France’s new president, sworn in on Sunday, is playing a delicate game of balancing between centre-left and centre-right. Beholden to neither of the major parties, his aim is to build the maximum support base in the centre for his program.

Macron’s first announcement last week of a slate of parliamentary candidates seemed to lean to the left; one analysis found that 153 of them came from the Socialist Party and its allies, against only 40 from the centre-right parties. Now he has countered that by appointing a Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who hails from the centre-right and is expected to bring more converts with him.

But what is Macron’s program? In what direction does he plan to take his country? One word that keeps cropping up in descriptions of him is “neoliberal”, and his election represents a further stage in the evolution of that curious term — with lessons that extend well beyond France.

The modern usage of “neoliberal” derives from two different sources in the 1970s that later converged. One came from Latin America, where the term was used pejoratively to describe free-market policies implemented by authoritarian regimes, especially in Chile. The other came from the United States, where it was used in a positive sense by centre-left intellectuals to indicate their break from socialism and their openness to market solutions.

As the term acquired greater currency from the 1990s on, it lost whatever precision it might have had. It came to cover indiscriminately two different things — support for the free market, and support for policies that distorted the market in favour of business interests — and its use was often a sign that the writer lacked the conceptual equipment to distinguish between the two.

On either story, “neoliberalism” was a doctrine about economic policy. But because it was mostly being used by those on the left, their targets tended to be right wing in a more general sense, embracing authoritarian social and international policies. So, “neoliberal” became available as a general term of abuse, directed at the likes of John Howard and Tony Abbott.

One result was the strain of thought that Europeans usually just called “liberal”– pro-market, individualist and anti-authoritarian– tended to just drop out of the picture.

But in the last couple of years there’s been some push-back. Our own Bernard Keane, for example, has defended neoliberalism by contrasting it with “crony capitalism”, which is more the preference of the business lobby and right-wing politicians. And last year Sam Bowman, the director of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, endorsed the term, saying: “A neoliberal is someone who believes that markets are astonishingly good at creating wealth, but not always good at distributing wealth.”

And now comes Macron, who carries none of the right’s baggage on social issues. Of the leading candidates, he was clearly the most supportive of refugees and multiculturalism. He also shows no particular sympathy for cronyism, although his background as an investment banker gives ammunition to those who see the finance industry as the bogey lurking behind all pro-market policies.

But nor is he, by any reasonable standard, a market “fundamentalist”; he just holds the entirely reasonable view that the French economy suffers from over-regulation and over-bureaucratisation rather than the reverse. If this sort of traditional European liberal-centrist position is now our archetype of “neoliberal”, then clearly the meaning of the word has shifted.

Most of the big issues that Macron faces (like many other world leaders) are not narrowly economic. The problems of immigration, national identity and European integration raise deep cultural issues.

Call it “neo” if you want, but the approach the world needs to these issues is liberal: democratic, egalitarian, respectful of the rights of individuals, sceptical of traditional authority and dogma, enthusiastic about the benefits of cosmopolitanism. Recognising the strengths (and limitations) of free markets can help, but it is only part of the picture.

Perhaps the lesson of “neoliberalism” is that it’s easy for economic liberalisation to get co-opted and distorted as part of a repressive agenda. Macron seems to understand that danger and is working to avoid it. Let’s hope he succeeds.

Peter Fray

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