Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houstonand Women’s Institute of Houston. His latest book is “Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.”
It often seems historically there is a décalage, a mismatch, between the politics and personalities of the British and French leaders of the day.
Atlanticist Harold Macmillan was affable and agreeable; whereas his contemporary, the nationalist Charles de Gaulle, crowned French president during the Algerian crisis in 1958, was arrogant and confrontational.
Two decades later, it was the unturnable Tory Margaret Thatcher’s turn to be confrontational and arrogant. And while arrogance came naturally to her French counterpart, the Socialist François Mitterrand, he was, by necessity, the cooperative one. And come the 1990s, it was then time for Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair — one slit-eyed, the other bright-eyed — to repeatedly butt heads over European and foreign policy.
With current French President Emmanuel Macron and the U.K.’s new prime minister Rishi Sunak, however, the fit on both sides of the Channel for once appears as tight as the tailored skinny blue suits the two leaders both favor. They also share an ideological style — in fact, the parallels between Sunak and Macron are several and striking.
For starters, each is the youngest head of government in their countries’ postwar history. Macron was not yet 40 on his election as president in 2017, while Sunak, named prime minister just two weeks ago, is 42.
Both are also relative newcomers to politics. Macron’s first run for public office came in 2016, when he lept into the presidential race. And though Sunak did manage to win a seat from a safe Tory constituency in 2014, his first run for prime minister was only this past summer, following former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s departure.
Their political careers reveal other common traits as well. Their respective campaign slogans — “En Marche!” and “Rishi!” — were both manacled to exclamation marks, not a trivial observation given Fowler’s remark that the punctuation signals “one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.”
Additionally, both Macron and Sunak ran on their records as finance ministers in governments they were, in effect, running against.
That both leaders began their political careers as finance ministers seems inevitable — their backgrounds, after all, were in finance. After his time in France’s elite schools — Lycée Henri IV and École Nationale d’administration — Macron joined the private bank Rothschild & Cie in 2008, where, as a managing director, he negotiated Nestlé’s €9 billion purchase of Pfizer in 2012 — a windfall that added to Rothschild’s bottom line and Macron’s social capital. The young banker, Le Monde acidly noted, “added more contacts to his already thick Rolodex, doing what he did best: network.”
This networking led Macron to dash across the open border between high finance and politics, as François Hollande, then trying to save his floundering presidency, named Macron his new finance minister in 2014.
Once given the keys to Bercy, however, the golden boy, who had joined the Socialist Party just a few years prior, suddenly proved to be a free-market recidivist. Redefining liberalism as a left-wing value, Macron urged French youth to “dream of becoming billionaires.” And when his start-up political movement, En Marche!, dropped him at the Elysée’s front door two years later, his plans to transform France into a “start-up nation” were hardly a surprise.
Similarly networking at leading schools Winchester and Oxford University, much like Macron, Sunak also fell under the spell of Silicon Valley. Unlike Macron who dreams of a French Silicon Valley, however, Sunak moved to the original tech hub for an MBA at Stanford University.
Sunak never pretended he was a Socialist either — an impossible trick to turn at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as an analyst, or the hedge fund firms he subsequently joined. His free-market convictions led him to the Tory party in 2010, where he eventually joined — out of conviction, not convenience — the Brexiteer wing. Brexit represented, he explained, “a once in a generation opportunity for our country to take back control of its destiny [and] leave our nation freer, fairer, and more prosperous.”
A Thatcherite, like his close friend and predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid, Sunak has less in common with the Tory party’s One-Nation faction than with the New Right, favoring tax cuts — particularly those earmarked for the finance and tech sectors — rather than spending increases, especially for social programs.
And so, too, did Macron during his first term. With his party calling the shots in the National Assembly, Macron eliminated the wealth tax, introduced a flat tax on capital income and instituted a gradual reduction in the corporate tax rate.
With the onset of the pandemic, however, Macron’s liberal and Sunak’s libertarian predilections both became untenable. Facing an economic crisis unprecedented in speed and scope, they had no choice but to act like socialists. As chancellor, Sunak committed the state to cover 80 percent of worker wages and increased the worker tax credit by £1,000. And across the Channel, Macron temporarily shelved his controversial plan to raise the retirement age and vowed to parry the pandemic’s impact on his country “no matter the cost.”
Though the pandemic is now over the financial, political and social crises confronting Macron and Sunak are not. And both leaders now find themselves at the head of governments with highly uneven footing — Sunak’s not popularly elected, and Macron’s without an absolute majority. Not surprisingly, many on the left insist that both men are ignorant or indifferent to the economic struggles of great swathes of their electorates.
Moreover, the two leaders have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot by retaining ministers who have, in the case of Suella Braverman, violated the ministerial code, or in the cases of Damien Abad and Eric Dupond-Moretti, stand accused of violating the law.
Sunak and Macron both pride themselves on being based in reality, and those realities are framed by the shared conviction — in Macron’s words — that one must work more to earn more. But whether this faith in the free market can actually withstand the challenges that now loom remains to be seen, as the winter is most certainly coming.