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The quality that may sway France’s election

Shift in thinking

The leading presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron, is admired for his listening skills, a trait that young French voters cite as the most important leadership quality.

Independent centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting with young people in the Paris suburbs of Saint Denis, France, March 30.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

When young voters in France were recently polled about the main attribute they expect of a president, the vast majority said listening. That quality of good leadership came out ahead of other concerns, such as a president’s honesty, background, or policies. The poll may help explain why the current favorite to win the coming presidential election is Emmanuel Macron, a man whom supporters often describe as a good listener.

Mr. Macron, who is running as an independent, claims French politics is broken, a result of career politicians not keeping their promises or failing to listen to voters. He is right on that score. Neither of the traditional parties that have governed France for decades are expected to be represented in the run-off, which will be held May 7. His main opponent, far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, is expected to win a plurality of votes in the first round on April 23, beating 10 other candidates, but then lose in a second-round face-off with Macron.

A former economy minister with little electoral experience, Macron is not simply a weather-vane politician. He is clearly pro-European Union and favors the free market. But after consulting with local committees around France, he promised a “profound democratic revolution” that would strip away many powers of elite politicians. He calls his party En Marche! (In Motion!), which he claims is neither left nor right. If he wins, he would be France’s youngest president.

Macron does not believe a politician should be a “savior” but rather someone who constantly earns the trust of voters. He described his ideas about leadership in a recent interview with the German daily Spiegel: “A president should not govern. He should transcend partisan lines, delegate to those responsible and appoint the right people. Nor should he act as though he were responsible for everything or as if he could handle it all on his own. Above all, a president is a guarantor of the institutions. He sets the overall direction.”

His approach seems aligned with current theories about leadership. Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman, for example, describes a “transforming” style of leadership as one in which “leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” And in their courses on listening, Robert George of Princeton University and Cornel West of Harvard describe the highest virtues of a democratic society as “intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth.”

These virtues, the two professors wrote in a recent manifesto, “will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one’s willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one’s beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.”

If Macron wins, he can thank young French voters. They are a generation that feels empowered by their digital connections and demand a listening president, one who engages closely with followers in finding a common purpose.