Thank goodness Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen again last month. France is not going the way of Trump, you’re probably saying to yourself. I shall proceed to worry about other things. Enjoy that luxury while it lasts. Over here, l’air du temps is not a contented sigh but vexed hyperventilation. The center may have held for now, but tied as it is to one term-limited man, whose six-year-old party is entirely about himself, with no proper regional networks or a deep enough bench to produce a new candidate, it won’t last for long.
“There’s a disenchantment with politics right now,” says Marie-Aline Méliyi, political editorialist and anchor at France’s LCI network. Like most observers, she notes that around 40 percent of the country voted either hard left or right, with high levels of abstention, even if many voters say they want change. “The COVID crisis completely anesthetized the French people. There was no enthusiasm in the election,” she says.
Over here, l’air du temps is not a contented sigh but vexed hyperventilation.
And so the candidates tried harder. Macron is mainly to blame. He’s the first French president to have a Pete Souza–style photographer documenting his every move. Soazig de la Moissonnière, 41, had a background in street imagery and had worked for centrist legislator François Bayrou, a shrinking violet compared to Macron, when she joined the latter’s nascent campaign in 2016, letting loose a fire hose of Instagram carousels that hasn’t stopped yet.
She’s a clear talent, with an eye for dramatic lighting and tension in her compositions, as adept at capturing grand moments as intimate ones. The output could pass for the feed of French GQ: Macron the stud, in shirtsleeves, looking out optimistically toward the future; Macron the husband, letting Brigitte fix his tie backstage before his kickoff rally in Marseille; Macron the young busy executive, juggling calls in the back of the car; Macron the temporary E.U. president, managing the response to the early days of the war in Ukraine in a hoodie and stubble, Zelensky-style; Macron the workhorse signing papers. (So many papers—being president is hard, you guys!)
Through de la Moissonnière’s lens, Macron is both vested with all the grandeur of state, a striving candidate with the earnestness of a door-to-door salesman, and a human man who happens to have a Burt Reynolds–worthy chest forestation that none of us can unsee. (Who knew?)
Add to that a YouTube series, Le Candidat, where Macron signed more papers and gazed meaningfully into the middle distance to minimalist piano tinkling. “Effectively, all political communications in the last few years have created confusion between marketing and the general interest,” says Florent Perez, an executive at Kairos Communications and advisor to Macron’s La République en Marche party. He praises Macron for mastering that 360-degree view, both personal and public, that so few French presidents have pulled off before. “The public’s expectations have changed,” he says. “There’s a look behind the scenes. People want to see what’s going on.”
This time around the spotlight did not extend to Macron’s wife, Brigitte, who is by all accounts an important political adviser to her husband. She was visibly absent compared to the first election, when the strangeness of a young, unknown candidate with a 25-years-older wife—who was once his high-school drama teacher—needed some explaining.
Chalk up the change of aperture this time to the much less present role of the First Lady in France. In past administrations, it wasn’t super-wise to scratch too far below the domestic surface lest you find controversial dalliances, secret second families, and disgruntled head cases.
The other candidates did their worst as well. Marine Le Pen took cat selfies and teared up on-camera. Dictator-curious Euroskeptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon, representing the hard-left bloc, held immersive “olfactory” rallies, into which he periodically blasted different scents. (Is this better or worse than the Tupac-at-Coachella holograms of himself he beamed into various arenas around the country to be everywhere at once? Au secours!)
“The public’s expectations have changed. There’s a look behind the scenes. People want to see what’s going on.”
“The video that introduced Éric Zemmour,” the hard-right political journalist who briefly outshone Le Pen on the fascist flank, “could have been made by high-school students,” says Arthur Goldhammer, senior affiliate at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and translator of the two most recent works by Thomas Piketty. Goldhammer has been observing French politics for decades and gives none of the candidates high marks for slickness this time around.
All this undignified eagerness to share may sound anodyne to Americans, who have snooped behind the curtains since Kennedy, and who like rolled-up sleeves and dumb jokes and desperately need to have a beer with our guy and know who he’s sleeping with. To the French, this comes off as thirsty as Provence in August.
France has held its heads of state at a greater distance. Since Charles de Gaulle re-wrote the constitution in 1958 to endow the presidency with far greater power, French presidents ruled with stentorian mystique—even in the age of television. Perhaps it’s an old instinct held over from the days of the monarchy. (Who can forget how that ended, once le peuple got too close?)
It was only a few presidencies ago that Nicolas Sarkozy was bounced out of office for, among many reasons, annoying the hell out of everyone with his spotlight-chasing. The big Rolex, the vulgar vacations on billionaire yachts, the Cuban heels. After the similarly rabidly self-regarding Dominique Strauss-Kahn knocked himself out of the running against Sarkozy, François Hollande ran, and won, as “Président Normal.” Only to be kneecapped by his ambitious young minister of the economy, Macron, who, let us not forget, trained as an actor. The break from jazz hands only lasted so long.
The country that finds it gauche to smile openly in the street faces a horrible dilemma in the age of social media: it seems these derps running for office don’t want to just be respected. Now they actually want to be liked. When they’re also everywhere, it can be a bit much.
“I know you by heart,” said the comedian Bertrand Chameroy on a segment on CNews, a few days before the final round of voting, that had Macron at the center table with the rest of the guests, à la cool. “In the last three years I’ve seen you more than my own family. You’re more intrusive than my mother.”
More worrisome than the now grating mode of political expression is the actual substance behind the style. Macron may be the first president to be re-elected in France since Jacques Chirac, in 2002, but this does not mean the end of populist extremism in one of the six founding members of the European Union. Despite Macron’s convincing victory, France just isn’t that into him.
It’s not a good situation for the future shock that’s coming. There are the legislative elections in June, which theoretically usher in Macron’s sharing power with Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left, although that’s not likely. More urgently, it’s what will happen this term and beyond with a once seemingly immovable political culture blown to bits, and a public that is only moderately buying it.
A return to the traditional parties that Macron cannibalized is impossible. Meanwhile, his government faces runaway inflation, high energy prices, and climate-change-induced future mass-migration waves. There are also protests, guaranteed to be ugly and wild, over looming pension reform. This will most likely be rammed through over the objections of whoever is running the Assemblée Nationale, France’s main legislative body.
If Macron doesn’t get the country through all of this as ably as he handled the economy during the coronavirus, the next leader could be someone even more frightening than Marine Le Pen: her niece Marion. She has a much closer relationship to family patriarch Jean-Marie—the one who called the Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail of history”—than she is to her aunt. And she looks a hell of a lot better in pictures. Watch out.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. She is a contributor to W, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure. Marshall recently relocated from Paris to Le Perche