiman to Pierre Birnbaum, have demonstrated that these high-ranking civil servants constitute the most powerful social group in France.
They graduate from the so-called grandes écoles (most importantly the Polytechnique or the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA) and then join the state bureaucracy. The inspection générale des finances recruits the top ENA graduates while the corps des mines hires the best from Polytechnique. These bureaucrats lead state institutions, especially in the crucial economic ministries, join the staffs of the most important elected officials, and run the most important French blue-chip corporations.
Macron graduated from ENA in 2004 and joined the finance ministry that same year. Only about five or six finance inspectors are recruited each year from ENA, and they often dominate the ministry’s two most powerful directorates — treasury and budget — as well as other state financial agencies, like the central bank and French securities and exchange commission (SEC.) Finance inspectors also fill major banks’ and insurance companies’ executive suites and boards of directors. The CEOs and chairmen of BNP Paribas and Société Générale — France’s top two universal banks — have invariably been finance inspectors for decades.
Although most finance inspectors lean to the right politically, some diversity among their ranks exists, at least when it comes to cultural issues. With regard to socioeconomic issues, finance inspectors share essentially the same views, having designed and implemented all the major economic policies of the last thirty years.
Macron belongs to the liberal wing of the inspectorate. He joined Les Gracques, a group that consists of right-wing PS civil servants and corporate managers. When Macron spoke at their annual meeting a few days after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, he said that “the wound that we suffered this week is the wound of France’s Muslims” and reminded his listeners that “a person, on the pretext that he has a beard or a name that could sound Muslim, has four times fewer chances to get a job interview than someone else.” Macron has also supported Germany’s decision to take in an unlimited number of refugees, castigated the Right and far right for exploiting the theme of secularism to spread Islamophobic rhetoric, argued for French multiculturalism, and called colonization a crime against humanity.
In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy named Macron rapporteur of the bipartisan Attali Commission on economic growth. By then, the young finance inspector already knew François Hollande — himself an ENA graduate — and Hollande’s close friend Jean-Pierre Jouyet, head of the finance inspectorate in 2005–7 and a founding member of the Gracques, who had spotted Macron during his time in the ministry.
Jouyet and Macron both illustrate finance inspectors’ capacity to transcend partisan cleavages: Jouyet, a PS member and former assistant chief of staff to prime minister Lionel Jospin, became a junior minister in Sarkozy’s government before being named head of the French SEC in 2008. Hollande would nonetheless appoint him head of France’s public development bank in 2012 before Jouyet became the prime minster’s secretary general two years later. Likewise, in 2010, then-prime minister François Fillon offered Macron the position of assistant chief of staff.
After four years at the finance ministry, Macron went through the revolving door and landed a job at Rothschild and Company. These firms are France’s most exclusive financial consultancies. Like its counterpart Lazard Frères, Rothschild advises and negotiates on behalf of blue-chip corporations and states. These banks only employ the crème de la crème of Paris financiers.
Macron quickly forged a reputation for himself as a brilliant deal-maker. Meanwhile, he supported Hollande’s bid for the presidency and led a working group of social-liberal economists (including Harvard’s Philippe Aghion) tasked with advising the candidate.
After Hollande’s victory, Macron became the assistant secretary general of the presidency, assigned to economic and financial matters. Macron devised the policy of tax breaks for companies and also guided France’s European policy, in particular the June 2012 compromise with Germany that centralized banking policy in the eurozone. Macron became one of the strongest supporters of Hollande’s social-liberal turn.
Indeed, today Macron cites the split within the National Assembly’s left majority caused by this turn to justify the development of a centrist political force that could capture the Left’s right wing and the Right’s left wing.
A list of Macron’s supporters reads like an extract from the “who’s who” of the French ruling class. Henry Hermand, a millionaire with investments in retail and real estate who has funded a number of think tanks close to the PS’s right wing, was Macron’s main sponsor. Pierre Bergé, the rich co-owner of Le Monde; Alain Minc, a finance inspector who set up his own consultancy and served as a key unofficial adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy; Jacques Attali, Mitterand’s adviser and prominent financier; Serge Weiberg, the chairman of the pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi and prominent Parisian banker; and Pascal Lamy fill out the ranks of Macron’s boosters.
Christian Dargnat, the former executive director of BNP-Paribas’s asset-management business, is doing the fundraising and Bernard Mourad, the former investment banker and CEO of Altice Media Group, is responsible for business relations and economic policy.
Le Monde quoted a source familiar with the debates within the French ruling class, who described Macron as “the man that le Siècle [the most important Parisian elite club] had always dreamt of: a left-winger implementing a pro-business policy.”
More than any other candidate, Macron has the career most typical of France’s elites. This in itself offers substantial proof that his desire to build a new political force — “neither on the Right, nor on the Left” — and to ally with the centrist party Modem aligns with the strategy of at least a substantial section of the French ruling class.
This project, however, is not new. In fact, it has been openly discussed for at least ten years, if not since 2002. The deepening political crisis, however, has pushed it to the forefront.
To the Center
Since the last presidential election, large sections of the French ruling class have become convinced that a broad centrist coalition is necessary. Valls struggled to build a consensus within his parliamentary majority and to forge one-off bipartisan alliances with the Right’s deputies in order to pass such laws as the Macron or the El Khomry Acts. Meanwhile, the steady rise of the FN and the further radicalization of sections of the Right threatened the conservative bloc. These developments strengthened the position of those arguing for a partisan realignment that would modify the Fifth Republic’s institutional logic.
The problem does indeed stem from that logic. The current constitutional settlement makes the second round of the presidential election the linchpin of the electoral system and of French politics. Since the adoption of the current French constitution, politics has been organized around a Left-Right cleavage. In legislative elections, deputies are elected separately in each constituency according to the same two-round system, which creates a polarized National Assembly.
This institutional novelty pushed François Mitterrand to move his electoral strategy toward unity with all sections of the Left in the 1960s, a major break with the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO, the main ancestor of today’s PS), who, for most of the Fourth Republic (1947–1958) tried to form centrist governmental coalitions and rejected the possibility of ruling with the Communist Party.
Over the last twenty years, this system has produced two opposing blocs, neither of which can come together to enact the French ruling class’s hoped-for reforms. Sarkozy promised to radically reform France, but he never went as far as his ruling-class supporters had wanted; Hollande’s term is ending in political turmoil, with no viable parliamentary majority.
The idea of a broad centrist majority first appeared in 2002, after Jacques Chirac solidly defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen in the presidential election. François Bayrou — leader of the Right’s centrist wing — advocated this move, but Chirac rejected it. Instead, he merged the two parties of the Right — the Union for French Democracy (UDF) and Rally for the Republic (RPR) — into a single formation that would support his policies.
Five years later, the Gracques publicly called for an alliance between Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and Bayrou, but it failed to materialize. That same year, Sarkozy attempted to move toward such a coalition by appointing Socialists to his cabinet and by naming bipartisan committees tasked with proposing consensual reforms: the Attali Commission on economic growth, the Védrine report on France and globalization, and the Juppé-Rocard report on public investment.
But he ditched this attempt in 2009 when he launched a debate on national identity in hopes of placating the Right’s radical wing and preventing its voters from flocking to the FN.
At the next elections, Bayrou called for a vote for Hollande, sparking rumors of an alliance between the Socialist Party and Bayrou’s new party, the Modem.
The idea of a broad centrist coalition reasserted itself as Hollande’s majority kept fracturing. In 2014, Hubert Védrine published a book calling for a “Right-Left coalition for reforms” that would allow for a quick succession of unpopular measures. Like Macron, Védrine graduated from ENA before joining the government (as Mitterrand’s diplomatic adviser and general secretary, then as Jospin’s foreign minister in 1997–2002) and the business world (he consults for many French blue-chip corporations and is a member of the board of directors of the luxury giant LVMH). Along similar lines, Attali called for a “national salvation government” for want of a “great national salvation party” and Lamy for a reformist national unity government.
On the Right, the moderate wing of the Républicains toyed with the same idea. In January 2015, Alain Juppé referred favorably to the prospect of a grand coalition that would allow “reasonable people to govern together and push aside the two extremes, both on the Right and the Left” before reckoning a few months later that the “movement of national unity will come, it’s obvious.” In December 2015, former moderate prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin proposed a “republican pact against unemployment.”
But the clearest indication of the French ruling class’s evolving idea comes from a prominent industrialist, Jean-Louis Beffa, a Polytechnique graduate and member of the corps des mines who served as chairman and CEO of glassmaker Saint-Gobain from 1986 to 2007 before becoming its honorary chairman.
Saint-Gobain sits at the center of France’s corporate elite network and serves as an incubator for many industrial executives, like Siemens in Germany or GE in the United States. Beffa is called the “pope of French industry” and the godfather of the corps des mines, nicknames that reflect his prominence among industrial elites. Although he is generally considered conservative, he enjoys equal influence on both sides of the political spectrum. Under Hollande, he quickly emerged as a key unofficial adviser to the president and his economic ministers. With two other prominent industrialists, Louis Gallois and Louis Schweitzer, he inspired a good part of Hollande’s economic policy agenda.
Beffa, who has joined Macron’s En Marche!, admitted in 2015 that he “dreamt to see France governed by a grand coalition with Alain Juppé as president and Emmanuel Macron as prime minister so that they can together implement Schroeder-like reforms.” In another interview, he went on, “In all successful countries . . . there is a unity of the Right and the Left around centrist positions.” But, he explained:
In France, there are 20 percent on the Left, the Front de Gauche, the Greens, who do not admit the reality, and approximately the same thing, 20 percent or maybe more, who, currently, at the far right, do not accept it either. There remain 60 percent. If they split in two, well, we’ll never have a majority for reforms.
Surprisingly, Beffa’s model for this grand coalition, besides Germany, comes from the centrist coalitions of the Fourth Republic. That said, he still wants to preserve the powers the executive branch gained under the current constitution, which has been a key strategy for maintaining ruling-class influence on the political system. Beffa wants to modify this system to avoid political polarization and create a broad centrist coalition. This explains why both he and Macron call for the introduction of some degree of proportional representation into legislative elections.
Here, they clearly take inspiration from other parliamentary systems, especially Germany’s. French ruling elites now see German coalitions as a source of strength for domestic capitalism. Further, they are currently preoccupied with implementing reforms that would restore their credibility in the eyes of their German counterparts. So it comes as little surprise that they want to imitate the German system.
Indeed, French reforms are the prerequisite for German ruling elites to embark on a broad reform of the European Union and the eurozone. This reform should create a system of fiscal transfers managed by a eurozone finance minister, further centralizing power at the supranational level. Macron, Beffa, and others have repeatedly made this point over the past years.
New French Politics
Macron’s project and his alliance with Bayrou have accelerated this ongoing process of political realignment.
François Fillon’s probable elimination in the first round will likely split the conservatives in two. On the one hand, moderates will vote for Macron and perhaps join his governments and parliamentary majority; on the other, the hardliners — like Sens Commun, the Christian fundamentalist current that has emerged as Fillon’s main backer — will lean toward the National Front. Jean-Louis Borloo, respected leader of the pro-Fillon centrists, has hinted at an alliance with Macron by openly advocating “a political realignment between the modern left and a progressive right,” while key figures of the far right have already rallied to Marine Le Pen’s banner.
Fillon, for his part, is more and more under the influence of the hardliners. His campaign drafted Charles Millon, a former defense minister who was expelled from the UDF in 1998 for allying with the National Front at a local level. Millon has consistently argued in favor of an alliance with the FN since then. Since Marine Le Pen took power in 2011, she has based her strategy on the prospect of detaching a substantial chunk of the mainstream right and creating a broad alliance of reactionary and nationalist conservatives. This explains why the FN preferred Alain Juppé as the mainstream right’s candidate, as it would have pushed the realignment further.
This process is also taking place on the Left. Benoît Hamon’s victory in the PS primaries represented a victory for the oppositionists, clearing space for Macron to lure centrist Socialist voters. It also pushed key figures from the Hollande presidency to openly entertain voting for Macron.
Valls’s rhetoric echoes his right-wing counterparts. He openly called on his supporters to “prepare for the Left’s and the broader political realignment,” before stating that he would be voting for Macron in the first round of the election and, a year ago, one of his lieutenants advocated for a coalition with a section of the Right after the 2017 elections.
If, as now seems likely, Macron’s bet pays off, then the PS will split between those — like Valls and Jean-Christophe Cambadèlis, the party’s current first secretary — who will argue in favor of joining or supporting his governments and those who will want to stay in opposition. Internal party maneuvering is already underway to determine the post-election struggle.
No matter what shape this split takes, it will eliminate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s strategic objections to forming an alliance with Hamon and his supporters, who include the Greens. Unfortunately, this alliance was not struck as early as this election (despite the vast majority of left voters favoring the idea): it would have represented the only real obstacle to Macron and his ruling-class supporters, who are working to secure the legislative and executive branches of government for the foreseeable future and to marginalize the Left.
The sooner the Left recognizes the dynamics of this political realignment and the necessity for unity that it entails, the better it will be positioned to regroup and organize in opposition to Macron’s governments.