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Has President Macron’s reach finally exceeded his grasp? Yesterday, France’s newly-installed head of state chose the Palace of Versailles, conceived by Louis XIV as the ultimate symbol of his power, from which to address his country’s legislators on the need to rein in democracy, or at any rate members of parliament. There were too many of them, he said. They had to be reduced by a third. Not only that, but citoyens, regardless of their social origins, would be given the power to petition the National Assembly and influence the political agenda. Jeremy Corbyn, eat your heart out.
Should deputies and senators not deliver on his programme within a year, warned Macron, looking down from his presidential podium, then a set of ready-made proposals would be put to the people in a referendum.
“L’État c’est moi” was how Louis is said to have put it in 1655 when addressing his own parliament in Paris. But these days c’est lui – Macron, that is – who is self-identifying with the nation and culture over which he presides. During the next 12 months, even as he seeks to reform France’s tortuous and unproductive labour laws and cut back on the numbers employed in the bloated public sector, the President will be working to destabilise the Assembly and Senate, pitching deputies and senators against each other in the race to hold on to their constituencies.
But it doesn’t end with Macron’s plans for France. Over the last ten years, amid growing bureaucracy, the European Union had lost its way, he told his audience. What was needed now was a “new generation of leaders”. Was he referring to Leo Varadkar, the newly elected prime minister of Ireland – the only head of a European government younger than he? Presumably he did not mean Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister. And he can hardly have been referring to Angela Merkel, 22 years his senior and in power in Germany since 2005, or to the prime ministers of Spain, Poland or the Netherlands – all established figures – or to Donald Tusk, the head of the European Commission, or Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the Commission, a non-too-spritely 62.
The kindest interpretation of Macron’s speech from the throne yesterday was that he means business in all the important areas of his presidency and, in pursuit of his goal, intends to accelerate the legislative process. France’s National Assembly is not, as it happens, unusually inflated. Britain currently has a total of 650 MPs; Germany 631; Italy 630; Poland (with a population of 38 million) 460 – 75 more than Macron proposes for France.
It may be that the French parliament, including the admittedly puffed-up Senate, will go along with Macron and streamline itself in double-quick time. Most of the President’s En Marche colleagues entered electoral politics only last month and are there precisely to implement the Macron revolution. The conservative Républicains might be persuaded to endure a modest cull. But the far-Left and the far-Right are playing the numbers game and can hardly be expected to support their further reduction to irrelevance.
The carrot that might swing the decision in Macron’s favour is his parallel proposal to introduce an element of proportionality into the system so that, for example, a party that came second or third in a lot of constituencies while winning only a handful of seats (rather like the UK’s Liberal Democrats) would find their numbers topped up in accordance with their overall performance across the country.
Against that, the stick Macron is brandishing is that he will go over the heads of the legislature and put his reforms directly to the people by way of a referendum. Should his plans receive popular endorsement, his authority as President would be enhanced. Equally, if the Assembly and Senate follow his instructions he will be perceived as the all-powerful agent of change.
The fear – expressed yesterday by the marxist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon – is that Macron, just six weeks into the job, is already starting to believe his own publicity. Charles de Gaulle was the last Frenchman to enjoy such a level of concentrated power. But he had saved France’s honour during World War II and gone on to end the Algerian war and create the Fifth Republic. Macron is a babe in arms by comparison.
Be that as it may, with Parliament beholden to him and with his future cabinet reduced, he says, to a more manageable ten senior ministers, he could set about transforming France at a record rate. What would matter in that event would be chiefly the strength of his ideas and the benefits that might accrue to France’s battered economy.
His only problem thereafter? Angela Merkel. If the German Chancellor is re-elected on September 24, do not expect her to give up her leadership of Europe to her pushy French counterpart. Emmanuel Macron may persuade the French to do his bidding; he will have his work cut out for him intimidating Mutti.