The Radical Centrism of Emmanuel Macron

France's presidential front-runner is drawing on a tradition with little precedent in his country's politics.

Of all the potential outcomes that could have emerged from the first round of Sunday’s French presidential election, the one that observers seemed to fear most was a second round duel between Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the hard right Front National, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard left La France Insoumise (Defiant France). That face-off between representatives from the far ends of France’s political spectrum has been averted.

Remarkably, however, two extremes will nevertheless confront one another in the run-off on May 7. Le Pen, who placed second with 21.4 percent of the vote, will continue on to the second round of the election. She will be up against Emmanuel Macron, who came in first with nearly 24 percent. The 39-year-old former investment banker is commonly referred to as a centrist. Such a moniker, however, tells us very little. Instead, we should think of Macron as the embodiment of a particularly French kind of center — the extreme center.

The “extreme center” is a notion coined by the historian Pierre Serna, in his seminal work on the French Revolution and, more particularly, the Restoration, the 15-year period that followed Napoleon’s fall and saw the return of the Bourbon monarchy. The Restoration was caught between those committed to maintaining the ideals of the French Revolution and those committed to their extirpation. In his paradoxical phrase, Serna sought to emphasize the efforts made by the court of Louis XVIII, during a few brief years, to tack between the revolutionary left and counterrevolutionary right. Squeezed between these two utterly antithetical worldviews, Louis and his ministers staked out a position uncommonly dedicated to compromise and moderation, as well as a kind of proto-technocracy. Most importantly, they insisted upon their devotion to what was called the “general interest.” This experiment in moderate extremism, however, did not last long. It ended in 1820 with an act of terrorism: a follower of Napoleon assassinated a member of the royal family, pushing the monarchy into the arms of the extreme right.

Of course, the differences between Macron and Louis XVIII are greater than the similarities. But Macron, facing a political landscape potted with craters where the country’s two establishment parties once stood, has cast himself as the ultimate centrist: “neither left nor right,” as he likes to put it. On the one hand, he vows to impose an austere diet on the bloated public sector, eliminating 120,000 positions over five years; on the other hand, he promises major investments in the environmental, health and agricultural sectors. A friend of the financial and industrial worlds, Macron also portrays himself as the defender of France’s revolutionary and universal values of liberty and equality. And short of an different kind of act of terrorism between now and May 7, Macron is the odds-on favorite to win.

Le Pen’s electoral options from this point on are limited. No doubt she will look to center-right candidate François Fillon’s more conservative supporters: Tellingly, Christophe Billan, the leader of the archconservative Catholic organization Sens Commun, which had rallied to the scandal-plagued Fillon, refused last night to choose between Le Pen and Macron, leaving his members to “follow their conscience” come the second round. More strikingly, Le Pen will also appeal to working class voters who had cast their ballots for Mélenchon. Interviewed by the magazine L’Obs, one such voter declared: “For me, it’s out of the question to vote for Macron. And so, it’s going to be either Le Pen or abstention. We’ve got to resist international finance.”

But, by and large, Le Pen has few potential allies: her party and her person remain radioactive for the vast majority of the French political class. Not surprisingly, once the official results were announced last night, a great chorus of voices across the political spectrum declared their support for Macron. On the right, senior figures like former prime ministers Alain Juppé and Jean-Pierre Raffarin rallied to Macron, as did a depressed Fillon. On the left, there was a similar mobilization; the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon, though reeling from a disastrous showing — he secured scarcely 6 percent of the vote — nevertheless called on the party’s faithful to vote for Macron. The one notable exception was Mélenchon, who has refused to endorse Macron until he learns, through the social media his campaign used so skillfully, where his supporters stand on the issue. (That they were chanting “Résistance, résistance” during Mélenchon’s concession speech does not bode well for a Macron endorsement.)

All of this – along with polls the show him crushing Le Pen by more than 20 points in the second round of voting — suggests that Macron’s great challenge will not be gaining the Elysée, but instead fashioning a functional extreme center, one that doesn’t end, as it did in repeatedly in 19th century, with sharp lurches to either the extreme right or left. Though outstanding French theorists from Benjamin Constant through Raymond Aron have defended the virtues of centrism and moderation, French history, in thrall to ideological politics, has proved mostly allergic to its actual practice. (The failure of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the one notable exception to this rule, to win a second term as president in 1981 reflects the difficulty balancing act of centrist politicians in France.)

Assuming he becomes president, Macron’s hopes for success will depend on the legislative elections in June. Historically, the French have tended to give the presidents they vote into office the parliamentary majorities they need to carry out their campaign promises. All of these presidents also led broad-based, long-established and well-oiled political parties. Macron, by contrast, founded his movement, En Marche!, less than a year ago, when he was still serving as the economy minister in President Francois Hollande’s administration.

Nevertheless, his movement claims to have reviewed more than 14,000 applications for those seeking to run as representatives, and promises to reveal a full list of candidates for the 577 parliamentary slots after the run-off election. By way of a teaser, fourteen En Marche! candidates were presented to the press earlier this month. Gender balanced and multi-racial, they ranged from farmers, teachers and journalists to the former head of RAID (France’s SWAT unit), civil servants and intellectuals. Their professional, ethnic and class diversity may well represent a new approach to extreme centrism in France, one that seeks to bridge at least some of the schisms that bedevil French political life.

But, of course, both the extreme left and extreme right are not going away anytime soon. As the specialist of the Front National, Nicolas Lebourg, argues, if Le Pen succeeds in winning at least 40 percent of the vote, she will lay the groundwork for a new assault on the Elysée in five years. Similarly, Mélenchon will use his powerful showing in the first round to push to ever farther to the left a thoroughly deflated and diminished Socialist Party. No less important, the social and economic forces that have lifted Le Pen and Mélenchon will continue to swell once this electoral season ends and it remains to be seen if the extreme middle will hold against the extremes of both the left and right.

Image credit: RANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images