New Delhi: The world is relieved that another authoritarian leader has not sneaked past the ballot box. But can Emmanuel Macron fix France’s problems and make it great once more? It is best not to be too optimistic and it would be wise not to expect miracles from the French President-elect. More than two centuries of disarray and misguided leadership cannot be set right in a span of one or two presidential terms of a man who has raised extraordinary hopes for French recovery. If Emmanuel Macron can even set the correct course for France, he would have won more than half the battle for his benighted country.

The French are proud of their Revolution. It was viewed with horror and distaste across the Channel by redoubtable conservatives like Edmund Burke. In light of the final outcome of the French Revolution, Burke’s scathing judgment of it was vastly vindicated. The French Revolution was triggered by a financial crisis which got out of hand because of the clumsiness of the Bourbon monarch who lost faith in his own capacity to lead the people. In his musings about the Revolution after a visit to the Tuileries, Napoleon Bonaparte said with typical military chutzpah that if Louis XVI had fearlessly ridden out from the palace on his most imposing horse amongst the agitating public, he would have won the day.

Maybe he would have. Maybe not. In any case, France’s problems commenced with the Revolution and the revolutionary fervour that it stoked in its armies that angered and terrified the monarchies of Europe. The irony of one of the revolutionary generals, Napoleon Bonaparte, seeking to establish his own dynasty, and begging for a suitable match from one of the several European kingdoms, was entirely lost on the French, who massed behind him in his ultimately purposeless campaign across Europe. Like the other major campaigner who would follow him in history to a bigger disaster, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon was a highly limited strategist. He did not know what to do with the lands he had conquered beyond putting them under a cruel yoke, and he crucially did not know when to cease his campaigns. Like Hitler, he met his comeuppance against the pitiless Russian winter.

Napoleon’s defeat by a coalition of European monarchies effectively ended French military power and strategic independence. It inaugurated the Congress system and brought to the fore the balance of power strategy of Great Britain. Under Napoleon’s nephew, France briefly shined in the Crimean War, but the rise of Otto von Bismarck’s Germany effectively sealed France’s fate for the rest of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. In World War I, although French forces fought well and took enormous losses, it was Britain and the United States that tilted the scales of conflict in its favour. In the Second World War, France showed no talent or capacity to resist the Wehrmacht, and the allies saved it again from total defeat and humiliation.

After the war and during the Cold War, leaders like Charles de Gaulle set the pattern of inflating France’s political worth and tried to position it in counter to the United States. The UK would have none of it having defected to the US camp after the 1956 Suez Crisis. Occupied and partitioned Germany became the object of French blandishments and a formula was advanced where West Germany would provide the economic muscle and France the political. These delusionary schemes took France nowhere even while they added strains to the Atlantic Alliance as it faced off Soviet Russia in the Cold War. The European Union was another French stratagem to keep France preeminent and Germany subjugated but Brexit has blown a hole through it. On the other hand, united Germany, the old foe of France since the 1871 war, has raced ahead as the sole powerhouse of Europe.

Burdens of history often become unbearable. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, France has been in steady decline, with no one of the brilliance of Cardinal Richelieu born again to take it to new heights. A tall man, General de Gaulle had a still more towering ego, and when he passed his chance to correct France’s drift, its leadership fell to a succession of lesser men (with the singular exception of Francois Mitterrand), finally ending with Emmanuel Macron’s immediate predecessor, an archetype of a political pygmy. Considering all this, any French President would be assailed by the deepest despair, but if Macron can fix one thing at a time, he can get the country moving.

To start with, Macron should bury notions of French leadership of Western Europe. That honour and privilege belongs to Germany. Political competition with Germany would expend French energies desperately needed for French economic and industrial revival. France is in the approximate situation of Britain after the war, crippled by weak political leadership, bloated government and powerful and extortionate trade unions. Macron needs to be Margaret Thatcher at least in his first term. France has to get over its complexes of defeat in past wars. This is the 21st century, not the 20th and certainly not the 19th. France is a cultural icon of Europe. It has breathtaking talents in arts and sciences. Emmanuel Macron has to harness them. He has to hasten slowly.