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France takes a turn neither left nor right

Shift in thought

A new president, Emmanuel Macron, has so far set a model for democracies in shaking up the old political order – if he can win a majority in coming legislative elections.

French President Emmanuel Macron poses for a selfie after a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris June 3.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

The French invented the meaning of left and right in politics. In the 18th century, commoners sat on the king’s left while the aristocracy sat on his right. But after the election of Emmanuel Macron as president in May and his new party’s expected victory in legislative elections this month, France may need to update those labels or dispense with them.

That could help other democracies stuck in polarized politics, especially the United States.

Mr. Macron, a former banker who once worked under a Socialist president, won handily on a promise of political renewal and centrist policies. So far he’s been true to his word. His cabinet ministers reflect a range of views. His choice for prime minister, Édouard Philippe, is on the right but was a popular mayor in the left-leaning city of Le Havre in the Normandy region. And only 5 percent of Macron’s candidates for the coming election are former members of Parliament. Most are newcomers, including a female bullfighter and a renowned mathematician.

France was ripe to rip up the political rule book. Before the election, 85 percent of people said the country was heading in the wrong direction. Neither of the two traditional parties was strong enough to make it to the final round of May’s presidential contest. Macron’s party (En Marche!, or On the Move) was founded only last year. Yet he won with two-thirds of the vote.

Now the French are agog over Macron and his “cross-party” vision. A new poll by INSEE shows the country’s morale is at its highest in 10 years. And Macron has already renamed the party – which he calls a citizens’ movement – to La République En Marche! His ministers have begun to clean up government and push power down to local levels. The French, says Macron, have chosen “a spirit of achievement over a spirit of division.”

His plans for economic reform still face strong head winds, especially from unions. But his main goal is to help the French “believe in themselves,” he says. In an earlier book, “Révolution,” he wrote that authority must not be imposed and that citizens must “remain masters of our own clocks, of our principles, and not abandon them....

“To establish real political authority ... one must reach a consensus in clarity, not twilight compromises.”

For this hope to survive, the local activism that he inspired must not give way to the old ways of assuming that elected leaders will make the correct decisions. To really dissolve left and right in politics, the French must work together in their communities, finding that “consensus in clarity.”

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