Emmanuel Macron and the neoliberal populism: post-democratic society and liberal logic
In this contribution, Marine Fourty question Emmanuel Macron’s stated position of being the barrier against extreme populism in the French political landscape. In fact, while Macron takes up populist elements in his rhetoric and the construction of his public persona, he displays a less striking, but equally recognisable form of populism that combines democratic privilege with the financial liberalist conjuncture. Thus, it is a matter of renewing the elites against which he sets himself up, while advocating a strong integration in international relations, and thus constructing a French “people” as an object disconnected from its embodied base. Finally, Emmanuel Macron’s populist strategy is part of a post-democratic time, as defined by Rancière, in which the demos is sucked in by liberal logics, new constituents of political hegemonic practices. The pragmatism advocated by E. Macron turns out to be a modern form of populism in the post-globalisation era.
By Marine-Emmanuelle FOURTY, Panthéon-Sorbonne University (Paris 1) and University of Cologne
As Emmanuel Macron comes closer to the first turn of the French presidential elections, his campaign continues on the fringes, almost in parallel with the other candidates. Having delayed the announcement of his candidacy until the second of March, it is then “directly to the people ‘’ that he intends to address, posing without mediator as the leader of the nation. Moreover, this is not the first occurrence of this tendency to hijack the electoral competition by retrieving himself from the party competition to hold initiatives such as the Grand Débat and the Convention Citoyenne, constantly appealing to the people and citizen participation in politics, while maintaining a very authoritarian vertical style of governance. This is shown in the rhetorical style he adopts — that of the demagogue, war chief, savior in an uncertain international conjuncture. He appears as the one “who can act’’, having the knowledge, the expertise, and thus brings out two other strong characteristics of a populist persona: the anti-establishment against an unresponsive mainstream and old-fashion elite which is being constantly challenged by a plurality of unsatisfied social groups, and technocratic redefinition of politics as being the expression of the common sense of the people, which translates in this case in trusting the experts. We thus find the three main characteristics of a certain degree of populism: authoritarianism, anti-establishment, and a redefinition of the “people’’ and their place in politics (Mudde, Inglehart). However, in his 2017 campaign, he offered himself as lifeguard against the extreme right-wing of French politics, embodied by Marine Le Pen, the “populist”, and wanted to incarnate the anti-populist movement, even with the clear presence of populist elements in his political style. Therefore, the question we want to focus on in this contribution is the following: in what ways do Emmanuel Macron’s political practices of “pragmatism” embody a form of populism that is part of the socio-economic transformations of neoliberalism? This article intends to present Macron’s political style as a form of neoliberal populism, that takes the “technocratic myth” as a political realism and invests the rhetoric of complexity as a justification for vertical and authoritarian political practices.
A new populist paradigma
To better understand the construction of Macron’s way of populism requires relying on a clear definition of what populism means. Ernesto Laclau defined populism as “a discursive strategy of constructing a political frontier dividing society into two camps and calling for the mobilization for the ‘underdog’ against ‘those in power’”. Traditionally, the populist antagonism was between the elite, and the “people”, a constructed category gathering a part of the population who feels “left behind” by policies, ignored by politicians — usually people from the lower classes of society, who are the most exposed to social and economic risks and violence. In the case of Marine Le Pen, we find this strategy, addressing the middle class rural person adhering to the fearful “Great Replacement” theory and against an elite accused of dissolving any sense of national identity within globalism. Emmanuel Macron displaced this antagonism, thus opposing an old mainstream political elite with a young cohort of technocratic “marcheur”, valuing technical and administrative skills over strong ideologies. This would be the only way, according to this logic, to face the new challenges of a neoliberal and globalized world, in which we are constantly dependent on the international situation. Macron’s politics was once described as a “progressive neoliberalism proposing the cult of diversity, enterprise as a political model arguing of being ‘nor left nor right’’; it presented him as an anti-reactionary paradigm, invoking that the situation and the crisis needed a charismatic leader — in a very Weberian sense — capable of unifying all dissensus under a brand new conception of an apolitical non-ideological people, that would find representation within a pragmatic technocratic and administrative elite — a “technical conviction ethic”. There is an injunction to “let the experts do it” on behalf of the people, reproducing a new elite cut off from the people and which, in reality, is only a façade of renewal. The few semi-professional staff who are supposed to come from “the people’’ have in fact been sidelined as soon as they arrive in Parliament; but the senior advisors, the key ministers in the executive and parliamentary management are long-standing figures, creating a double hegemonic tendency. On the one hand, La République en Marche (LREM) imposes itself as the politics of the present, while actually recycling methods and mechanisms of the past elite. Thus, the inherent paradox between populism, which is supposed to represent the people and give them back their primary dignity and sovereignty, and technocracy, which takes away “for their own good” the technical missions of public life, are half addressed, and in a way that is more theatrical than effective, under Macron’s term.
Neoliberal Populism a an emerging governance-style
However, this model of responsive government is not new — we are now familiar with American-style technocracy, with its Ivy League elites and highly polarized political spectrum. However, as Chantal Mouffe wrote, “society is always divided and discursively constructed through hegemonic practices’ ‘, and those renewed praxis invite us to consider Macron’s form of populism as a symptom, a “populist moment”. Populism as defined by Laclau is a-pragmatic thinking, calling for mobilization and reorganization of the society as a populist plan. It doesn’t involve a strong ideology, as populism easily comes into other host-ideologies and is implementable, as a thin ideology, in a variety of institutional frameworks. What is interesting is that the thin ideology does not only refer to populism, but Macron’s pragmatic view of state affairs. Precisely, a change in the socio-economic situation calls for a change in the ways of doing (or selling the ways of doing) politics. Thus, neoliberalism appears essential in the characterization of Macronist populism. Macron embraces the neoliberal logic, with a governance model minimizing state involvement in the economic sector, trusting economic and globalization mechanisms, and prioritizing public property and enterprise rather than putting the state at the center of the collective life. Neoliberalism radically changed our societies and state organization in the Western world since Reagan and Thatcher and challenged the democratic model. The democratic ideal functioned on the imagination of increased participation in the political life of the people, who could hold the rulers to account. The individual gradually becomes an indicator, which can be rationalized and democratic practices are transformed and minimized as a result. From a democratic ideal advocating popular sovereignty we find ourselves in the “next world”, calculable, rationalized — the Macronist reform of the public hospital, for example, through artificial consultations of practitioners without the administrative bodies concerned passes for social reform, while it is a managerial economic arrangement based on disconnected OECD indicators that say nothing of the reality of the practices and issues of the body of carers. Therefore, faced with Macron’s populist and neoliberal practices, his authoritarian verticality, and the democratic facade he maintains, we are confronted with a post-democratic situation, having eliminated the apparatuses, miscount and dispute the people and is thereby reducible to the sole interplay of state mechanisms and combinations of social energies and interests.
Neoliberal Populism as a challenge to democracy
The plurality of opinions characterizing the democratic regime becomes a factitious given, losing meaning. Thus, Macron’s liberal populism appears to redefine the idea of the people in order to extract itself from it, to construct it as a rationalizable given. As the existing institutions fail to secure the consent of the people, they focus on maintaining the existing status quo and order, which enhances capitalist mechanisms, individualism, material possessions with post-material values; an order which cannot be overcome due to the de-ideologization of politics and the willingness to withdraw the state’s capabilities to intervene in the key economic sectors. One way around this problem of consent is authority, with Weberian charisma requiring the recognition of the leader’s actions as valid and sensible. From then on, Macron relies on a symbol game of martial rhetoric, invoking the vocabulary of war, citing De Gaulle, actors of the Resistance, relying on the category of caregivers as “front line” — in short, homogenizing the people in a rhetoric of warlike resistance requiring a leader, himself. He has known many crises and challenges — the Gilets Jaunes, the pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian war — and constructed a hegemonic figure of himself: war chief, mediator, reform-pushing executive, leader of the people. Against all interregnum, his discourse barely changes: France needs to be more independent, however integrated in EU, playing a key role in international relations, with a standardized system adaptable to exchange post-materialist means with others, and especially economically and technologically leading countries such as the United States. The displacement here is the construction of the people as this homogeneous ensemble called “French Start Up Nation”, calling to sentiment rather than reason, enchanting with this rhetoric of progress, demagogy, opportunism — while incarnating the war chief figure of De Gaulle.
To conclude, Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal populism presents itself as a false anti-populist shift in an era of deep socio-economic transformations in the liberal conjuncture. Thus, his politics is alternately centered on the people, on a direct link with them, and then on the international, embodying this privileged interlocutor as the ‘French nation’. Macron’s populism is the result of a disarticulation of the framework parties of the French political landscape, a reincarnation of traditional values in the postmaterialist era, and ultimately, a popular disguise of a liberal populism.