Volume 21 Issue 8 August 2017
 
 

 


On May 7, 2017, 39-year old Emmanuel Macron became France’s youngest president since the “little tyrant” Napoleon Bonaparte. His victory in the recent presidential vote marks a significant turning point for European politics that were steadily edging towards ultranationalistic hubris. While right wing parties across Europe from Britain to Germany to the Eastern bloc are steadily gaining strength on anti-immigration and anti-globalization planks, the traditionally pessimistic French chose to stay the centrist, reformist course by voting Macron into power. In the process, they rejected the economic and social isolationism championed by his main rival, the National Front’s firebrand leader Marine Le Pen. Sanity prevailed, for now at least.

A month later, the same voters handed an unexpected parliamentary majority to Macron’s nascent La République en Marche (Republic on the Move) party, thereby decimating the National Front in polls and bringing down the French political establishment built around retirement-age Socialists and Republicans. Unlike Le Pen, Macron believes in deeper, broader integration with the European Union (EU) and embraces globalization as a catalyst to kick-start France’s moribund economy.
Though Macron ran his campaign as the outsider candidate, comparisons to US President Donald Trump don’t hold up. Trump, a one-time political commentator for the US conservative media, blindsided the Republican Party by breezing through its primaries where he crushed infinitely more experienced rivals by riding a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the status quo. Macron, the former minister of economy, by contrast represents the status quo in France despite never campaigning for public office before.

Macron was senior aide to his predecessor François Hollande for two years after which he took charge of the economy ministry until resigning last August to pursue the presidency. Moreover, the new French president followed the well-worn path to political power. He was schooled at the elite Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration and eventually installed as inspecteur des finances publiques (a high level administrative position). Hence the French voted less for Macron than against far right xenophobia and the promise of youth in fixing France’s inert socioeconomic problems. This sentiment drove the rise of non-mainstream candidates in this year’s presidential election.

Critics, however, have sought to diminish the historic nature of Macron’s victory by noting that voter turnout for both the first and second round of polls was anemic. Statistically, this is a fair comment. The presidential election, for example, had less than 50 percent of registered voters casting ballots nationwide in a new low for the Fifth Republic. So if La République en Marche received 32 percent of the total, Macron in reality has the approval of less than 15 percent of France’s electorate. His fans, however, insist detractors are missing the point: Macron’s elevation to the Élysée heralds a change in France’s political psychology not so much as national policy.

Additionally, France’s political establishment shot itself in the foot by fielding lackluster candidates. The Socialists picked a hardcore left-winger who polarized the party and the Republicans pushed one who quickly sank into a graft scandal involving his wife. It was an epic comedy of errors. France’s desire for political change is spurred by a disappointing procession of presidents over the last few decades since Charles De Gaulle formally proclaimed the Fifth Republic in 1958.
Despite repeated and passionate promises on the campaign trail, all struggled to execute socioeconomic change necessary to keep France in step with the times. This failure turned especially glaring in the wake of the 2007 global financial crisis and France’s battle with homegrown terrorism in recent years.

Labour reforms are at the heart of a broad change necessary to revive France’s industrial competitiveness, but most former presidents either balked at the task or tacked themselves to the far-left in order to appease blue-collar workers and their heavyweight labour unions. The socialist François Mitterrand from the late twentieth century took the myopic route by nationalizing major industries, greatly expanding the social safety net and increasing taxes for top earners thereby stifling the entrepreneurial spirit which cornerstones capitalism. More recently, increasing conservatism among supporters and the personal lack of will to combat vested

 


interests shackled the last two leaders of the republic: Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Sarkozy unfortunately made more headlines for being the “bling” president partying with celebs, while Hollande’s reputation as a chronic philanderer dwarfed his achievements in office.

Though Macron is a ray of hope for French politics long used to business-as-usual, he is not beyond realpolitik to strengthen his grip on power. In fact, some commentators call him “the divider” who conquered by clearly demarcating the functions of governments when offering them to allies. Hence he put conservatives in charge of economics, the liberal left in charge of homeland security and foreign affairs, and the center in charge of justice, European affairs and the military. By doing so, Macron has proactively diminished the possibility of the various ministers clashing over scope of powers.

Macron, however, has been unable to keep his campaign promise of clean, scandal-free governance. One of his early supporters and party organizers, the socialist Richard Ferrand, recently became embroiled in a nepotism scandal similar to the one that sunk the Republican François Fillon’s presidential bid. Instead of purging him from party ranks for tainting its reputation, Macron stood by his right-hand man. Then François Bayrou, president of the Democratic Movement party, who endorsed Macron early on and was rewarded with the justice ministry, breached ethics he personally swore to hold Macron accountable to. By chastising the press in an interview for relentlessly probing the misuse of funds by members of his party in the European Parliament, Bayrou further muddled Macron’s attempts to restore confidence in France’s political elites.

The new French president, though a political novice, has stepped up to the plate with the sure-footedness of an old hand, knowing that in this age optics mean everything. Consequently, he has grabbed every opportunity to project images of strength while deflecting from the scandals dogging his government. From his white-knuckle handshake with Donald Trump to a firm press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the palace of Versailles, Macron has hammered home the point that France will no longer take a backseat in global politics. He was quick to address Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Agreement and has repeatedly expressed France’s unwavering commitment to the European project and its goal of “ever-closer union.”

Regardless, history will judge Macron on his ability to enact the much-needed labour reforms to revive France’s industrial competitiveness. These reforms would give the private sector greater control over working conditions insofar as the hiring and firing of employees is concerned, thereby resulting in job creation and higher economic growth. Significantly, these reforms by 2022 would lower France’s unemployment rate to around 7 percent from the 10 percent today. Macron is selling his reforms plan as a Gallic spin on Scandinavian “flexicurity,” meaning the weakening of existing job protections to encourage firms to hire more young, unemployed workers.

There is, however, much debate over the core beneficiaries of this plan. Eric Cohen, a French labour regulations lawyer, speaking recently to the UK’s Independent newspaper claimed they are “positive for all new companies seeking to hire or to settle in France.” Not so, says Judith Krivine, another labour lawyer interviewed by the same newspaper, as these reforms push a “business first” policy which erodes the bargaining power of unions and will allow companies to fire workers for “economic reasons,” a hitherto invalid reason to lay off employees in France.
Moreover, critics fret the self-avowed centrist Macron displays some worrying right-wing tendencies such as plans to incorporate controversial aspects of the national anti-terrorism emergency - leading to warrant-less searches into common law. Additionally, he faces accusations of sexism as not a single female member of parliament made his cabinet despite comprising almost 40 percent of the legislature. Macron may be France’s last best hope for socioeconomic change and an increased stake in world affairs on a continent swaying towards race-driven isolationism, but his legacy rests on reviving the public’s trust in French presidents.

The writer is an Islamabad-based free-lance journalist.

 
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