Narcisus in power


What Macron, Biden and Netanyahu have in common

As Israel plunges into war and international isolation, France enters a period of major political instability, and American democracy is in peril with the potential return of Trump, it is interesting to note that while the leaders of these three countries are very different, a form of hubris and narcissism unites them, with very worrying consequences for each of the countries they lead.

Very Different Leaders

Noting common behaviors between Macron, Netanyahu and Biden in no way means putting these three leaders on an equal footing, and nothing would be more unfair, particularly for the American president, Joe Biden.

He is indeed a dignified man, full of empathy, with an admirable life journey, overcoming adversity to become the President of the United States at 78. An institutionalist, his obsession is to soothe and preserve American democracy, damaged by Donald Trump during his first term and threatened by his potential return.

Emmanuel Macron is hardly comparable to Joe Biden. Arriving at the Élysée at 39, after a meteoric political rise, he did so by shaking up the system. Quite disdainful towards his peers, he has never truly been able to “feel” the deep country and express empathy for it.

If Biden is an institutionalist, Macron is a disruptor, while Netanyahu is more of a “squatter” of power, which Israeli institutions allow, unlike French and American institutions. Unpopular, his political survival is his main political compass.

Yet, there are common points that can be understood through their personal histories and the way they came to power.

Alone Against All

Joe Biden comes from a middle-class family, stuttered as a child, and did not attend prestigious schools. However, he managed to become a senator at the age of 29, but this professional pinnacle was accompanied by the ultimate tragedy, the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident, which also severely injured his two sons, one of whom, Beau, would die at the age of 46, on the brink of a promising political career.

A failed presidential candidate in 1988 and 2008, he became Obama’s Vice President, who dissuaded him from running for president in 2016. Considered politically dead because he was (already) too old, he launched into the Democratic primaries in 2019, and he ultimately defeated his more charismatic opponents and won the election against Donald Trump in 2020.

Less brilliant than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, Biden’s improbable election against the ultimate adversary, Donald Trump, only further reinforced a confidence forged in adversity.

Netanyahu also constantly nurtured this feeling of being an outsider. Raised by a right-wing historian marginalized by the elites, despised by the “princes of Likud,” brilliant elements like Dan Meridor, Tzipi Livni, or Ehud Olmert, rivals he later defeated, Netanyahu took power within Likud in disarray after the electoral defeat of 1992. Netanyahu managed to intertwine his personal history with that of Likud, a long-minority party, and its voters, particularly those from Morocco, ostracized for years in Israel.

This rhetoric of “alone against all” is at the heart of Netanyahu’s political narrative, which explains and fuels an endless resentment that serves his political purposes. It also explains an acute paranoia and the feeling of being the only one capable of leading Israel, exacerbating the country’s divisions to achieve this.

While paranoia seems absent in Emmanuel Macron, his rise is also a story of disruption and absolute self-confidence.

Macron’s rise to power was against conventions, precedents, and almost all recent French political history.

This improbable rise was made possible by his audacity, talent, but also largely by circumstances and luck, though Macron prefers to attribute his success solely to his talent, reinforcing his absolute self-confidence, and lack of trust in others’ advice.

Different leaders but rendered almost impervious to criticism by their rise and absolute confidence in their abilities, they lead their countries today in an uncertain, even dangerous direction.

Towards the Unknown

Netanyahu has occupied the position of Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999 and since 2009, with a one-year interruption between 2021 and 2022. For many, Israel is Netanyahu and Netanyahu is Israel, and Netanyahu seems to think so too. The conduct of the war provoked by the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7th often suggests that Netanyahu, threatened to go to jail if he were to lose power, has other concerns than the interests of his country, and that his own political survival took precedence over everything else, such as regional integration, the relationship with the United States, the fate of the hostages or the country’s status in the world.

With a political career built on isolation and resentment, Netanyahu intends to lead Israel, with which he identifies, in the same direction, in a logic that nothing seems to be able to stop. The massive protests against him do not seem to affect him, instead reinforcing his paranoid worldview. Similarly, he constantly confronts the country’s institutions like the judiciary, intelligence services, or the army, which he believes have sworn his downfall, and that he can deem as “enemies of the state”, because of his ultimate identification with the very State of Israel, that he alone can lead in his opinion.

While France is not at war, it is sinking deeper into political turmoil each day, which could turn into chaos. Here too, it is impossible not to see in Macron’s personality an explanatory element of this reality.

A brilliant individual, Macron believes that no one in the country, including within his government, is truly up to his level. Unable to run for re-election in 2027, facing the curse of the second term where allies drift away and loyalties wane, he preferred to dissolve the National Assembly and provoke chaos where to remain a central actor rather than be marginalized. Confident in his strength, he was ready to defy fate, convinced before the election that the polls were wrong, and afterwards that the French were mistaken, with him alone holding the truth.

This ability to deny reality also characterizes President Joe Biden. While he himself suggested in 2020 that he would serve only one term and be a bridge between two generations of leaders, he silenced any mention of his age as soon as he arrived at the White House. Whenever the subject was raised, he or his entourage did not respond substantively. The Republicans’ anti-Biden obsession further served the president’s purposes, as each attack, particularly on his age, forced the Democratic camp to rally and debunk their lies and those of Fox News on the subject (many but not systematic), thus effectively silencing any debate on the wisdom of his re-election.

As a winner against Trump, a proven threat to American democracy, in 2020, and thereby its savior, Biden considers himself not the best but the only one capable of doing it again in 2024, forgetting that the vote for him was also, to a large extent, an anti-Trump vote, and his relative resilience in the polls after the catastrophic debate is also explained in this light.

In the face of the evident images from the debate against Trump, a major “spin” was put forward, beyond lame excuses like a “cold” or the jet lag, with Biden’s personality and journey as central elements. Biden the “comeback kid,” the “outsider,” would once again be able to prove the elites, the oracles, and all the brilliant ones who have always despised him wrong. The consensus against him thus becomes not a problem but a driving force for him, as for his French and Israeli counterparts.

Israel, France and the United States are very different countries with different dangers ahead: isolation and never-ending war for Israel, political chaos in France, and the end of democracy in the United States, because of a common hubris and absolute self-confidence and self-isolation of their leaders.

The capacity of each of the three countries to face the dangers they encounter is also a test for their institutions, which must be able to overcome the personal flaws or failures of their leaders. Will these three democracies be able to deal with the major challenges that their leaders have exacerbated?


Sebastien Levi


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