Nationalism was defeated in Emmanuel Macron's victory. But the debate of the individual vs. collective has just gotten underway in France, and beyond.
PARIS — The Ode to Joy, which accompanied Emmanuel Macron's first public steps after being elected French president on May 7, resonated far beyond the courtyard of the Louvre and the borders of France. This sound of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sent a strong message to the world: Yes, the nationalist storms that have been battering our continent for years can in fact be defeated.
For this, we can be proud. Proud that we didn't follow the example of the British and the Americans, of the Polish and the Hungarians; proud that we stood up to the interference of Vladimir Putin, godfather-conductor of an Internationale of the far-right which, until now, has been claiming victory after victory; proud that we didn't fall into ISIS" trap and let our — absolutely legitimate — fears shake our democratic beliefs.
The French en masse rejected isolation and hatred for the other. It would be a shame not to celebrate. But it would also be an error to indulge in enthusiasm, wrong to forget the very real threat against which we were able to rally and, most importantly, wrong to ignore the deeper causes of this menace. We've avoided clinical death but the disease remains. We've erected a barrier, but the flood's sources are still there. Close to 11 million French voted for Marine Le Pen, and they're not all atavistically racist. Far from it. And 16 million either didn't turn up or voted for neither of the candidates. They're not all thoughtless or apathetic. Far from it.
Our country is marred by fractures, inequalities that fuel Le Pen's far right National Front and which don't just vanish with a syncretic vote. While 90% of the people chose Emmanuel Macron in the city where I live, in socially dying northern French towns just a 90-minute drive away, Le Pen scored a clear victory. How can we not see that two Frances are facing off against each other? When 83% of senior executives and I make the same choice while 63% of blue-collar workers who voted chose the opposite, how can you not see that this is a vote driven by class?
The 2017 electoral maps brutally remind us that socio-cultural classes do exist. And the one I belong to doesn't experience globalization, open borders, and the European Union in the same way than the proletariat does. It is infinitely easier for me to sing the European project's praises from the 10th arrondissement in Paris than for the unemployed worker whose former factory moved to Romania. Such a self-evident, but often silenced truth must guide all reflection and all political action. Without it, our simple exhortations to save liberal democracy and the European Union will be more and more useless. And next time, the vote to defend the Republic may no longer overcome the class factor. Last Sunday, we bought ourselves five years to change. To change France, Europe and ourselves.
In his first speech as president-elect, a solemn and humble Emmanuel Macron seemed well aware of this. He was miles away from the triumphalism that had shocked so many people two weeks earlier, on the evening of the first round. He no longer looked to obtain our love, but rather to address our worries. The change in tone was successful, but it won't be enough. Contrary to what many commentators have claimed, his project is neither void nor hollow. It's bound by a coherent philosophy: the real question is whether this philosophy can solve the social, moral, identity crisis we're going through.
He embodies a frame of mind focused on individual liberties
For months, Emmanuel Macron has been addressing people impeded in by their own quest for fulfillment by cultural, geographical, identity or economic roadblocks. He pledges to overcome them. He wants to give each one of us the means to fulfill ourselves, to make society less rigid, more fluid. He embodies a frame of mind focused on individual liberties, one France was long recalcitrant about. This is why he seduces so many among the May 1968 generation.
Individualism isn't necessarily selfishness. It can come with solidarity, empathy, and brotherhood. But can it bring some needed meaning to our dismantled societies? Is it capable of facing up to the urgency of environmental issues? Does it enable us to feel attached to a shared destiny — the Republic — breached by inequalities that have grown too big to bear?
Our liberal democracies are wobbly by nature. Different reasonings oppose each other inside of them: on the one hand, "democratic" or "holistic" reasonings (power to the people, the will of the people, the primacy of the common good); on the other hand, "liberal" or "individualistic" reasonings (inalienable rights of the individual, private property). Such dialectics create an unstable balance favorable to liberty, a creative dissensus.
They evoke the teetering stool on Caravaggio's painting Saint Matthew and the Angel. The stool somehow supports the old apostle as he discusses with God's envoy, balancing one way to the other, without ever completely falling. Our societies do the same, swinging between collectivist ambition and individual temptation. If the whole suppresses the autonomy of the parts, we fall into tyranny. If the parts become completely emancipated from the whole, we succumb to fragmentation. This, in return, creates a demand for authoritarianism.
What are our democracies suffering from most of all today? Of the growth or shrinkage of the public sphere? Financial globalization, the jeopardizing of traditional community structures (parties, unions, Churches, etc.) and the illusion of the end of History, which expelled politics from its helm, and allowed private interests to triumph for 30 years. Questions and issues about the ego, about the "I" — Why pay taxes? Why have a restrictive labor code? How do I become a millionaire? — have gotten the better of demands of equality from and for the "us."
That fragile stool of liberal democracies threatens to fall into the void of fragmentation. And we can legitimately doubt that an individualistic philosophy, even in its most progressive aspects, would restore the lost balance. Emmanuel Macron's victory gives us the opportunity to have this debate in a preserved democratic and European framework. The imminence of the Le Pen risk momentarily rebuffed, we are no longer forced to ignore it in the name of anti-fascism alone. So let's have that debate for real, looking to the new president as neither caricature nor idol.
*Raphaël Glucksmann is a French essayist.