Nothing lasts forever, not least the acclamation that attends the arrival of a new world leader. But there can be few things more dispiriting than to anticipate the dull, muffled sound of one’s own funeral bell.

I greeted the emergence of Emmanuel Macron, back in 2016, as a chance for France to to wake up to the realities of the world in the twenty-first century. De Gaulle and Mitterrand were long gone, taking their old certainties with them. Their more recent successors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, had shown themselves to be men of straw, unequal to the challenges of a new age, and it was time for a third political giant to take the stage, embodying the changing times into which we had all stumbled.

France in 2017 was crying out for reform. The humiliation of the Nazi occupation and the resulting tensions between collabos and résistants were history. Just as important – perhaps more so – following last-gasp blood-lettings and amid bitter recrimination on all sides, the Empire was declared a closed book. Those who in 1968 had tried, and failed, to rally the nation behind a revolutionary revival were dead or in their dotage. But troubling new issues had arisen that could no longer be ignored. The years of plenty, known as the trentes glorieuses, during which, from 1950 to 1980, France was reborn as a forward-looking industrial power, had given way in the new century to a combination of economic complacency, benefits dependency and ever-mounting anxiety over the related questions of mass-immigration and militant Islam.

As in Britain and America, two political families had for years shared out the nation’s governance, aided by a self-regarding class of hautes-fonctionnaires. The Gaullists, under a variety of names, represented the centre-right, the Socialists the centre left. The former kept the far-right at bay while the latter constrained the ambitions of the more extreme left.

Did the trick work? It used to. There had been no equivalent in France of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. Occasionally, the sans papiers and the sans culottes rose up in protest, to be beaten back by the police and gendarmerie. But, in general, the country appeared to be out of puff, content to drift slowly downhill. If there was ever an overwhelming question, the response was, oh, do not ask.

But then, in the summer of 2017, enter Macron, the 39-year-old banker from Amiens, arriving fully formed, as if he were Jupiter, rather than Venus, on France’s shore to herald a new renaissance. Campaigning on a platform that was “neither right nor left” but held out a vision of government based on reason and practicality, it was supposed to banish the likes of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the marxist Jean-Luc Mélenchon to the political margins.

Voters were transfixed. It was as if Descartes and Voltaire had joined the fray. Suddenly, Sarkozy looked like a second-hand car dealer. Hollande, the incumbent, seemed to have no idea what was happening and no answer to the rhetoric. Macron became President as much by acclamation as election, and his movement, En Marche, designed, it was said, on the back of an envelope during a train journey from Paris to Bordeaux, swept all before it, winning, with its allies, 350 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.

I will not rehearse here the many failings, and occasional triumphs, of Macronisme in the seven years since. You may, however, recall the uprising of the gilets-jaunes; the conflict with the railway workers and the trade unions; the hard-fought battle to raise the state retirement age from 62 to 64; the attempt – largely successful – to ratchet up the economy; the grim, if principled, response to recurring Islamist atrocities; the struggle to confine and defeat Covid; and the hapless, sometimes comical, attempt to rein in Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.

The common factor in all of the above was Macron’s characteristic mix of extreme arrogance (his “Jupiter” complex) and stubborn defence of what he believed to be the only right, and rational, solutions to deep-seated problems. Historians are sure to play up the self-esteem. His only modern rival in this area, if De Gaulle and Mitterrand are to be excluded, was Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing, who ruled from the Élysée Palace in the 1970s as if he were more of a Bourbon than the Old Pretender himself, the Duc d’Orléans.

But those looking back will also surely acknowledge that his reforms, and attempted reforms, were necessary if France was to hold on to its place as a key member of the G7, G20, and Nato, as well as the principal motive force of the European Union. They will not, perhaps, award him top marks for achievement, but are bound to note that he tried harder than any of his rivals, Marine Le Pen excepted, to point France in a new direction. And if nothing else, he was by some distance the smartest French leader of his generation.

His tragedy – if that isn’t too strong a word – is that, having pulled down the temple that housed the centre-right and centre-left, he left no lasting structure in place. Instead of an empowered centre, France was left with a hard-right and a far-left, kept apart by little more than shifting sand.  

Looking forward, not back, it is hard to see how Macron can emerge with credit from the parliamentary elections he called this month after losing to Le Pen and the far-left in the European elections. His decision to call an election was rash and it is likely he now regrets it, which, if true, puts him in the same leaky boat as Britain’s Rishi Sunak.

If Le Pen’s National Rally wins enough seats to ensure that she, not the President, decides who will be prime minister (almost certainly the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella), the resulting cohabitation will be combative and bloody. Macron will stand on his dignity and will do his utmost to temp down any outright assaults on the constitution, mainly in the area of immigration and who is and who isn’t French. But he will be in holding pattern for the remaining two-and-a-half years of his presidency, restricted to strutting the world stage, unable to fulfill what he surely regarded as his destiny.

On the other hand, he could, against the odds, pull off an astonishing coup de théâtre, winning just enough seats to enable him to form a coalition government made up of En Marche (now Renaissance), the bulk of the centre-right Republicans and several smaller allies, including his erstwhile prime minister Édouard Philippe.

As encounters go, it would not be Austerlitz, more Verdun, but none the less memorable for that. Houdini would be impressed.

But I’m joking, of course. We are heading into fantasy territory here. The reality – much more likely – is that Madame Le Pen will win by a stoppage in round two of the contest on 7 July, initiating a new period of exteme instabilty in France that could yield her the presidency in 2027 and put the final seal on a new right-facing European Union.

This would not be the legacy Emannuel Macron imagined for himself when he decided to abandon banking for politics . But at least it would have his name on it, which for a man of his supreme, ironclad ego is never to be sneezed at.

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