Macron on low orbit
Barely elected in early May as France’s new president with a 66% majority, 39 year old Emmanuel Macron seized a unique opportunity to promptly show remarkable ease during a sequence of international meetings at the highest level. The Macron presidency, however solidly installed, is yet poised to be hurt by a number of future obstacles.
Less than a week after the G7-Taormina meeting, Macron denounced American president Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Accord. Two hours after this White House announcement Macron, from the Elysée Palace, replicated on TV: ‘Let’s make the planet great again’, a refrain immediately relayed on the American channels. During the campaign his personality had already attracted considerable attention: Bright authenticity and innovating convictions. Once president, his firm attitude, first towards Trump, and a few days later at Versailles towards Putin, earned him a good deal of respect and even admiration at home and abroad. Macron’s no-nonsense performance persuaded many Frenchmen to confirm their massive vote for the presidency during the subsequent two-rounds legislative election on 11 and 18 June. Of the 577 seats in the National Assembly 308 seats were won by candidates of Macron’s party La République en Marche (“LRM”). His poker game had reached its ultimate goal.
Macron to end ‘two decades of decline’
Fourteen months since launching, before an audience of 200 persons, his centre-movement En Marche! and claiming to be “ni de gauche ni de droite” but both, Macron has now succeeded in forging a new type of governance in France (une nouvelle façon de gouverner). As a matter of fact, for at least three decades, the country has been torn apart by political – right-left – strife at the root of its well-known stagnation. The French underwent this creeping development in the form of disappointment during Chirac’s two weak terms (twelve years), a rejection in the Sarkozy period and outright anger during the Hollande presidency. People concluded to the existence of ‘two decades of collective decline’. Meanwhile tensions accumulated to when the election of a new president came in sight.
Macron was doubtlessly inspired by national hero Jeanne d’Arc and by some other great French leaders such as Turgot, Bonaparte, Waldeck-Rousseau, De Gaulle, Mendès France and Mitterrand. By personal inclination a liberal – “à gauche” but ‘not a socialist’ – he has, from the beginning, been keen on philosophy and the economy. In April 2016 the future president emerged as a maverick politician promising to get rid of well-established taboos. Young and eloquent, he portrayed himself as a doer, the contrary of the usual French politician. At that time still a minister of the Economy, he proved in Parliament to be an active, even zealous, promoter of legislation aimed at bringing down certain monopolies. More generally he insisted on the urgent need to make progress in the difficult contemporaneous equation of ‘flexibility and protection’.
In the second half of June 2017, after thirty years of frequent left-right switches (partly due to the alignment, in 2002, of the mandates of the president and the National Assembly – both to five years) not much has been left of the pre-existing political pattern. Apart from a solid majority of 308 LRM-MP’s (+ 42 for their allies of the “MoDem” party), 207 seats have been won by the aggregate other parties.[i] These low figures point to the mechanical effects of the French majority-based electoral system (in two rounds) under the heavy weight of the votes (43%) cast for the ‘democratic revolution’ brought about by Emmanuel Macron in the National Assembly.
When declaring himself a candidate in November 2016, Macron published Revolution – c’est notre combat pour la France, a manifesto of 265 pages where he laid bare his thoughts on a society unable to catch up with modernity: “La France est malheureuse de ce qu’elle est devenue et du sentiment qu’elle glisse vers l’inconnu, qu’elle ne maîtrise plus son destin, et perd son destin.” How could an outgoing successful minister of Economic Affairs, a former Rothschild banker, and protégé of a failed president Hollande, undertake to bet on such a specific word?
According to Macron, ‘Revolution’ in the 21st century could be nothing but ‘democratic’.[ii] This called for a long list of innovating solutions “in harmony with the common values of the French people: our unity, our courage, our will”. Instead of traditional party-ideologies, it all meant ‘pragmatism’, i.e. action superseding the traditional, never ending and crippling, strife alternating between right and left. These switches were merely the work of two party-blocks (led by Socialists and conservative Gaullists). Hence, dixit Macron, there was no room for political action other than rooted in truly democratic discussion – in the middle – stressing that, to such end, De Gaulle’s “monarchical presidency” should be reinstated.
In April 2016 Macron emerged as a maverick politician promising to get rid of well-established taboos
From the outset Macron’s discourse attracted more socialists disappointed by Hollande’s presidency than sympathizers from Les Républicains. The latter had put their hopes in a candidate to be selected by primaries resulting, in November 2016, in the designation of Sarkozy’s prime minister (2007-2012), right-wing François Fillon. This choice was grounded on an elaborate programme severely curbing State intervention. Fillon was strongly supported by catholic conservatives. From the start, a few of his proposals displeased large segments of the population keenly intent on maintaining the welfare state.
Fillon and Hamon out of the way
While considered as the favourite for the presidency, Fillon fell from nearly 30% at the start to 17% as soon as successive revelations regarding his personal and family finances were released in the press. His LR-party revealed itself incapable of designating a substitute candidate, only to forsake its erstwhile vastly credible chance to win the presidency.
The Socialists similarly made an unfortunate choice during their primaries in January 2017 (after president Hollande had recognised not to be in a position to be re-elected). As much as Fillon represented the outspoken right wing of his party, the designated candidate of the Socialists (Benoît Hamon) was the most left leaning of five candidates. He was selected so as to “atone” for the social-democratic “sins” of Hollande who, as president, had been unable to get rid of his eccentric campaign pledge to regard “la finance” as his ‘great enemy’.
In the past the far-left politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon had been a longstanding opponent within the Parti Socialiste; for the presidency in 2012 as well as in 2017 he decided to run independently. He soon succeeded in overtaking Hamon as the favoured candidate of the left and obtained 19.6% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election on 23 April (Hamon won 6.4%, Fillon 20%, Le Pen 21.3% and Macron 24%).
On that tense election day, a real possibility existed that, instead of either Fillon or Macron, Mélenchon would be qualified for the second round against Le Pen. It was a moment of uncertainty, to say the least; the day afterwards the European stock exchange indexes made gains of up to 6%.
On 18 June 2017 (the day of the second round of the legislative election) the latter two leaders were voted in as MP’s. Both will be indiscriminately competing in the National Assembly for the favour of those many millions of Frenchmen who are fiercely opposing Macron, ‘the banker’, ‘the liberal’, ‘who will kill the labour laws we struggled for since a century’. Strikingly both politicians, so different, respectively operating at the extreme left and right sides of French politics, largely converge in their struggle against an open economy and shared sovereignty.
As mentioned, Macron had easily won the second round on 7 May. His score of 66% was comfortable enough to promise frank success during the ensuing legislative elections. In the absence of a candidate of Les Républicains for the presidency, earlier anticipations had predicted a rebounding of their party in Parliament for revenge against the election of Macron. This did not happen though. The applicable voting system coupled with the president’s impressive start, triggered a snowball effect in favour of his LRM-party, without taking the form of a tsunami (450 seats announced by the polls) that would have been misplaced for a president who had not won more than 24% of the votes in the first round on 23 April.[iii]
Due to bad memories of the Third and Fourth Republics, the electoral system of the Fifth Republic eschews proportional representation in national elections (ignoring an interval in 1986). Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande successively promised ‘a certain dose’ of proportional representation but failed to follow suit. President Macron made the same promise as his two predecessors and has already given instructions to prepare legislation to that effect.
A tidal wave over the French national electoral landscape
In 2017 the French national electoral landscape has undergone a raz de marée (tidal wave). It swept away the bulk of the Parti Socialiste and nearly halved the representation of les Républicains. This election confers full control of the legislative body to the executive (the Senate – to be indirectly renewed next September – is subordinate to the authority of the National Assembly). Exceptional as the situation may look, this is not the first time a comparable arithmetic prevails in the French Parliament. It occurred in 1958 (after the end of the Fourth Republic), in 1968 (after les évenements de Mai), in 1993 (Mitterrand fatigue awaiting Chirac’s election in 1995) and in 2002 (after the qualification of Jean-Marie Le Pen for the second round of the presidential election).
Looking back at Macron’s political journey from April 2016 to June 2017, one is bound to recognise that he has put into place a ‘democratic revolution’. While nominally maintaining the party-driven structure of the Fifth Republic, the Macron/LRM-wave ushers in a new type of ‘monarchical’ governance which may be compared with the practice prevailing before the Chirac presidency (1995-2007). Parliament is largely dominated by ‘the president’s own’ party and must therefore endeavour to exercise its legislative and controlling responsibilities to the fullest extent possible.
There is now, once more, as devised by De Gaulle in 1958, a truly ‘presiding presidency’, seconded by a ‘governing government’. The LRM-group of MP’s is not only equally – viz. democratically – composed of men and women but also recruited, equally on a 50-50 basis, from people of the worlds of politics and civil society. In view of the demanding tasks of refondation and transformation set by Macron, France should be governed in the coming years by (1) a president unwilling to act under the dictate of the media, (2) a government composed of ministers which will be ‘evaluated’ each year, and (3) the Administration where 250 of its heads of department are these days being screened by the president.
Macron’s first target
Beside instantly initiated legislative action aiming at ending a number of doubtful financial practices in politics as revealed during the campaign and plainly rejected by the voters,[iv] Macron’s first target is ‘before the autumn’ to complete and amplify president Hollande’s unfortunate efforts to reform labour law. That bill had been planned as a job for Macron when he was still a minister of the Economy but he was rebuked due to ideological resistance from a group of anti-liberal socialist MP’s. Due to the politically traumatising and violent circumstances surrounding the enactment of a truncated labour bill in 2016, a new, much more ambitious, version will be meticulously elaborated this summer with the social partners.
On this issue Parliament will be strictly contained in its deliberations under an accelerated procedure called ordonnance, and conditioned by a 21 September 2017 deadline for final approval. Since the last four years French labour law has symbolised the country’s incapacity to adapt to modern times, hence to be up to its role in the European economy. For Macron this reform is of crucial importance (but not won in advance).
As the title of this article suggests, the Macron presidency, however solidly installed, is poised to be hurt by a number of future obstacles. The outcome of the May-June election has demonstrated that the French voters, who for some time had been deemed capable of ‘turning the table’, clearly refused to make such move. Instead they opted for Macron’s plans on the basis of a large replacement of their political leaders by fresh representatives of the Nation (and by a new kind of president in the first place). Although to a rather great extent on the basis of calculated elimination, the French favoured his concept of laying ‘all problems on the table’ (instead of turning it upside down).
This has the implication that the president, who during his campaign criticised the then practised governance of the main political parties as ‘rotten from within’, has committed to promote outright ‘democratic handling’ of the country’s problems ‘from the bottom up’. To do so – in fact largely ‘from top down’ – he has adopted a commanding style of strict confidentiality around him so as to avoid leaks prone to compromise the preparation of complex reforms.
As the president disposes of a solid majority of députés who all are members of the Macron ‘fraternity’, inevitably fears are being expressed on the functioning of ‘real democracy’ under a ‘too powerful president’. In this regard it is of interest to mention that Macron, going out of his way, made a careless statement as a candidate when he described the role of a president as ‘Jovian’ – “jupitérien”. This is an inappropriate expression in French politics even if it represents the core of the power pyramid of the Fifth Republic.
As one of the next steps after his two already initiated reforms, Macron wants to abolish the two principal social charges levied on lower salaries. Compensation would be found by means of an increase of 1.7% of the so-called general levy on income payments of any kind (contribution sociale généralisée), whose effective payment would be restricted to the higher incomes. In parallel, Macron intends to gradually reduce to zero the existing poll tax (taxe d’habitation) paid by the lower incomes (80% of the population) and to substitute government funding to set off against the corresponding loss of local income. In conjunction with underestimated or intentionally adjourned commitments of the Hollande Administration and additional expenses planned by Macron himself, France will have to struggle to keep up with its renewed euro-commitment to strictly abide by the 3% budgetary limit.
Other major issues are Macron’s plans to nationalise the financing of unemployment benefits (hitherto commonly taken care of by the employers and the trade unions), to extend the same social protection to all people out of work (i.e. including independent workers) and to unify, over time, overly scattered and unbalanced pension schemes. Macron moreover intends to overhaul the general system of professional training, in particular for young people and the jobless. Outside the sector of the big companies (where training is not a problem), there is an important shortage of training facilities in the sector of smaller companies which, in many cases, need to modernize their production facilities and methods.
The average quality of French products needs to be enhanced in order to regain markets that, in particular due to loss of competitiveness, have been lost over the last 20 years. Tackling training issues of this kind implies that – more generally – greater attention should also be given to the quality of education, where the French schools, according to international statistics, have dangerously receded in numerous disciplines (the universities being another subject).
Reasons why Macron was elected
Overseeing the issues above, one grasps, well beyond the unbelievable concurrence of favourable circumstances leading to Macron’s election and success in the legislative elections, some of the reasons why he was elected. These were at least twofold: (i) Massive rejection of politics in their existing form and of the parties’ political personnel in particular, and (ii) The audacity of Macron’s credible innovating ideas for solutions across the board of France’s social and political predicament.
Macron’s views on the necessity of ‘harmonizing flexibility and security/protection’ appealed to large forward-looking segments of the population (comprising by the end of the campaign growing numbers of disappointed former Fillon- and Hamon voters). People gradually realised that an ‘inspired leader’ was on the winning hand and admitted the wisdom of a systematic pro-EU stand. This aspect was still better understood when the pro-Europe Modem centre party, led by François Bayrou (representing 6%), threw its weight behind the Macron candidacy. At that point the anti-EU arguments of nine of the eleven candidates for the presidency came less and less across.
A voting participation of considerable less than half of the voters (in particular the younger voters) contains a strong warning for any government
Once Macron was qualified for the second round, he found himself engaged in the only direct TV debate to be held with his rival Marine Le Pen. This event turned out to be decisive: the lady was aggressive, non-presidential, and unable to explain how she would lead the country back to the French frank.
A fragile balance in a fragile country
Macron’s rising to power has come about under difficult circumstances for the country. Bearing in mind that nearly 50% of the population declares to dislike the EU, the present strongly pro-EU government cannot go around the background of a persisting populist mood in the countryside. ‘The people’, ‘protection’ and ‘nationalism’, etc. were indeed standing issues all along the campaign. In the wake of the election of Macron, such alienation translated itself into a very low level of participation during the legislative elections (49% on 11 June and even 43% on 18 June).
The latter unseen percentage in a national election will remain in the heads of many people for some time to come. It is a resounding reminder of a fragile balance in a fragile country. A voting participation of considerably less than half of the voters (in particular the younger voters) contains a strong warning for any government.
Regaining lost influence in Brussels
However close Emmanuel Macron may be to the German government, the confident relationship of the old days (lately Mitterrand-Kohl and thereafter, to a lesser degree, Schröder-Chirac) cannot be restored overnight even if Mrs. Merkel supports Macron at every step. The French performance in the EU has obviously been too mean in recent times. Macron strongly insists that France will above all have to demonstrate its capacity to “come back” economically so as to regain lost influence in Brussels. A precondition to accomplish this, beyond the economic factor as such, is the now badly expected reform of the labour law.
This being so, France has not been failing on all fronts: in recent years, on the military side, the country has done much more than any other EU-partner to combat terrorism. It now has succeeded in convincing the EU-partners to set up a new fund for streamlining of common defence efforts.
Further to Macron’s pledges made during the campaign, the new French government spoke up in Brussels on the sensitive longstanding issue of protection against unruly posted workers and obtained a new delay. As expected, such wishes were lukewarmly received against the background of the nearly terminated talks on this difficult reopened chapter of harmonisation. In the wake of harsh criticism expressed during the presidential campaign, the new French government also launched, with the support of Germany, proposals against non-European investments in “strategic sectors” and tabled the idea of prohibiting non-EU companies to compete in public tenders unless at least 50% of their production was of EU-origin.
Now Macron must deliver in a country accustomed to a high degree of resistance against renewal
In the past, the French have regularly made proposals aimed at tightening the rules governing the EU as one economic block, usually without success. The country’s increasing poor EU performance regularly triggered arguments against such ideas. Nonetheless Macron, whose views are embedded in mildly federalising thinking about Europe, will not stop trying to pull Germany ‘and the others’ towards more integration. Beyond the issues of posted workers, protection of strategic sectors and public tender offers, these concerns pertain to traditional French topics such as a EU-finance ministry (already nominally accepted as a mere principle) and possibly the issuance of Eurobonds.
The Macron era has made a spectacular start. The new president is, however, ‘on low orbit’ and no doubt aware of the dangers of flying too high. He has got five years to prove himself as a new type of leader – and maybe to become the kind of national chef that 80% of the French have wished for long. Now he must deliver in a country accustomed to a high degree of resistance against renewal. The reform of labour law will be the big test at the beginning of the coming autumn. Parts of the anti-EU population would be ready to express various forms of protest in the streets, and there are always groups of casseurs prone, as already demonstrated in 2016, to any kind of organised violence.
If Macron would finally be obliged to break resistance against his reform project by a law voted under the authority of ‘his’ LRM-députés, protesters in the streets might revive, under political encouragement of Mélenchon in Parliament, well known registers of Marxist protest and demonstrate under flags protesting against “fundamental denial of the civic rights of the French workers”. Every effort is obviously being made to avoid such scenario. A social confrontation of this nature took place in late 1995 after the election of Chirac. After two rounds settling the political side of the country’s future (i.e. the presidential and the legislative elections), social reform by a new government was then called ‘the third round’ (le troisième tour social) where social acceptance of a major democratic choice, as just made, had to be vindicated.
If Macron succeeds in convincingly avoiding the bleak scenario of the devastating demonstrations in the streets of the big French cities that had accompanied the unfortunate 2016 labour law reform of his predecessor, he may be confident to have reached the right orbit aiming at further reforming his deeply changing country.
Noud Ingen-Housz is the author of the Dutch book: 'Zo bezig met zichzelf ... een politieke biografie van Frankrijk' (deel I: 1944-2017, deel II: 1527-1940), published in February 2017 by De Blauwe Tijger.
[i] Of these 207 seats 73 MP’s are seated on the left side of the Assembly: (i) 33 Socialists + 13 green allies, instead of 302 during the preceding legislature; (ii) 17 members of Mélenchon’s new, far left leaning, party La France Insoumise; and (iii) 10 Communists. On the right side there are now 137 MP’s: (i) 113 députés for the ‘Gaullist’ party – formerly called UMP, nowadays Les Républicains – (ii) a closely associated group of 17 UDI-centrists; and (iii) 7 “Divers Droite”, as compared with 226 députés during the preceding legislature, and 8 of the extreme right Front National headed by Marine Le Pen against 2 before.
[ii] Page 9 of his manifesto.
[iii] The outcome of the legislative elections in June (see above) has triggered heavy consequences for (i) Les Républicains and the centrists of the UDI-party; and (ii) le Front National. Nearly 40 LR- and UDI-députés immediately split off from their colleagues as a Macron-compatible “constructive” parliamentary group, while awaiting what the others would do in terms of opposition. Marine Le Pen, on the other hand, was under the threat of profound dissent between its left leaning and right leaning wings.
[iv] By half June two outgoing EU-MP’s, members of the first Macron government, who might have expected to be re-appointed in the definitive government, were under the threat of a judiciary investigation due to alleged improper use of public money. Their parliamentary assistants were suspected of not to have worked for their EP job but for domestic tasks benefiting their Modem party. Their partyleader, Bayrou, a former EU-MP, who had just presented a draft bill for the “moralisation of public life” was, as a result, indirectly concerned. The three ministers resigned on 21 June, causing embarrassment. Other embarrassment had already arisen around Olivier Ferrand, Macron’s most important first hour ally and appointed as a minister, who was willingly transferred back to Parliamant so as not to hamper the government.There he was unanimously elected as the leader of the LRM-group of députés (two abstentions).