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France and the Benefits of a Little Dictatorship | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Emmanuel Macron campaigning in the south of France this month. Credit Pierre Terdjman for The New York Times

He was only in his 30s when he came to power, defeating a sinister ultraright group that threatened to wreck France. Well read and intelligent, he had had the finest education France offered and made the best of it. He had high ambitions for the unity of Continental Europe and France’s foremost place in it, and looked upon a newly isolated Britain with scarcely concealed irritation bordering on contempt. He contemplated military action in Syria. He especially wanted to bring the tens of thousands of French exiles home from London to contribute once again to the life of the country, and promised nothing less than a popular revolution designed to “unblock France.”

Both Emmanuel Macron and Napoleon Bonaparte fit this description perfectly, assuming that Mr. Macron beats Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the final round of the French elections on May 7, rather as Napoleon crushed the Bourbon royalists in the decade after their attempted coup in 1795. Even Ms. Le Pen’s attack on her opponent as someone who does not love France echoes the Bourbons’ portrayal of Napoleon as a Corsican outsider. Mr. Macron, whose En Marche! (Onward!) movement adopts a military metaphor so beloved by Napoleon, does not seem to mind the comparisons that are already being made.

Of course the “democratic revolution” that Mr. Macron says he hopes will elect him is far removed from the military coup that propelled Napoleon to power in November 1799 and kept him there until 1815. But like Napoleon, Mr. Macron, who calls himself a pragmatic centrist, says he will transcend the left-right partisanship that has so bedeviled French politics over recent decades.

Napoleon succeeded in “unblocking” France, with educational, legal, financial, religious and commercial reforms, many of which still exist. The Legion of Honor, Bank of France, Council of State, education system and much of Parisian architecture are Napoleonic constructs that testify to his genius 200 years later. Mr. Macron promises a similar boldness: “I do not propose to reform France; I propose to transform it at its deepest level,” he told this paper. But can his “democratic revolution” create any such enduring monuments?

Mr. Macron was born in Amiens, the city where Napoleon sent his brother Joseph to negotiate peace between Britain and France in 1802. The treaty signed there lasted barely a year before hostilities broke out again, partly over the issue of the free-trading relationship with Europe that Napoleon would not allow Britain to enjoy, fearing its effect on French industry. The post-Brexit negotiations in which Mr. Macron will most likely play such an important part have long historical shadows. By the collapse of the Peace of Amiens in 1803, Napoleon had lured back from London almost all the French exiles who had fled during the revolution, in larger numbers than the tax exiles who fled the 75 percent top tax rate of President François Hollande, under whom Mr. Macron served as economics minister from 2014 to 2016.

The panic around the rise of the National Front, which has brought Mr. Macron to the brink of victory, can partly be blamed on Charles de Gaulle. He institutionalized the extensive powers of the French presidency in 1958, with more than a nod to Napoleon’s dictatorship. Strong central government was thought to have worked for France and was visibly lacking in the Second, Third and Fourth Republics thereafter.

De Gaulle also continued Napoleon’s system of voting in successive rounds, winnowing the number of contenders. De Gaulle assumed that this would ensure two centrist candidates of the left and right always got into the final round. But the eruption of Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 and now his daughter Marine has exploded that complacent assumption, aided by the exposure of the sheer greed and graft of the center-right candidate François Fillon, who could otherwise have made it to the runoff in Ms. Le Pen’s place. How the shade of the general, the greatest Frenchman since Napoleon, must be regretting his calculations.

The toxicity of modern French politics would hardly have surprised Napoleon, who survived almost as many assassination attempts as de Gaulle. But even today’s viciousness is as nothing if Mr. Macron does not win on May 7. A neo-fascist victory could well lead to an uprising in the suburban banlieues, which would recall the “événements” of 1848, 1871 and 1968, when protests turned to bloodshed.

If he does win, Mr. Macron will inherit a sclerotic, underproducing, overtaxed, absurdly bureaucratic, highly partisan country with a huge security problem. Napoleon was able to cut through all of those same problems by manipulating public opinion through a controlled press, muscling through votes in a largely appointed Parliament and simply imposing diktats once he became emperor of France in 1804. He could do this because he differentiated between a “popular revolution” led dictatorially by him and a “democratic revolution” dependent upon free and fair elections.

As a genuine democrat rather than simply posing as one, Mr. Macron will have no such luxury.

(The New York Times)