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Has France Found Its Ronald Reagan?
Emmanuel Macron, elected new French President, delivers a speech in front of thousands supporters, Paris, France, May 7, 2017 (Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images)
Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images

Has France Found Its Ronald Reagan?

Walter Russell Mead


Surging though France this month is an unfamiliar feeling: hope. François Hollande, a president with the charisma of boiled cabbage, is gone. After years of stagnation at home and frustration abroad, the French now place their hopes in Mr. Hollande’s young and energetic successor, Emmanuel Macron.

The new leader is more centrist than conservative, but he is approaching the job like a French Ronald Reagan. In 1980 Americans were weary of President Carter’s deliberately uncharismatic style. Sensing this, Reagan presented himself as a heroic and transformational leader. This is what Mr. Macron has been doing.

The French presidency as it exists today was invented by Charles de Gaulle, who believed a powerful executive could bring glamour and glory to politics. France’s Constitution gives the office sweeping powers, and French presidents like de Gaulle, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand cultivated a certain mystique.

As Mr. Macron’s people tell it, the past two French presidents never quite lived up to the role. Nicolas Sarkozy was too hotheaded and frantic. The cold Mr. Hollande never projected the requisite grandeur. Mr. Macron, in contrast, wants to be strong and decisive, to wrap himself in a dignity and prestige that evokes France’s heroic past.

What the French want most in a president is someone who will cut a powerful figure in the world. Since his inauguration last month, Mr. Macron’s performance on the international stage has electrified the electorate. First he refused to let go during a white-knuckle handshake with Donald Trump. Then he used a joint appearance with Vladimir Putin to denounce Russian propaganda and disinformation. Trolling Messrs. Trump and Putin will not turn France into a superpower, but Mr. Macron is already making his compatriots feel great again.

The strategy seems to be working. As France heads toward legislative elections later this month, Mr. Macron’s newly created En Marche! party, founded last year, is favored to win 400 or more of the 577 National Assembly seats—an outcome that seemed impossible only a month ago. If so, the president will have the chance to put his ideas to the test, and he alone will be held responsible for the results.

Aside from the usual scandals already swirling around the new administration, two issues will make or break Mr. Macron: fixing France’s economy and relaunching the European Union. To get the economy moving he must take on powerful interests—unions, students, greens, lawyers and more—that have blocked change for decades. To lift Europe he must deal with the euro’s problems, which means taking on Germany.

There is little point in pressing Berlin until after Germany’s September elections. In campaign mode, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats will proclaim their undying opposition to clever French schemes that force German taxpayers to bail out lesser economies. If Mr. Macron instead uses the summer to pass legislation reforming domestic labor markets and taxes, he can show Germany his seriousness.

The rub is that he’ll need to do it without setting off the street protests and strikes that doomed past efforts. This will be a risky operation, but assuming Mr. Macron navigates the difficulty, it will be Germany’s turn to act in the fall. With elections in the rearview mirror, the German chancellor—almost certainly Mrs. Merkel—will sit down with Mr. Macron for the most important negotiations in Europe since the end of the Cold War. They will need to simplify the ungovernable EU’s institutions and procedures and find ways to bridge internal divisions before external enemies can exploit them further.

This comes at a difficult time for the Germans. Mr. Putin is hostile, and Mr. Trump is bizarre. Britain is leaving Europe, while Turkey is abandoning the West. The European Union is weaker and more divided than ever. Germany’s best, perhaps only, option to stabilize the situation is to relaunch its partnership with France.

Berlin’s problems create a unique opportunity for Mr. Macron. Germany may be richer than France, and it may have more power in the EU, but it badly needs French support if Europe is to recover. For the first time since German unification after the Cold War, France can bargain with Germany over Europe’s future on something like a level playing field. An opportunity like this may not come again. If Mr. Macron can push through real reforms in France and forge an agreement with Germany on a set of realistic policies for the euro and the EU, he could well be remembered as the greatest French president since de Gaulle.

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