France

100 Days of Macron: is the Blairite soufflé starting to collapse?

Reaction Big Read on the new generation Napoleon

BY Walter Ellis | Waltroon   /  10 August 2017

It was no coincidence that the first meeting on French soil between Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Donald Trump should have been at Napoleon’s tomb in the Dôme des Invalides. As the two leaders stood next to the final resting place of the Emperor, with its crown of laurel leaves, their chests will have swelled with pride. Inwardly, however, they must have stifled a shared tee-hee. For how could they, who had accomplished so little, have risen so far so fast that they could be considered fit company for one of the most compelling figures in world history?

The new President of France, elected in a landslide on May 7, came out of nowhere and is at least as difficult to place in the political spectrum as his unlikely hero, Tony Blair. Much was expected of him for no better reason than the fact that France hadn’t had an inspirational leader since Mitterrand and was in desperate need of a boost to national morale as well as an economic uplift. The fact that critics at home and abroad are snapping at his heels so soon after his election suggests less that he has failed than that their assessment of what he might achieve from a standing start was always wide of the mark.

An unlikely rise to power

The story of Trump’s rise is well known. The phenomenon has been examined from every possible angle, with much attention devoted to the nemesis that many feel must flow from his preposterous, overblown hubris.

Not so with Macron. Until now. Only as the election posters fade and peel away from walls and lampposts across the nation is the 39-year-old ex-banker – an elected monarch in all but name – coming under the kind of scrutiny that would normally be part and parcel of a top-rank political career.

Buyer’s remorse is part of it. When you begin to suspect you have been taken in by someone, you probably have. But whose fault is that? It all happened so quickly. Macron’s astonishing ascent, from nowhere to the pinnacle of power, took place as the French were casting around somewhat helplessly for someone – anyone – to lead them out of the slough of despond into which they had been sinking for more than a decade. Many, perhaps a majority, of those who put their tick against his name had little idea of what he stood for other than a centrist version, neither Left nor Right, of the Spirit of ‘68. But at a time when ineptitude and buffoonery looked to be the common currency of politics, this singular perception was sufficient to win the day.

The French are suckers for the appearance of cleverness – which explains why their evening television is so often dominated by “public intellectuals” sitting round glass tables to debate the issues of the day. And Macron’s academic credentials went before him: a stellar baccalaureate, studies at the University of Paris and Sciences Po, concluding with the fabled imprimatur of the École Nationale d’Administration. His professional career was also public property: time spent as a civil servant in the finance ministry followed by five highly lucrative years as an investment banker with Rothschild’s. Finally, there was the small matter of François Hollande drafting him, first as deputy chief of staff at the Elysée, then as Economy Minister, only for him to resign after two years on the basis that the Government didn’t know what it was doing and that he, in any case, wasn’t a Socialist.

But if he wasn’t a Socialist, what was he? En Marche, the movement he founded less than 18 months ago, went on to win 60 per cent of the seats in this June’s parliamentary elections but could no more be pinned down than Blair’s Third Way in the 1990s. Was it social democracy with a Thatcherite face, was it unashamed populism, or was it Conservatism in drag? The answer is probably all three. Macron didn’t want to tax the rich. He had made that clear enough in government. And he wanted to bring the unions to heel. But he was also, if he was to be believed, the champion of the poor and the oppressed. His message on the hustings was basically, “Trust me. I have been sent by Providence to retore La Gloire to France, and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

As an appeal it was like a sugar burst, but while it lasted it had an undeniable impact. Because what voters did know, with painful certainty, was that France, as it stood, was in trouble and that Macron’s principle rivals, Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, each carried within them a fatal flaw.

Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, had vowed to take France out of the euro, so threatening the collapse of the European Union. She had also promised an all-too plausible war on Islamism and a cleansing, as she saw it, of the immigrant stables. Fillon, a veteran Conservative, was a busted flush, who had failed before and now faced a humiliating series of appointments with the judiciary over allegations of the embezzlement of public funds. Given that the Socialists had imploded and that Mélenchon, though personally appealing, represented a throwback to the 1950s, that left only Macron, a young man in a hurry with an unblemished record because he had no record to begin with.

Even then, his success was by no means assured. It was the nature of the French electoral system, in which only the leading candidates from round one of the voting go forward to a run-off, that assured the mystery candidate of victory.

On April 23, the former investment banker from unfashionable Amiens had topped the poll in Round One. But only just. He won 24 per cent of the vote against 21.3 per cent for Le Pen and 20 per cent for Fillon, with Mélenchon, the dark horse of the Left, a respectable fourth. Round two, on May 7, was both a triumph and an anti-climax. Fillon and Mélenchon were eliminated, along with the Socialist candidate and various representatives of the Marxist Raving Loony parties, leaving millions of voters in Round Two with an awkward choice between heart and head. In the event, Macron waltzed home, beating Le Pen by 66 per cent to 34 per cent, but on a turnout of less than 75 per cent, well down on 2012. The cold fact is that more than three-quarters of those who cast a vote on April 23 wanted someone else, not Macron, as President, yet Macron was what they got.

First weeks in office 

What followed was a mixture of silly and serious. Macron was thrust into the Elysée Palace on a kiss and a promise. He would be different, he said. He would shake things up. To borrow from Trump, he would make France great again. Instead of the well-meaning but hapless François Hollande, the new man in charge would be a human dynamo, going through the country’s sclerotic body politic like a dose of salts.

Looking back, there were always tell-tale signs. For a start, En Marche shared his initials. The later prefix LR (La République), in front of the EM, merely emphasised the implied connection between Macron and France. Was this no more than a coincidence? Perhaps. But might it not also have been his variant of Louis XIV’s famous dictim, “L’état c’est moi”? When he came up with it, some of those close to him must surely have pointed this out. If so, he continued unabashed. And then there was his reference to himself as a “Jupiterean” leader. Normally those who compare themselves to the King of the Gods are regarded as a touch removed from reality. It’s one thing to have a Napoleon complex, but Napoleon as Zeus has to be pushing it.

The real surprise, though, was the silliness. What no one guessed during the campaign was that while Macron would indeed bear little resemblance to Hollande as “Mr Normal,” he would instead bear an uncanny resemblance to Nicolas Sarkozy, the King of Bling himself, whose undistinguished presidency is best remembered for its empty gestures and meaningless extravagance.

Thus we had Macron as Boris Johnson, suspended on a wire as he was lowered onto the deck of a nuclear submarine; Macron as Vladimir Putin, wearing a flight suit as he shot the shit with a group of butch Air Force pilots; Macron as Boris again, sparring with a boxer to promote Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics; and Macron as Blair, discussing education in the developing world with pop star Rihanna. In between, he has been filmed running up and down stairs – so young! so vigorous! – and gripping the hands not only of Trump (“he loves to hold my hand”) but of footballers, rugby players, even Chris Froome, Britain’s four-time winner of the Tour de France. There have also been the fancy restaurants, notably La Rotonde, and the flaunting of Versailles as his dacha. To cap it all, as if in deference to some unpublished, yet binding, book of international protocol, he chose to spend time at the Elysée with Bono, from U2, perhaps the only man in Europe with an ego to match his own.

It came as no surprise then that voters started to wonder if perhaps François Fillion, for all his alleged skulduggery – pretty well par for the course in French politics – might not have been the more dignified choice. Suddenly, as the French packed their sun cream and anti-mosquito spray, Macron’s poll numbers tumbled.

What happens when Macron is tested?

The fact that Macron has not yet been tested in any serious way is what should make his critics pause. Leaders are judged not by the contents of their manifestos or their ability to look good on camera, but by their response to events, particularly crises. Another Islamist massacre, a trade union protest that goes horribly wrong, or a backbench rebellion that leaves his cabinet floundering: that’s when we’ll see what he’s made of. For these are early days and we should be careful not to jump to conclusions.

It will be for his performance as head of government, rather than as an over-eager schoolboy, that he will ultimately be remembered. Should he succeed, from the autumn onwards, in reviving the dormant French economy while establishing some semblance of trust between the white, post-Christian majority and the country’s six million or so Muslim citizens, the rest will dissolve in the memory like froth on a café crème.

In that event, we will look back to Versailles on July 3, when he delivered a command performance to deputies and senators in which he announced his intention, next time round, to cut their numbers by a third – a measure which, if opposed, he would put to a national referendum. Barely had his audience, close to two thirds of them newly-installed members of La République En Marche, absorbed this blow to their amour propre, than he went on to call for a “profound transformation” of France together with an end to cynicism and defeatism.

Among those listening, many could hear the tumbrils rolling. The only question was, would the last one be reserved for Macron himself, the Robespierre of the new age?

Problems were not long in presenting themselves. The Resistance was gathering. Macron had warned voters that, if elected, he would allow thousands more immigrants from Africa and the Muslim world to settle in France. Now that those same immigrants are knocking on the door, he is being called on to make good on his pledge, to the acute discomfiture of the millions who voted for Le Pen, Fillon, even Mélenchon.

Like Trump, and like most Western leaders, Macron won the presidency by milking the system, not by the numbers. Prominent among the 12 million who abstained from voting in the Second Round were trade unionists, students and the unemployed, who can be expected to man the barricades against Macron once he moves to reform the country’s splendid, but increasingly unaffordable system of social security. For the Unions, still Communist by inclination if not ideology, France’s bloated labour code (some 3,000 pages long) is holy writ, and the first of its commandments is that Thou shalt not work more than 35 hours a week, followed by Thou shalt not be sacked. Any revision – and the President is thought to want a Trump-style repeal and replace– will mean blood on the streets.

As it happens, Macron does not plan to dispense entirely with the 35-hour week. He simply wants to make it voluntary. Individuals will retain the right to watch the clock, but local workforces and employers will be empowered to negotiate flexible deals. Crucially, he supports the enforcement of the so-called El Khomri Law (named after the former Socialist Employment minister Myriam El Khomri), introduced by decree in the dying days of the Hollande administration, which controversially permits a reduction in overtime pay, cuts severance payments and makes it easier for companies to lay off workers. Several days of protest against the new law ended last autumn with injuries to both police and demonstrators. But these protests were only the start. The real test will come when a large-scale dispute arises and the Government is obliged to reinforce its commitment to the legislation with squadrons of riot police.

Another flashpoint could come when he moves to implement his campaign pledge to reduce the number of civil servants by 120,000, the majority employed in local government, while actually recruiting an additional 10,000 police and gendarmes and 12,000 teachers. But it is not just numbers that are at issue. Fonctionaires in France are cosseted throughout their careers. Sacking them for anything other than gross misconduct is almost impossible. Even if they resign and work abroad for up to two years, they are guaranteed their place back, at the appropriate salary, on their return. The range of benefits, including pensions, they enjoy is extremely generous, and while the state retirement age, as in the UK, is gradually creeping up, it remains typical for pen-pushers (grattes-papiers) in France to down tools at 60. Macron, in promising reform of both the state pension scheme and conditions of employment, knows he will be taking on an entrenched section of the population, representing more than one in five of the workforce the risk he faces is not only violent street protest but ongoing strikes that could bring the country to a standstill.

Dissent on an even bigger scale could attend the introduction of public spending cuts, totalling €60 billion over the five years of his presidency, that should take France to within hailing distance of the EU’s target for budget deficits of no more than 3 per cent of GDP. To the French, austerity is a foreign concept. They have been used to getting the best of everything for decades. The deal has always been that so long as you have paid your social charges, the state will look after you, no questions asked, from cradle to grave. Anything less – especially if Berlin looks to be calling the shots – and it could be 1871 all over again, or at any rate, 1968.

But all in due course. To date, the President’s biggest brush with opposition forces has come with his decision to cut the defence budget by €850 million. No sooner had this campaign promise been honoured than the highly-respected chief of the defence staff, General Pierre de Villiers, resigned, reportedly declaring to colleagues that he would not be “fucked” like this. There is irony in this. Just weeks previously, at the G20 meeting at which Macron first gripped Trump’s tiny hand, France was one of the Nato countries that undertook to increase defence spending. De Villiers had even come up with a plan to show how this could be done, only to be told by his new commander-in-chief in the most humiliating terms to keep his nose out of politics. What Trump said to his French opposite number on the subject as they watched the march-past on Bastille Day has not yet been disclosed, not even in a tweet.

Restructuring the French economy is clearly vital to the chances of Macron’s re-election in 2022. If the population at large doesn’t sense an improvement in its circumstances, expect a vindictive riposte. Even so, reform of the European Union is possibly Macron’s overarching priority. In this larger context, he sees himself as De Gaulle to Angela Merkel’s Konrad Adenauer. In a bid to reignite the Franco-German motor that drove Europe through its “miracle” years, from 1957 into the 1990s, he plans to work with Merkel to add political union to economic and monetary union, starting with the appointment of a budget minister for the Eurozone. In the meantime, he wants the European Commission and Council to become less bureaucratic and more accountable to member states.

On Brexit, he is essentially a predator. He is not bent per se on punishing Britain for its decision to leave the EU. That is just the icing on the cake. Rather, his focus is on the gradual accretion to Paris of a significant portion of the Eurozone business currently handled by the City of London. To that end, he has been scheming with Berlin and Brussels to make it impossible for London to renew its financial passport into the Eurozone. The UK will naturally work to oppose such an outcome, or at the very least to mitigate its effect. But the chances are that Monsieur le Président, with support from the 26, will make steady progress and that – always assuming a hard Brexit – Paris as a banking and investment centre will grow in importance and reach over the course of the next ten years. If all else fails, this could be Macron’s most lasting legacy.

All of the above may or may not happen, and if it does it will not be tomorrow or the next day. For now, if the opinion polls are to be believed, the French are waking up as if from a dream. They are not so much anti-Macron – though they do have increasing concerns about his vanity – as curious about who he really is and how they fell for his blandishments. They want to know how much substance there is behind the fine words and how, most of all, he intends to push ahead with reforms that have defeated all his predecessors.

Do I need to mention Macron’s wife? Probably. By his own admission, Macron seduced Brigitte, 24 years his senior, when he was still at school and she was his drama teacher, married with children. Since then, she has become by far his closest advisor and, so far as one can tell, his ersatz mother, chivvying him along when he wastes time or slapping his arm when he says something daft. As France’s First Lady, wearing heels that a woman half her age would find challenging, she has certainly made an impact, not least on Donald Trump. Macron has made a point of pushing Brigitte forward at every opportunity, the Josephine to his Bonaparte – and for a while, the nation lapped it up. But now the tables have turned. This week 290,000 citizens signed a petition calling to block Macron giving his wife the official status of First Lady. He has now capitulated.

It’s August now, and France is sunning itself on the beaches. It will not be until La Rentrée, on September 2, that the real business of the nouveau régime will start. The Jupiter President will be expected to shower the nation with thunderbolts. Should he fail, it will not be the end of the world. The French will carry on with their search for a providential president while secretly heaving a sigh of relief that nothing much has changed. They want a revolution. They know it has to happen. But not necessarily today – or ever.