PARIS – No, Parisian voters are not “vomitatious,” as the pathetic Henri Guaino proclaimed Monday after losing his seat in the National Assembly. Staying home from the polls, which we have been told for 30 years benefits the National Front, cannot now be used to explain the surge of La République en Marche!, French President Emmanuel Macron’s new political party. And no, Macron is not beginning a dictatorial career at 39, any more than Charles de Gaulle did at 67.
In short, pretty much nothing said about French politics in the last few days explains the apparent landslide that began with the first round of legislative elections on Sunday. And the riot of news since Sunday is so much tinnitus to those who, for years now, have preferred to hear nothing.
So what is happening? How did Macron, a political novice seemingly fated to preside over a thousand and one shaky coalitions, score the unprecedented achievement of ushering some 400 deputies into the 577-seat National Assembly under the banner of what was still, just a few months ago, virtually a party of one?
First, of course, there is virtuosity, the quality that, as Hannah Arendt described in her commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, artists and politicians shared. Next, there was the very mediocrity of the populists (Marine Le Pen on the right, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left) who found themselves sucked down the drain of their own France-firstism.
But the main factor behind Macron’s success, I believe, is the structural change that I described a decade ago in Left in Dark Times. That change has now reached its apogee.
It all began with the French Revolution. To put it more precisely, everything turns on the French invention of the concept of “revolution,” which quickly rose to the summit of our political thinking, like a fixed star, with the rest of the stars arranging themselves around it. Those favorably inclined toward the revolutionary perspective gathered on the left; on the right assembled those who viewed revolution as a permanent threat and worked to counter it.
But then, in the short span of time between the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the Cambodian nightmare of 1975-1979, a discovery was made: the more radical the revolution, the more bloody and barbaric it becomes. Revolution, it had now become clear, was not just difficult or elusive or impossible; it was downright detestable. The fixed star grew darker and became a black hole that swallowed its own light and that of lesser stars. At a certain point, the entire political system would implode.
We are at that point now. This is not the first time that the left-right divide has been blurred in France. It happened more or less at Valmy, at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, during the Vichy government, and around the issue of colonialism.
But it was in Cambodia’s faraway killing fields of 40 years ago that revolutionary reason and imagination were smashed to bits and neutralized. And it was the prolonged shock, the slow explosion and the blast effect that accompanied it, the systematic invalidation of the divisions, disputes, and, ultimately, designations that made up the “French exception” that Macron’s triumphs have brought to an end.
A thousand questions immediately arise: How will those swept to power under Macron’s banner behave? If they are drunk with victory, from what direction, when, and at whose hand will come the necessary sobering slap? How, when, and where will the counterweights that are indispensable to the proper functioning of a democracy appear?
There’s more. Where is the West headed? By what compass, toward what horizon? “At the same time” – the balancing of opposing facts and ideas – has been a staple of Macron’s phrasebook. But how long can “at-the-same-time-ism” suffice as a policy?
If we are really at the end of the historical epoch that began in 1789, will we be returned to the Age of Enlightenment? Or to the moment before the Enlightenment when a new sense of natural rights and the concomitant Republican ideal took hold? Will we rewrite Leviathan or, what amounts to the same thing, the Peace of Westphalia, without this time having to pass through the tragic radicalization of Europe and the brewing or raging of world wars?
Whatever the future holds, the central fact is abundantly clear: Macron has seen what his predecessors only glimpsed. He is the instrument or the foil of a long-term event taking shape before our eyes.
And to him now falls the task of rebuilding upon a ruined field, of working to ensure that the end of a certain way of conceiving politics does not mean the end of politics as such. It is incumbent upon Macron, along with those who elected him and those who voted against him or, worse, abstained, to do the best thing that one can do in dark times: to imagine, invent, and embody the art of “beginnings” which Arendt believed to be the beating heart of public action.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017