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The Economist (briefing) - 17 June 2017

 

 

 

Les magnifiques

After defying expectations by transforming French politics, his next task is to do the same with economic reform 



'WITH its nautical boutiques, trim lawns and tennis club, the seaside town of Le Touquet is the weekend refuge for the bourgeoisie of northern France. Set in deep conservative country, the town is run by a centre-right Republican mayor, Daniel Fasquelle, and voted overwhelmingly for François Fillon, the Republican candidate defeated in the first round of the presidential election earlier this year. For ten years, Mr Fasquelle has also been a parliamentary deputy. Back in January, the town expected to bring a welcome end to five years of Socialist rule in France, and a return to conservative order.

Yet at a first-round ballot on June 11th for a new parliament, the good folk of Le Touquet put an unknown entrepreneur, Thibaut Guilluy, into the lead, pushing their mayor into second place and a run-off vote on June 18th. Mr Guilluy belongs to an army of novice candidates standing for President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche! (LRM) who, without pike or pitchfork, are mounting a peaceful revolution in democratic politics.

Mr Macron’s political movement, created just 14 months ago, took 32% of the vote, ten points ahead of the Republicans. This puts it on course to win a crushing majority at the run-off with more than 400 of the 577 National Assembly seats (see chart)—one of the biggest under the Fifth Republic—that would squeeze the Republicans, sideline the far right and far left, and all but wipe out the Socialist Party, which could lose 90% of its seats.

For Le Touquet, which considers Mr Macron a local son, this would be a particularly symbolic victory. He and his wife, Brigitte, have a second home in the resort, were married there and are regular visitors. The presidential jet landed on Le Touquet’s small airstrip so that he could vote at the town hall. “Everyone knows him here,” says a local by the sea front: “He’s never arrogant; people want to give him a chance.” The family link does not stop there. Mr Guilluy’s deputy, Tiphaine Auzière, is Mr Macron’s stepdaughter.



The entrenched

On a blustery afternoon, Mr Guilluy can be found inland in the red-brick village of Rang-du-Fliers, beside his yellow campaign bus. He is joined by Ms Auzière, a local lawyer, who turns up on a bicycle. The pair are up against entrenched centre-right voting habits and networks, as well as a resilient far-right in rural parts. Farther east, Marine Le Pen, leader of the nationalist National Front (FN), topped voting in Hénin-Beaumont, where she is running for parliament. “This constituency is on the right, and everyone said it wasn’t winnable,” says Ms Auzière: “But we’ve had an incredibly warm welcome on the ground.”

Before Mr Macron was elected, many wondered how he could ever hope to govern. The party had no deputies. The presidential campaign was focused on his personality and political preferences, and it was not obvious that this could transfer into a party vote. Yet, on a wave of dégagisme, or desire to kick the old lot out, the French are proving the doubters wrong. First-round turnout, at under 50%, may have been lower than usual, but the result was unambiguous. LRM has already felled a forest of old-timers, including Benoît Hamon, the Socialists’ defeated presidential candidate, and Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, the party leader. Neither made the parliamentary run-off.

The implications could be far-reaching and a case study in political change. A 39-year-old former Socialist economy minister and one-time investment banker, who had never stood for elected office, Mr Macron has already defied all the unwritten rules to become president at first try. Three other consequences could now follow: the reshaping of French party politics; the reinvention of political representation; and the construction of a new dynamic for reform.

Mr Macron’s new politics were not directly inspired by theorists of the “radical centre”. But his thinking shares some of that, notably the value of borrowing ideas freely from left and right, and the need to remake democratic politics. His underlying idea is that the big forces shaping the future—technology, the freelance economy, the environment—no longer fall neatly into the old ideological divide between left and right. By seeking out like-minded people across the spectrum, he has sought to realign politics along a new fault line: between those in favour of an open society, trade, markets and Europe; and, on the other side, nationalists advocating protectionism and identity politics.

Mr Macron is not the first to try to forge a radical centre in France. Past attempts were made by Jean Lecanuet, a justice minister who, in a neat twist, campaigned for the presidency in 1965 with the slogan “une France en marche”; Jacques Chaban-Delmas, prime minister from 1969-72, advocated a centrist “new society”; or François Bayrou, a centrist former presidential hopeful who is now Mr Macron’s justice minister. But these all began on the centre-right, failed to gain traction, and were usually framed as a quest for a middle path between Gaullism and Socialism.

Mr Macron, by contrast, has roots on the left. He believes in a strong role for government, particularly on investment and education (though he wants an overall reduction in public spending). And, like his former mentor, Michel Rocard, centre-left prime minister in 1988-91, he seeks to work across the party divide. His ambition is not to create a middling alternative to the left and right, but to force a party realignment. Attitudes to Europe measure this new split. A recent poll asked if voters would regret the end of the European Union. As Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist, points out, a majority of Socialist, LRM and Republican supporters said they would; most of the far left and far right would not. The former, drawn from across the party divide, make up the backbone of Mr Macron’s post-partisan support.

So overwhelming is Mr Macron’s expected victory that worries are turning to how to curb excessive power. This week Le Monde ran an editorial entitled “The challenges of hegemony”, fretting about the “non-existent” opposition. Parliament’s newcomers, say some, will lack the experience to hold the executive to account. Concerns about the solidity of opposition over the next five years, though, risk masking a more positive renewal. When the debutants step into the National Assembly for the first time, floor plans in hand, the face of parliament will be transformed.

For years, the country has lamented its inability to break the ageing, pale, male grip on parliament. The most common age band among outgoing deputies was 60-70. Some 17% were over 70. The average age of the 281 LRM deputies seeking office for the first time is as low as 43. After selection hearings based on 19,000 online applications, it picked a total of 525 candidates. Half are women. A fair few are of immigrant origin, including Mounir Mahjoubi, a digital entrepreneur standing in Paris, or Hervé Berville, a Rwanda-born economist running in Brittany. Novice candidates include business people, teachers, doctors, 11 farmers, two firemen, a fighter pilot, a mathematician and a hairdresser.



On social media

This rinsing out of the old political class was a deliberate attempt by Mr Macron to combat political extremes. Dismayed by politicians’ failure to curb the rise of Ms Le Pen’s FN, he argued that confidence in mainstream politics would be restored only by closer, more meaningful links between deputies and voters. “What doesn’t work anymore is the party system,” he told The Economist last year: “We need to find far more direct forms of exchange with people.” He launched En Marche! last April to that effect, using social media to spread the movement, drawing people into politics who had previously been put off by the sect-like approach to party activism.

The huge inflow of newcomers is cleansing, but will bring its own difficulties. They will soon have to learn the grubby, and necessary, art of compromise. And this may disappoint voters. Tensions in such a broad movement are bound to emerge too, testing its unity. For now, though, the rejuvenated political line-up appeals, and in no small measure due to the Macron effect. It is not by chance that unknown candidates have pasted photos of themselves with the new president on campaign billboards all over France. Mr Macron’s first month, marked by much diplomatic summitry, has gone down well. His muscular handshake with Donald Trump, his tough talk in front of Vladimir Putin and the dignified way he has represented France, have won plaudits. Some 70% think that he is improving France’s image. “He walks on water!” laughs Mickaël Littiere, an En Marche! organiser, with only a hint of irony.

A philosophy graduate, Mr Macron has thought hard about the nature of presidential office. As a former adviser to François Hollande, his hapless Socialist predecessor, he also watched at close quarters how to get it wrong. What is missing in France, Mr Macron told Le 1, a newspaper, in a rather astonishing interview in 2015, “is the figure of the king, whose death I fundamentally believe the French people did not want.” The empty feeling at the centre of French democracy, he argued, was only occasionally filled by great leaders, such as Charles de Gaulle. “After him”, said Mr Macron, “the normalisation of the presidential figure has reinstalled an empty chair in the heart of political life.”

Up to a point, Mr Macron can hope to restore confidence at home by occupying that seat and representing the country with aplomb abroad. His response to Mr Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, for instance, was cleverly judged: a plea, in English, to “Make Our Planet Great Again”. Yet the real test of Mr Macron’s promise to make a difference will be his domestic reforms. He vows to pass a labour law before the end of the summer, using presidential orders, for which he will seek parliamentary approval in July.

The underlying problem is high joblessness, particularly among the young (see chart 2). France’s unemployment rate has stood for five years at 10%, more than twice that of Germany; for the under 25s, it reached 25% in 2016. Labour costs have been curbed, chiefly with lower social charges. But firms are still deterred from creating jobs by a 3,000-page labour code which protects permanent jobs, and ties employers up in knots of complexity and uncertainty. As Mr Macron repeatedly reminded voters, 80% of new contracts for young people are short-term. They often spend years in temporary work, which firms use to secure the flexibility the law generally denies them.

To encourage job creation, Mr Macron’s labour law will protect individuals rather than jobs. He wants his first reform to bring about three changes: to devolve more bargaining over pay and hours to firms, within national limits; to merge different works councils into one; and to cap redundancy awards for unfair dismissal. Further reforms, of unemployment benefits, training and pensions, will follow.

Efforts to reform the labour market have defeated many. Most attempts at introducing flexibility are regarded as an assault on rights, and an unpardonable gift to capitalist bosses. “Shameful and miserable regression to the 19th century” was how Aurélie Filippetti, a Socialist ex-minister, described Mr Macron’s labour-market plans in a tweet. Great skill will be needed to persuade union leaders, whose clout depends on their ability to draw protesters on to the streets. The summer may be quiet, but demonstrations could well mark the return to work in September.

Mr Macron and his centre-right prime minister, Edouard Philippe, are treading a perilous line. Their efforts will be keenly watched by Germany, to see whether Mr Macron can restore French credibility on economic reform. In their favour, a moderate union, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, is now France’s biggest. Led by Laurent Berger, and for the first time since it was originally founded in 1919, it has overtaken the hardline Confédération Générale du Travail. Mr Macron also made a deft appointment in naming Muriel Pénicaud, a former human-resources director at Danone, a food company, to be labour minister.

The context is more favourable too. Mr Macron’s own election spoke of popular exasperation at the immobilisme of the past two decades. Economic growth has begun to pick up, forecast at 1.4% for this year and 1.7% next, according to the European Commission. Business confidence in May reached its highest level for six years. Conversations in the boardroom and around dinner tables have turned from lamenting French decline to a sort of stunned delight at finding the country the object of international admiration.

Nothing is guaranteed, even for Mr Macron. The hard slog of reform will test his skills, and his country’s new goodwill towards him. But the French have been in a form of collective depression, which has diminished their own expectations. “Ever since I was old enough to listen to political speeches, I’ve heard that France is in crisis,” wrote Mr Macron in a book published last year. They have already surprised the world at the ballot box. On paper at least, Mr Macron’s reform plans sound promising too. “Finally we’re not having the finger pointed at us for failing to try what other countries have already done,” says Ludovic Subran, chief economist at Euler Hermes, an insurer.

A year ago, only the touchingly optimistic believed that Mr Macron could take his political adventure anywhere. It has succeeded, if anything to excess. The young president’s legacy will be secured if he can defy the sceptics on economic reform too. That would be a real French revolution.'