One year on from Macron taking office, Susan Ram analyses what he stands for and what he's achieved
It’s just a year since Emmanuel Macron, the telegenic Great White Hope of neoliberals everywhere, strode into the Elysée Palace to take up office as France’s youngest ever president. Change was the mood music of the hour. Old, ingrained ways would be dispatched by brisk broom strokes of reform. Traditional divisions between left and right would fold into the triumphant Centre, as incarnated by Macron’s freshly minted non-party, En Marche! (On the move!). Liberated from the baggage of the past, France would at last surge into the future, its economic woes, uppity workforce, overblown public sector and declining global influence dispatched to the dustbin of history. “France’s new president promises openness and reform from the centre,” gushed The Economist. “The challenge is immense. But Emmanuel Macron deserves to succeed.”
Twelve months on, Project Macron - battle-worn and beset by challenges on many fronts - stands revealed for what it always was: a media-savvy attempt to repackage a hard right, neoliberal agenda and ‘sell’ it to an electorate disillusioned with mainstream politics and traditional parties of the left and right.
In terms of its specific features, Project Macron envisages involves a radical remodelling of the French economy, along with a new strategy for French capital within the EU. Its economic strategy can be characterised as pro-neoliberal, anti-worker and nationalistic.
At home, the goal is the macho one of replicating the ‘achievements’ of Margaret Thatcher on tough French terrain: tax cuts for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor, the targeting of rights and protections won by workers over decades of struggle and the dismantling of a still extensive and robust public sector.
Abroad, Macron’s sub-Trumpian calls to ‘make France great again’, whether in Europe, Africa or on the wider world stage, propose enhanced military spending, greater readiness to intervene in theatres of conflict, and, in relation to the United States, a bid to outbid Britain in the ‘special relationship’ stakes. Grand plans for Europe, and France’s role within it, form a key element of this ambitious international thrust.
For the weak and vulnerable, at home or abroad, Project Macron promises curtailment of civil liberties, an increasingly hostile environment and ever-growing powers for the police and security state. Refugees, asylum seekers, minorities and migrant workers (including some from within the EU)will get short shrift from the man who, during his election campaign, sought to present himself as the cosmopolitan antithesis to Marine Le Pen of the fascist Front National.
How is the project faring, one year into Macron’s five-year term? A useful way of attempting an audit is to set advances against reverses and areas in which stalemate prevails. But first a look at the politics of the Macron regime: its manner of governing, the strength of its voter base, and the policy enforcement weaponry at its disposal.
The politics of Project Macron
The starting point for an assessment of the past year in France is the singular nature of Macron’s election ‘victory’, and that of his ‘third way’movement (swiftly restyled as La République en Marche! or LREM) in legislative elections held soon after the presidential poll. In June 2017, after multiple rounds of voting, France found itself governed by a president voted in by just 16 percent of the electorate, shored up by an overwhelming parliamentary majority in the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) gained through elections in which 6 out of 10 voters did not participate.
Rather than constituting an antidote to voters’ disenchantment with mainstream politics, Macron’s ascent can be seen as a default position, expressive of voter sullenness and alienation alongside popular revulsion for Marine Le Pen, his opponent in the run-off round. While LREM’s domination of the National Assembly (it holds 350 out of 577 seats) has given Macron a potent advantage when seeking to implement his programme, the feeble democratic foundations of his regime keep showing through. When faced with serious opposition, Macron’s instincts are to close down debate and ram things through. Over the past year, he has repeatedly invoked Article 40, an obscure feature of France’s 1958 Constitution, to impose his will by decree.
Tax cuts for the rich
That Macron rule spelt bonanza time for France’s super-rich was made explicit in his first budget, announced in July. This proposed 7 billion euros worth of tax cuts, including the slashing of wealth tax (long a bête noire for the right) by 70 percent and subjecting capital gains to a new flat rate of 30 percent. Leaked government research on the impact of the cuts revealed that the wealthiest 100 taxpayers each stood to reap an additional half a million euros on average, and that 44 percent of the total benefits would flow to the top 1 percent.
Also featuring in the budget was a 1.7 billion euro cut in housing aid, along with the elimination of 120,000 state-funded short-term contracts.
In the National Assembly, only the radical left France Insoumise grouping, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, subjected the budget to the contemptuous taking apart it merited. By November all was on the statute books.
Labour law reforms
For Macron, hacking away at protections enshrined by the Code du Travail, France’s accumulated body of labour law, has been a fixation of sorts. When serving as economy minister under Francois Hollande, he oversaw (and lent his name to) a package of legislation targeting key protections for private sector workers, including lay-off procedures, labour tribunals and rules governing severance packages.
Carrying forward this process has been a key achievement of Macron’s first year as president. When in September trade union-led opposition to his new reform package drew hundreds of thousands onto the streets, his response was to enact the reforms by executive order, thereby curtailing parliamentary debate and the possibility of unwelcome amendments. These circumstances all but required any successful opposition to come from the streets; only prolonged disruption on a massive scale could perhaps have forced a government retreat.
Permanent state of emergency
Despite his campaign promise not to renew the emergency powers in place in France since 2015, Macron in office soon unveiled other ideas: specifically, the incorporation into ordinary law of the essential features of the state of emergency decree before its November 1 2017 expiry date. His counter-terrorism bill, placed before parliament in early October, in effect removed the judiciary, and the requirement for tangible evidence, from terrorism-related police decision-making. The interior ministry would, on a permanent basis, preside over a dizzying range of powers, including restricting movement and conducting searches within zones of its own creation; shutting down ‘places of worship’ for up to six months; and monitoring (including by electronic eavesdropping) the day-to-day life of individuals suspected of terrorist sympathies.
In the face of angry objections by civil rights organisations and the Left to legislation set to trample the very rights the president was elected to uphold, Macron’s forever state of emergency duly entered the body of French law on November 1, with the promise of a ‘review’ after two years.
Cracking down on asylum and refugees
Another policy area in which Project Macron has pulled off its liberal mask to bare the fangs behind relates to asylum seekers and refugees. In a fulsome, rhetoric-rich speech at the Sorbonne in September last year, Macron was all hand-on-heart, declaring that “making a place in Europe for refugees who have risked their life is our duty.” By February, this visionary talk had morphed into tough proposals to crack down on immigration and asylum in France: for example, by criminalising illegal border crossing, cutting the time frame within which asylum requests can be made, expelling migrants unable to claim asylum and doubling to 90 days the time a person without papers can be detained in a holding centre. Over the objections of some LREM deputies, along with those of the Left and of human rights organisations, the package won National Assembly endorsement in April, beneath the steely gaze of Gerard Collomb, Macron’s attack dog of an interior minister. Approval by the Senate is still to come, but seems guaranteed.
Stalemate, abroad and at home
These successes on the home front contrast with Project Macron’s more wobbly performance beyond French borders, where the president’s boundless ambition and sense of entitlement have seen him repeatedly overplay his hand. Whether tangoing with Trump, appeasing Bibi Netanyahu, lording it over the ‘natives’ in Africa or making his pitch for leadership of Europe, Macron has provided a year-long object lesson in prioritising showiness over substance. Where they have not been openly rebuffed (as with his efforts to lure Trump back into the Paris climate agreement or keep him on track regarding Iran), Macron’s overseas overtures have run into the long grass. This is particularly the case regarding his grand designs for Europe.
In his Sorbonne speech last September, Macron set out his vision for a “profound transformation of the EU”. He foresaw a two-speed Europe in which countries favouring further integration could press ahead, leaving others free to wallow in the status quo. The Eurozone, he declared, would have its own finance minister, budget and parliament. A greatly enhanced European defence profile would feature a ‘rapid reaction force’ to work alongside national armies and a joint European defence budget and policy. Regarding the ‘war on terror’, a new European intelligence academy, together with a joint civil protection force, would augment continent-wide cooperation.
France, of course, was seen to be centre-stage in all this. Indeed, Europe had much to learn from En Marche’s electoral success: by October Macron was pushing to reorganise EU politics in the image of ‘neither left nor right’, conjuring up the vision of a grand continental centre party – and a shift in the political balance of power from Berlin to Paris.
To date little has come of any of this. Beset by her own coalition problems at home, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to play a cautious hand. While German endorsement is vital for the success of Plan Macron Europe, opinion there seems far from rapturous about the project, with recent polls suggesting a majority of Germans reject current Gallic hopes for greater European economic and financial integration.
Back in France, stasis also characterises the current state of play between Macron and the most stubborn resistance he has yet encountered: the magnificent fight-back now being mounted by France’s public sector workers, with striking railway workers at its vanguard and university occupations in progress across the land. As John Mullen makes clear in a companion piece, there is a trench warfare air to France today, with both sides dug in but unable to make a decisive breakthrough. A very great deal hinges on the outcome of this nationwide battle to stop Macronism in its tracks.
At the end of year one, what is Macron’s standing with the population at large? One recent poll found 55 percent of respondents giving him and his record in office an unambiguous thumbs down. There seems little enthusiasm for Project Macron or its haughty overseer, widely regarded as authoritarian, autocratic and divorced from people’s everyday concerns. Instances of Macron’s open contempt for opponents and what he perceives as the great unwashed resound in popular memory. It matters that over the past year a French president has resorted to terms of common abuse – ‘fainéants’ (layabouts), ‘illettrées’ (illiterates) and ‘les gens qui ne sont rien’ (nobodies, worthless people) – to describe those in his way. And it matters, too, that this president and government are so obviously of the Right and for the rich. There can be very few left in France with any illusions to the contrary.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.