Time flies, does it not? When Emmanuel Macron was installed as President of France last May 14, no one, other than Macron himself, predicted the immediacy of the impact he would make on his country’s fortunes.
There were many who believed that he would provide a necessary corrective to the long, lazy years that began with Jacques Chirac’s second term, followed by the near-absolute nothingness of the presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
But would his ego – which puts even that of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing into the shade – get in the way of sustained forward movement? Would he take on too much too soon? And would he be forced to back down once the public sector and the trade unions recovered their nerve and took to the barricades once more in defence of the ancien régime?
Not a bit of it. Not yet at any rate. Natural caution requires me to note that all could yet come to grief as Macron’s reach exceeds his grasp. But thus far there is no sign of any such over-extension. If anything, the President, suffused with hauteur, remains well within his comfort zone. Even his failure to convince Donald Trump to behave like a responsible grown-up has done nothing to dent the prevailing sense that there is a world statesman in the Elysée for the first time since François Mitterrand.
We all know the impact Macron has made on the world stage, where he is regarded as nothing less than a superstar. But domestically, too, he is powering along.
The rail strikes and other industrial disputes that were supposed to bring him to heel are fizzling out. More and more train drivers, conductors and others are returning to work, with the promise only that the Government has no intention of running the rail sector down or flogging it off.
Even the real possibility that Air France – more troubled today than British Airways was in the 1980s – will be allowed to go under if it doesn’t get costs under control and regain its competitiveness has failed to bring protesters onto the streets in big numbers. Changes to the labour code, once written in stone, have been accepted with only a mild undercurrent of grumbling, while more far-reaching reforms of the public sector, involving the loss of thousands of jobs-for-life, look likely to be accepted as the price of a more balanced, and profitable, economy.
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Such is Macron’s confidence in his programme to date that he is already getting ready for his next wave of reforms. This week, he gathered ministers together, led by his indefatigible prime minister Edouard Philippe, to discuss the second half of his five-year term in office. Reforms – i.e. cuts – to social benefits, especially those seen as barriers to getting the long-term unemployed back to work, were high on the agenda.
It is not hard to see why. More than 20 percent of French men and women aged under 25, including university graduates, have never worked in their lives, or at least not held down a steady job. Some 8 per cent of older workers are similarly stymied. Most, it can be assumed, would like to earn a good living and the self-respect that comes with it. But they have been unable to trade on their education and skills and, in too many cases, have become used to living off the state.
Macron has expressed sympathy for these victims of what has been a decades-long economic slumber. He knows that previous governments did little or nothing to address the simmering anger felt in the face of such a wasted resource, preferring to smother it with a range of benefits that the country can ill-afford. Now, however, he has decided that enough is enough.
As the budget minister Gérald Darmanin reminded us this week, the number of beneficiaries of the state scheme, known as the RSA, that provides the unemployed with a minimum income while they look for work has increased by 50 per cent in ten years. “Half of these have been in receipt of RSA benefits for more than four years. Many wait more than six months for an appointment to be helped back into work. It’s absurd.”
Given that another of Macron’s aims is a significant reduction in the number of public sector jobs, it is obviously vital that his back-to-work scheme should work and that private sector demand should grow sufficiently to take up the slack. He has only so much rope to play with. France’s public debt has risen to €2.2 trillion, equivalent to 97 per cent of GDP – a level not attained since 1945. Everything has to slot into place, with growth in the manufacturing and services sector underpinning reforms achieved elsewhere in the system.
Can he do it? We will know in three years’ time. There is no doubt that France, presently bathing in the glow of the Macron Effect, is up off the floor and looking to the future with a confidence not felt since the 1970s. But there is a long way to go and a lot of fat to be burned off across the economy before the Elysée next comes up for grabs, in 2022.
If Macron gets it right, the Opposition, of every hue, will struggle to make a dent in his reputation as the right man in the right job at the right time. They will instead have to dig in and just hope that hubris catches up with the Jupiter President before he runs out of ideas.