Macron Mania, Why France Loves Its Enlightened Despots

Imagine what Donald Trump would do within a French-like government structure ...

Macron, a good fit for the French
Macron, a good fit for the French
Guy Sorman


PARIS Macronism is the product of a particularly French ideal: the enlightened despot. From Napoleon Bonaparte to Charles de Gaulle, we have a habit of seeking out saviors, which helps explain the country's current love affair with newly elected President Emmanuel Macron.

The origins of this mindset go way back. Think about Voltaire, our esteemed 18th-century Enlightenment thinker whose utter distrust of the wisdom and goodness of the people meant that the absolute monarchy could only be replaced by a philosopher king. His ideal, obviously mythical, was the emperor of China, whom he pictured as a wise man surrounded by an intellectual and deserving Mandarin administration.

We also had Montesquieu, a political philosopher and contemporary of Voltaire, who distrusted any kind of authority and so developed ideas about the separation of powers — the system checks and balances. But his ideas fared better in the United States — as evidenced by America's immutable 1790 Constitution — than in France, where instead we embraced The National Convention (1792-1795), in which all powers mingled.

The legacy of that period endures in the form of democratic skepticism and an indifference to the concentration of powers. They mark our history. Rather than worry about a concentration of powers, we get excited about it. We believe in its joyful efficiency. Wasn't that the lesson of Napoleon's famous civil code, introduced in 1804? Of course with the Napoleonic Code, we also got Napoleon himself, and his perpetual wars.

Napoleon as depicted by Andrea Appiani

Nowadays, when powers are divided — which happens more by chance than design — we loudly complain. During those periods when a president and a parliament from different parties must coexist, we see it as an affront to the despotic spirit of the Fifth Republic, established in 1958.

France's new president, Emmanuel Macron, is a product of this confused history. He seems to think that the French are, deep down, still monarchists. And he has a tremendous amount of power right now.

Despotism calls for revolution.

But he's enlightened, or so we assume. In reality we don't really know anything at this point. Still, we imagine that the power Macron wields is good in so far as it will allow him pass the necessary reforms a less servile Parliament would have refused.

But we also may want to consider some basic political arithmetic. Reforms that aren't negotiated, that are rammed through, are almost guaranteed to produce a counter-reform. In a nation as divided as ours, believing that despotism is more efficient than consensus is a mistake. Despotism calls for revolution, which is what the French are headed to if there are no checks and balances.

Montesquieu or Bonaparte? In the United States, the most dysfunctional president in American history can't impose his will, because checks and balances prevent him from doing so. The Constitution is fulfilling its function. It is separating powers and blocking autocracy. The American justice system, which is truly independent, has blocked Donald Trump's most xenophobic initiatives. The independent media has done its part by revealing the turpitudes of the Trump clan and limiting further transgressions, while individual state governments assure the continuity of public services.

Imagine, for a moment, what Trump would do within a French-like government structure. He'd wreak havoc! Only people on the streets could oppose him.

Macron, it's fair to say, is no Trump. Nor is he Napoleon. And he's aware of the era in which he lives, unlike De Gaulle, who seemed to lose sight of that at times. But we ought to consider how a perilous successor — someone like Jean-Luc Mélenchon or Marine Le Pen — could take advantage of the full powers we offer our leaders.

The despots, at first enlightened, change as they get older. They disappoint, or they are drunk on power. It's happened before. In Macron's case, I don't deny the state of emergency is important, or that the labor laws are in need of reform. But I think their relevance still has to be proven. Those are things we ought to consider now.

They change as they get older

We also need to look ahead and raise some difficult questions about or institutions, which, for decades, have brought us repeatedly into conflict. The Fifth Republic's reputation for efficiency is a myth. Instead we've had paralysis tempered by revolt.

It's not the people we have to change, but the institutions, which aren't adapted to the people. French presidentialism — a legal form of enlightened despotism — is poorly conceived for the fragmented society we are. We'd be better off with a parliament that fosters real negotiations, a properly representative parliament. Instead we have one where Macron's party holds two thirds of the seats despite winning just a third of the vote.

France's Fourth Republic had its faults, but in that regard, at least, it was more successful than the system that replaced it. The country doesn't, however, show any signs of improving parliamentary representation. Instead it seems like we're headed towards more despotism, with referendums and decrees. As if a submissive Parliament wasn't already enough. Let's hope we are wrong.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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