French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Trogneux enter the Elysee Palace during his inauguration ceremony on May 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Trogneux enter the Elysee Palace during his inauguration ceremony on May 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency has gripped global attention. This is mainly because this 39-year-old politician whose name remained obscure until three years ago has achieved an extraordinary feat that hardly anyone thought possible just a year ago.

However, it seems people in China, a Confucianism-influenced and communist-ruled country, have other reasons to be fascinated by France’s new leader. Chinese social-media users are intrigued by his marriage to Brigitte Trogneux, his former teacher and 25 years his senior. His rather unconventional marriage even “sparks debate in China about romance between older women and younger men”, as noted in the Global Times.

Rather more seriously, other Chinese explore his links with their country and find out that the eighth president of France’s Fifth Republic is “a keen student” of their modern history, “with a deep interest” in their two most influential leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. They also consider him as a friend to their nation and an ally “against an anti-globalization US”, Asia Times reported on May 8.

Such interest in and optimism over the newly elected president is, in a way, understandable. Yet one may wonder whether any of these Chinese Web users and seasoned observers have asked whether their country will ever have a leader like him.

Macron’s ascent to France’s highest office is, in many aspects, extraordinary, which is why it is not surprising that his political breakthrough has captured the world’s attention.

At 39, the former banker, who was sworn in on Sunday, is France’s youngest directly elected president, even beating Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (1808-73) by a few months.

He never fought an election campaign in his life and his political movement, En Marche! (On the Move!), was established barely a year ago and does not (yet) hold a single seat in the 67-million-population country’s Assemblée Nationale (parliament).

What made his political achievement even more astonishing is that he ran a very pro-European Union and pro-globalization campaign. In a Brexit age when anti-EU sentiment is riding high, and a Donald Trump world, where anti-globalization is becoming a norm, few thought this  political neophyte with such a liberal internationalist world view stood a chance of passing the first round of voting, let alone winning France’s presidency, when he launched his candidacy about six months ago.

To many observers, his amazing political accomplishment is the result of a combination of his good fortune, great acumen and excellent skills.

This is very true. France’s 2017 presidential campaign and elections were full of unexpected upsets and scandals all of which hugely favored the centrist independent candidate.

Though seen as frontrunners, Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls, both former prime ministers, were unexpectedly defeated in the primary elections of the Republican and Socialist parties respectively.

In the first round of voting on April 23, François Fillon, the centre-right candidate and the initial frontrunner, was knocked out because of a public scandal, while Benoît Hamon, the Socialist nominee, suffered a humiliating defeat mainly due to his party’s record-low disapproval under François Hollande.

With the elimination of the two mainstream parties from the first round – the first since the end of World War II – and facing Marine Le Pen, a nationalist far-right candidate, in the run-off on May 7, Macron’s victory became almost inevitable. Indeed, as widely anticipated, he overwhelmingly defeated the 48-year-old leader of the National Front.

Still, to become the leader of France – a nuclear power, a core pillar of the European Union, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and one of the world’s biggest economies – luck alone was not enough.

All the more so when one is relatively young, without a parliamentary base, a developed political party or electoral experience.

Macron was able to reach the Elysée Place at such a young age and in such a circumstance because he has a number of exceptional qualities. The graduate of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, a school that breeds France’s elites, is seen as very smart, intelligent, prescient, energetic, charismatic, audacious and ambitious.

All of these were manifested in the fact that even during his university time and early career, the young Emmanuel sought to meet with many prominent French thinkers (such as Paul Ricoeur, one of France’s influential philosophers) and government officials.

That he decided to create a political movement from scratch and to run as a centrist independent, and succeeded in these attempts when hardly anyone thought he had a chance, is clearly indicative of his great ingenuity, audacity and ability.

Nonetheless, while essential, good fortune and talent still do not suffice. Macron was able to thrive and climb to the highest position in the land because France, regarded as the home of the Enlightenment, is one of the world’s freest, most liberal and most democratic states. This is so obvious that it is often ignored.

If he had lived in a one-party authoritarian country like the People’s Republic of China, no matter how clever or able he was, he would have had absolutely no chance of reaching the top position.

Like any other one-party states, the communist-ruled country does not accept political opposition in any form or manifestation. As such, a political movement or party like Macron’s En Marche! would be banned, and a revolution-minded individual like him curbed, even jailed.

Unlike France and other established democracies, where leaders are chosen directly by people in free and fair elections, China’s top leaders are secretly picked behind closed doors by a handful in the upper echelons of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The 1.3 billion people of the People’s Republic hardly have any say in this leadership succession, which is described by some as opaque and often involves bargaining and infighting between different people and sections within the party hierarchy .

With a selection process in which age and experience, among others, are also important factors, a Chinese of the same age and experience as Macron has zero chance of getting a seat in the CPC’s Central Committee, considered the fourth tier in China’s pyramid leadership structure after the two top positions (president and premier), the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, and the 25-seat Politburo.

The average age of the 376 full and alternative members of the current Central Committee at the time of being chosen in 2012 was 56, with the youngest full member born in 1967 and the youngest alternative in 1970. That means they were several years older than Emmanuel Macron (born in 1977) when elected by the 2,270 hand-picked delegates at the CPC’s 18th Congress in November 2012.

With the CPC seemingly increasingly tightening its grip on the country’s political and economic life, the prospect that the world’s most populous nation will ever have a leader like France’s Emmanuel Macron is inconceivable. Indeed, it is safe to say this will, like it or not, never happen under the CPC’s rule.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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