Hereditas Historiae

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The Economist - Briefing - 13 May 2017

  



"Marchons, marchons!"

Emmanuel Macron’s quest to reform France

His presidential campaign was a long shot. His next challenge may be even harder

 


'THIRTEEN months ago, a young government minister climbed on to a platform in a small meeting hall in his home town of Amiens, in northern France. There was no bass beat to pump up the audience, no spotlights or flags. Alone with his microphone, Emmanuel Macron announced that he was launching a new political movement, to be called En Marche! (“On the Move!”). He wanted it to put an end to the stale political divide between left and right, repair confidence and unblock France. The idea was “a bit mad”, he admitted: “I don’t know if it will succeed.”

At the time, says an aide, the idea was mainly to shape public debate. No poll then even tested Mr Macron’s presidential chances. He had never run for office. His hopes of building a political movement capable of taking on the existing party machines looked like a fantasy. Two months later, François Hollande, the Socialist president, told two reporters dismissively that his economy minister’s project was “an adventure with no future”.

Yet on May 7th, a mere six months after Mr Macron formally declared that he would run for office, the French elected the 39-year-old liberal to be their next president, with a resounding 66% of the vote. His victory over his run-off opponent, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, was unambiguous, and carried a message that resonated well beyond France. It was an emphatic demonstration that it is possible to fashion a pro-European centrist response to populism and nationalism, and win.

On election night, framed by an arch of the historic Louvre Palace, Mr Macron took his first solitary steps as president-elect, accompanied by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the European Union’s adopted anthem. He told a crowd of flag-waving supporters that the task was “immense”, but that he would restore “hope and confidence” to France. In a melancholic country, battered by recent terrorist attacks, Mr Macron seemed to embody the triumph of optimism. “Everybody told us it was impossible,” he declared. “But they didn’t know France.”

To understand how Mr Macron might confront the challenges in his path, it is useful to trace his route to power and the ideas that shaped him along the way. His ascent to the Elysée Palace has defied all the rules of France’s Fifth Republic, established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 after the chronic instability of the previous regime. Since then, the French have preferred presidents who bear serial electoral battle scars. François Mitterrand, a Socialist, and Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, were both elected at their third try. Mr Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, spent many years as parliamentary deputies.

Mr Macron, by contrast, has bypassed all the usual routes, leaving former presidents and prime ministers in his wake. He was helped by a good dose of luck, deciding to run at a time when the Socialists and Republicans both adopted party primaries. Each threw up a candidate more in tune with his party’s extreme than the centre, thus opening up space in between. The Republicans’ nominee, François Fillon, who was at first favoured to win the presidency, tumbled in the polls after a parliamentary-payroll scandal broke. In some ways, Mr Macron’s audacious bid for the top job was in tune with de Gaulle, who conceived the directly elected presidency in 1965 as a way to return politics from the parties to the people.

Yet Mr Macron was not simply lucky; he created his own opportunities. He quit government last summer in time to put distance between himself and the unpopular Mr Hollande. He announced his presidential bid before the sitting president had decided whether to seek re-election, thus squeezing Mr Hollande’s options. Mr Macron displayed fearsome self-belief, a good grasp of the prevailing mood of disillusion, and a canny understanding of both the political forces in France and the disruptive possibilities of the internet. “There are moments of great acceleration of history,” he said earlier this year, “and I think that we are living through one of them.”



The thinking

Shortly before dawn on February 15th 2015, the National Assembly wrapped up an all-night sitting. As economy minister, Mr Macron had spent the previous two weeks in the chamber trying to convince deputies of the merits of his draft bill to deregulate shopping hours and protected professions. In total, he devoted 18 hours to pleading his case. It might have worked, a number of deputies from both major parties told him, had party bosses not tied their hands. This was the moment, says Benjamin Griveaux, a co-founder of En Marche!, that he realised that “internal party tensions were unsustainable.” To get France moving, a political realignment was needed.

As Mr Macron was increasingly side-lined within government for his outspokenness, he began to work out how to do it. “He doesn’t come to politics through power structures, but through ideas,” says Jacques Delpla, an economist at the Toulouse School of Economics who worked with him on an economic committee in 2007. A philosophy graduate who spent much time as minister hanging out with the tech startup crowd, Mr Macron thought hard about how the state needs to adapt to the future world of work, and how the party system needs to change to make this happen.

Mr Macron’s underlying thesis is that the European welfare state’s model of collective rights, grounded in unions and permanent employees, is an anachronism in an increasingly freelance workplace. Such rights apply to ever-fewer workers; those who enjoy them tend to “job-squat” for fear of losing benefits, and they discourage companies from hiring. The model needs to shift to one based on individual rights, so as to protect workers rather than jobs and encourage job creation. The French left, with its romanticised history of collective struggle, is particularly ill-suited to this fight. But on both sides, party machines exist mainly to defend vested interests. “The biggest challenges facing this country and Europe—geopolitical threats and terrorism, the digital economy, the environment—are not those that have structured the left and the right,” he told The Economist last year.

Tired confrontational politics, Mr Macron argued, was also hampering the project of shaping a “progressive” political bulwark against populism. Born in a provincial family of doctors, the young Mr Macron was on an internship in Nigeria in 2002, while studying at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), when Ms Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, took the far-right National Front (FN) into the presidential election’s run-off round (he lost to Mr Chirac). French parties failed to draw the lessons from that shock, he wrote in “Révolution”, a book published last year, and have been “sleepwalking” ever since.

Instead of trying to combat the FN’s ideas, Mr Macron concluded, politicians had focused on shutting them out of power. In 2007 Mr Sarkozy kept Mr Le Pen out of the run-off, but only by seizing hold of identity politics to court FN voters. For its part, the left resorted to scaremongering. Instead, the French needed to hear the unfashionable case for something positive: an open, tolerant, pro-European society, based on supporting private enterprise rather than crushing it, and creating paths out of poverty for globalisation’s victims.

During the campaign, Mr Macron hammered this point home, refusing to make facile promises he knew he could not keep. At one tense point, the candidate took his argument to a hostile, FN-supporting picket line at a factory in Amiens. He achieved the improbable exploit of getting supporters to wave European flags, as they did at his last rally, in the medieval town of Albi, in the south-west. “We don’t want France to be shut off,” said Pauline, a law student there: “We want to be part of Europe.” In an explosive televised debate that exposed her weakness, Ms Le Pen accused Mr Macron of being the candidate of “savage globalisation”; he retorted that she was the “high priestess of fear”.

Nobody doubted Mr Macron’s intellectual capacities. His penchant for theoretical abstraction and erudite vocabulary was mocked during the campaign; one phrase he used during the TV debate, poudre de perlimpinpin (“snake oil”), was comically remixed as a YouTube video. It was far less obvious, though, that Mr Macron would be able to convert his thinking into an electoral war machine able to torpedo French party politics. His presidential bid resembled a political version of the startups he got to know so well: high-risk, low-budget, capable of total disruption but also total failure. The chaotic culture at En Marche! often felt like a startup, too. Out went the ministerial limousine, neckties and French bureaucratese; in came second-class train travel, sweatshirts and irritating Franglais terms like “un helper”.



The doing

Many political veterans sneered. But En Marche! benefited from an unusual combination of a forceful personality at the top, around whom all decisions turned, and a decentralised and enthusiastic grass-roots organisation, trusted to dream up events, and get on with leafleting and door-knocking. Sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the handwritten En Marche! logo, these volunteers became the fresh local faces of a new movement that nobody could quite believe was taking off. In 13 months, it signed up over 300,000 members, more than twice as many as the entire Socialist Party.

If Mr Macron sought to blast apart the political structures blocking France, his assault was, all the same, not that of a pure outsider. After graduating from ENA, which has trained three of the past five presidents, he shed his provincialism and used his charm to gain access to the networks of the Paris elite. After a spell as an investment banker, he was a staffer to Mr Hollande for two years. With little need for sleep, and a habit of lingering late with dinner guests, he has an uncommon flair for making people feel he is interested in them. “Macron”, says one former colleague, “is a networking machine.”

Such links helped to open wallets as well as doors. With strict French rules capping individual donations at €7,500 ($8,200) per donor, and no advance public subsidy, Mr Macron cast his net wide, collecting donations of €10 online as well as bigger cheques at parquet-floored dinner parties in Paris. Today, those backing him come from overlapping circles. Many on Mr Macron’s campaign team are young former advisers from the economy ministry. Thinkers include Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist who co-ordinated his campaign programme, and Marc Ferracci, a liberal labour-market economist. Business supporters include Xavier Niel, a start-up billionaire, and Stéphane Boujnah, head of Euronext, a securities exchange.

The incoming president has some parliamentary support, too, mostly from early Socialist defectors such as Richard Ferrand, a deputy from Brittany, and Gérard Collomb, a senator and mayor of Lyon. He has also attracted centrists such as François Bayrou, Jean-Louis Borloo and Sylvie Goulard, a member of the European Parliament. The question is whether, at legislative elections in June, he can build this thin base into a stable governing majority. The French constitution grants the president huge power, but he still needs the backing of parliament to pass laws.

This support is crucial to Mr Macron’s programme. Some of his plans are reformist: lowering corporate tax over five years from 33% to 25%; unifying the country’s 35 public pension systems; cutting public spending from 57% of GDP to 52%; and trimming 120,000 civil-service jobs. Others are costly but uncontroversial, such as shrinking primary-school classes in underperforming schools. Yet his flagship legislation, to loosen the labour market, could be explosive.

Its objective is to give firms far greater say in organising working time and pay, granting employees the right to hold a referendum if their unions resist. He wants to cap redundancy payments awarded in labour courts. And he plans to take the unemployment-benefit system and the €30bn training budget, both financed and jointly run by unions and employers, out of their hands. This would let the government tighten benefit rules, and focus training on those out of work rather than the system’s insiders. Mr Macron knows that with the unemployment rate at 10% (and 25% for those under 25), the economy must create jobs, or populism will prosper.


Assembly needed

Mr Macron’s team insists that the élan of his presidential victory will help to secure him a majority, and refuses to talk about coalitions. En Marche! will field candidates in each of the 577 constituencies, under a new name, La République en Marche! (The Republic on the Move!). Half of these, to be unveiled on May 11th, will be newcomers to politics: businessmen, teachers, sports organisers and the like. Other politicians could defect to the new grouping. The Socialist Party is starting to bleed deputies. Manuel Valls, until recently prime minister, described his party as “dead”, and announced that he would stand instead for En Marche!—if it would have him. One projection suggests the Socialists could lose 75% of their seats.

Matters are more complicated for the Republicans. Many deputies feel that they were robbed of their “turn” at the presidency, after five years under a Socialist, and are in no mood to co-operate. “Macron was primarily elected by default,” huffs one. François Baroin, a former finance minister leading the Republicans’ parliamentary campaign, wants to build a strong opposition in order to curb Mr Macron’s power. Others are less sure. Bruno Le Maire, a former Europe minister, says that he could back a majority under Mr Macron.

The greatest coup would be to peel away a symbolic Republican figure as prime minister, as a way of balancing Mr Macron’s big ex-Socialist contingent. Targets include Xavier Bertrand, a regional president, or even Edouard Philippe, a young deputy close to Alain Juppé, a centre-right former prime minister. Each would have to take a huge political gamble, but could unlock further defections from the centre-right. An alternative would be an existing supporter, such as Ms Goulard, a fluent English- and German-speaker who has a reputation as a smart negotiator. An announcement is expected on May 15th, the day after Mr Macron’s inauguration.

In the coming days, Mr Macron will begin to take in what he has achieved, but also the burden of the task ahead. He has won a historic victory, but some voters on the far left and the centre-right backed him only to keep out Ms Le Pen. He will need to speak to the 11m voters who backed her, as well as the record 4m who cast blank or spoiled votes in protest at both. Many of these angry voters are from small towns and rural parts that have lost jobs and services, and see no benign side to the forces of globalisation that Mr Macron defends. Ms Le Pen’s FN currently has only two parliamentary deputies, one of them her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who announced this week that she was stepping down from politics; but it will have many more in June. The far-left party headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s will also try to make life difficult for the president they regard as the spokesman of global finance.

The management of change in France, though, is usually less about parliamentary arithmetic than public order. The street is the theatre of choice for French protest, and it has repeatedly defeated efforts by governments of the left and the right to loosen labour laws over the past 20 years. Only last year, Mr Valls had to force through by decree an enfeebled version of his labour reforms, after trade unions, notably the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), organised blockades of oil depots, refineries and transport, and demonstrators took to the streets.

In Albi last week, outside a bottle factory, a muscular group of unionists loitering in the car park awaiting Mr Macron’s visit were sceptical. “If he tries to bring in flexibility, we’ll be in the street,” declared Cyril Cereza, wearing the CGT’s red-and-yellow jacket. These were supporters of Mr Mélenchon, with no sympathy for the banker from Paris. But when Mr Macron arrived and spoke with them, he was firm. “It’s not the CGT that’s going to run the country,” he declared afterwards. The president-elect is “ready for his Thatcher moment”, argues Mathieu Laine, a liberal intellectual and businessman, and friend of Mr Macron’s. Mr Ferracci, who was best man at Mr Macron’s wedding, says that he has “an incredible capacity to resist, including physical”. Less generous pundits worry that he is a novice with no idea of what is about to hit him.

Mr Macron has already entered history. He inherits not only a divided country, but the heavy weight of expectations. The French at times seem to indulge their ennui as an emblem of national identity. Philosophical doubt, and the impossibility of the ideal, form part of the national character. But in recent years pessimism and negativity have taken on a destructive edge. Michel Houellebecq, a French novelist known for his own nihilism, put it well this week when he said that Mr Macron represented “group therapy” for the nation: a sort of collective self-medicated optimism. France, which is still living under a state of emergency, badly needs such a dose. The task is demanding, and the chances of instant recovery do not look too promising. Then again, neither did the election of the remarkable Mr Macron.'

 

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Marchons, marchons!"