Analysis

Stop Talking Terrorism and Four Other Lessons Macron Can Teach Politicians Everywhere

He portrayed patriotism as holding fast and not showing weakness by changing laws or cultural norms

Emmanuel Macron delivering a speech during a campaign rally in Reims, March 17, 2017.
FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP

PARIS – Emmanuel Macron’s victory was achieved with exhaustive, old-school field work, but also by following five rules that politicians the world over could learn from.

1. Don’t be afraid to condescend to the voters: Throughout the campaign, during speeches and in interviews, debates and advertisements, Macron would make complex economic arguments, backed with numbers, obscure terms and formulas, even though most voters and many interviewers didn’t always understand what he was talking about. Marine Le Pen made a point of speaking in popular terms and made simplistic arguments that were easy to grasp and would often boast about it on the campaign trail. “You see, I’m speaking your language,” she would say, and “Me, you understand,” and “I’m not trying to confuse you with sentences that never end.” Many voters indeed liked that, but on judgment day they preferred to place their future in the hands of the arrogant banker and not the popular heroine. The voters, it seems, didn’t feel they had to understand everything Macron was saying; they just needed him to understand it. “Marine Le Pen reminds me of my aunt,” a young voter in Normandy told France-3 news. “My aunt is great and funny and I love her, but I wouldn’t let her manage the external debt of the Republic.”

2. Stop talking terrorism: Macron never had himself photographed with soldiers, never traded his suit for a Uniqlo windbreaker, never claimed to possess security expertise and essentially never said even once that he knew how to stop terror attacks. The solutions he proposed, if any, came from the economic realm – fighting unemployment in Paris’ suburbs, increasing intelligence funding, and so on – but generally he didn’t offer any solutions. He asked French citizens to relate to terror attacks as they do to road accidents; even when you fight them, they will still happen and the state doesn’t get bent out of shape. When Le Pen offered up the classic right-wing argument against him, that he was projecting weakness that encouraged attacks, he turned it around and claimed that it was her talk that was bringing terror attacks, because she was conveying a message of hysteria, as if France was liable to collapse because of a few Muslim murderers. He portrayed patriotism as holding fast and not showing weakness by changing laws, regulations or cultural norms. In the end, voters accepted that terror was less important than Le Pen would have them believe. In exit surveys, voters ranked the war on terror only fifth as an issue that influenced their vote, way after unemployment and only slightly ahead of protecting the environment.

3. The most important quality in politics is determination: The high priestess of the French Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, said at the end of 2015, “To be honest, I’m getting sick of everyone talking about junior minister Emmanuel Macron.” To be honest, she’s going to need a lot of patience in the coming years. Macron captured the Elysee Palace from out of nowhere, with no party, no allies, and confronted by experienced rivals who pounded him incessantly. But he kept his eye on the prize, and even when he found himself on the boards due to plenty of mistakes, he always found the strength to pick himself up and continue. That’s how – with some help from Lady Luck – he bumped other candidates out of the race, including incumbent President Francois Hollande and former President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval ratings were initially far higher than Macron’s. In the end, he also prevailed over the head of the National Front, who had the only partially concealed support of two of the world’s most powerful leaders – Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.

4. New politics really must be new: Like her father before her, Le Pen conducted a negative campaign, lashing out against politicians, the elites, journalists and the courts. During the first round it was easy for her to attack rivals Francois Fillon and Jean-Luc Melenchon for their failures as politicians, but in the second round she faced a 39-year-old candidate with only limited political experience, and suddenly found herself in the opposite position. During their last debate, she lost herself and yelled out, “For 25 years it’s been the same talk.” Macron made do with a broad smile that the viewers understood perfectly; it meant, “25 years ago I was in 10th grade; it was you who was already entrenched in politics.” Le Pen tried to change tactics and attacked him for being too young, but this just served to highlight the fact that he was indeed the messiah of the new politics, untainted by past sins, while she was touting the same line for too many years. There’s also no doubt she was punished for her father’s years in politics, just as Hillary Clinton was punished for her husband’s legacy.

5. All political culture is local: “Don’t stop your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” advised Napoleon Bonaparte, and Macron proved the wisdom of that advice during his debate with Le Pen. He allowed her to attack him, mock him, embarrass him and tease him for two hours and 10 minutes, and began to retaliate only during the last 20 minutes of the contest. In the United States, and perhaps in Israel, too, such behavior would be considered suicidal. But this is France, and the viewers’ judgment was just the opposite; they viewed Le Pen as a vulgar, confused and childish woman, who didn’t present her own program but merely attacked her rival, and in an offensive, personal manner at that. Le Pen had said from the start of the campaign that she’d been inspired by Donald Trump’s victory, but what works in America isn’t necessarily the right approach in other political cultures.