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Macron: the Sun President?

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Emanuel Macron’s ascendance to the Elysée is trumpeted by the Anglo-American media as an epochal event that ushers in a new Golden Age for France. He is heralded as savior of a failing country – a combination of Jean d’Arc, Charles de Gaulle and Vercingétorix. Some wax so enthusiastic as to pronounce Macron Europe’s stellar statesman of the still young 21st Century.* The detached observer wonders whether the enthusiasts are viewing a wet-behind-the-ears politician or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (A few faithful Obama acolytes prefer to consider Macron the Third Coming). The consensual image of an exceptional man swept into office by a tidal wave of popular acclaim is inspired by the belief that the new President will rejuvenate a downcast France, lift its spirit to the Heavens, and accomplish all that by following the pioneering path marked out by the United States, the UK and other bastions of avant-garde thinking about post-modern society.

This fable distorts a far more prosaic reality. It also obscures the reality of a mindset that faithfully respects the catechism of market fundamentalism which has beguiled political elites across the Western world while delivering lethargic performance and gross inequality.  A closer look at the Colossus’ plaster of Paris feet is in order.

First, the alleged tsunami of voter backing is a mythical creation. A few banal facts puncture it. The 2017 French presidential election was a very odd affair. To begin with, the two dominant parties put forward candidates who inhabited the same narrow slice of the ideological spectrum. The conservatives, now renamed the Republicans, nominated (by primary) Francois Fillon – Nicolas Sarkozy’s Premier. The favorite of the power brokers in the so-called Socialist Part or SP (who, by the standards of the truth in advertising dictum, should be called the Opportunistic Center Party) promoted Manuel Valls – the hard-line Interior Minister and then austerity addicted Premier under the hapless Presidency of Francois Hollande. Emanuel Macron had been appointed Economics Minister in a surprise move motivated by Hollande’s desperate desire to give his faltering government a fresh look. The “look” was distinctly business oriented. Macron, a political debutante, had been a success in the sharp-elbows world of finance who was hand-picked by a few high-powered figures in the French business establishment world to lead MEDEF – France’s equivalent of the Business Round Table.  Clean-cut, personable, verbal and marinated in neo-liberal orthodoxy he was singled out as a ‘comer.”

The post of Economics Minister is more talk than action. It’s the Finance Minister who makes economic policy. Macron, though, was photogenic, cosmopolitan and impressed by his uplifting, if vague, public remarks generously sprinkled with the buzz words of our time (“start-up friendly environment”). The public’s favorable reaction emboldened him to launch what appeared to be a quixotic run for the Presidency. He gave his campaign the evocative name: EN MARCHE!  The slogan is in the same league as Silvio Berlusconi’s FORZA ITALIA and Donald Trump’s MAKE AMERICA GREAT, AGAIN. These pols all observe and mimic each other; much of Macron’s rhetorical flourishes empty of content echo Barack Obama circa 2008.

The core reality of the French election was that these three candidates were near identical triplets in terms of philosophy and platform. On the most important issues, they shared the market fundamentalist creed. As one Parisian cynic noted, they were so closely packed ideologically that you couldn’t run a thread of dentifrice between them. As far as France’s conservatives, especially the business community, were concerned, they had the Presidency stitched up. The only fly in the ointment was Marine Le Pen’s Popular Front (FP) which had gained increasing support via its exploitation of diffuse discontents and insecurities over immigration, terror, globalization, and gay marriage.

However, Le Pen never had a ghost of a chance of winning the Presidency. The open question was from which party would she drain the most voters. This simple truth, predictably, escaped most American pundits and all of the media who worked themselves into a lather speculating about a wave of warped populism crashing over the Arc de Triomphe.

The French “Left” seemingly was relegated to the electoral sidelines. That proved an exaggeration.  In the Socialist Party primary, Valls – the odds-on favorite – lost to Benoît Hamon – a PS veteran who had remained loyal to its social-democratic roots. His closest ideological ally was Jean-Luc Mélenchon – the more traditional, outspoken Leftist who had run for the Presidency in 2012 with some success. Finishing third in the primary, Mélenchon vowed to run in the general election as the candidate of a new formation. (Mélenchon, estranged from the PS leadership, and treated with disdain, bolted in 2008 to lead the Parti de Gauche (LEFT Party). Its 2017 incarnation is La France insoumise (FI). Mélenchon has set as a personal goal the destruction of the Socialist Party. Such radical action has shown itself as unnecessary since the PS managed to commit suicide – without outside assistance. That was its one stand-out accomplishment under Hollande’s 5-year mis-rule. The feisty Mélenchon, effective in the debates and an obvious man of conviction, eclipsed the nebulous, fumbling Hamon who faded badly.

The biggest shock, upsetting all calculations, was the Fillon scandal(s). Immediately after defeating Alain Juppe in the Republican primary, Fillon was hit by revelations of gross diversion of public funds for private purposes. It soon was established that he had paid his wife (and, secondarily, his children) about 1 million Euros in salaries for no-show jobs in his legislative offices.  A few other unsavory items, including gifts of luxury clothing from  an opulent backer, added to the bill of indictment. The impact was all the greater for Fillon’s having cultivated the reputation of being France’s Mr. Clean – a man nearly Puritan in his public rectitude. He shredded whatever remained of his credibility by a string of lies made in public and a ham-handed public relations campaign a la Donald Trump. His doomed rearguard action succeeded only in making it impossible for the Republican Party leaders to dump him in time for the election. His chances of winning were shot.

So, by election day, 2 of the plutocracy’s 3 candidates, were DOA. That left Macron. The big question was who would get through the first round to contest Marine Le Pen (the front-runner in all the polls) in the run-off – or ballotage. It went down to the wire.

Candidate Party 1st round 2nd round
Votes % Votes %
Emmanuel Macron En Marche! EM 8,656,346 24.01 20,743,128 66.10
Marine Le Pen National Front FN 7,678,491 21.30 10,638,475 33.90
François Fillon The Republicans LR 7,212,995 20.01
Jean-Luc Mélenchon La France Insoumise FI 7,059,951 19.58
Benoît Hamon Socialist Party PS 2,291,288 6.36
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan Debout la France DLF 1,695,000 4.70
Jean Lassalle Résistons! 435,301 1.21
Philippe Poutou New Anticapitalist Party NPA 394,505 1.09
François Asselineau Popular Republican Union UPR 332,547 0.92
Nathalie Arthaud Lutte Ouvrière LO 232,384 0.64
Jacques Cheminade Solidarity and Progress S&P 65,586 0.18

The results gave that privilege to Macron – by a narrow margin. He attracted enough defectors from the Republicans and the PS to squeeze by. If Mélenchon and Hamon had been able to unite the Left vote, a Socialist today would be sitting in the Elysée. Had Fillon been an honest man, he would be in the seat of power. Instead, Macron’s 24% was tantamount to winning the Presidency. It only remained to see what his margin of victory would be in the run-off.

It turned out to be 66% vs 34%. 11% of the voters cast what amounts to ‘NO’ ballots – as French law permits. A majority of registered voters abstained. Only 43% came to the polls – a record low. In effect, the supposed tidal wave that brought Macron onto the throne represented 28% of the electorate – one in four. That story does not fit the headlines, though, so it was duly downplayed.

Macron’s ersatz political formation EN MARCHE, did gain an overwhelming majority in the following election for the Assemblée. This outcome conforms to long-established French tradition whereby the party that wins the Presidency is accorded a legislative majority. This year, the disarray and dispirited state of the PS and Republicans reinforced that trend. The former has been reduced to marginal status. It remains to be seen whether it can recover, and – if so – what shape it will take. Several political personalities have defected to Macron’s camp. The most notable being the Premier Edouard Philippe (ex-Republican) and Valls (ex-PS). No surprise in this era of rampant careerism and uniformity of political philosophy. In ideological terms, to move from (the former) Valls or Fillon to Macron is about as drastic, and conscience wrenching, as switching from striped ties to plaid ties.

Macron: the Sun President

Young, energetic and full of himself – Macron has struck the pose of a great leader destined to do great things. Ordinary in appearance, his manner and words seem designed to clad him in robes and laurel leaves – the trappings of majesty. How much of this is genuine and how much confected is hard to say. A few years ago, while minister in Hollande’s disintegrating government, he was writing to a German friend to inquire about university teaching jobs in economics. Now he sallies forth as France’s last best hope. It is very possible that what began as audacious. inflated ambition now has evolved into an actual belief in his missionary role. The Obama example is again instructive. He certainly puts on an impressive show.

Macron’s high profile first few weeks in the Elysee reached a crescendo with an extraordinary conclave in the palace at Versailles, the former seat of French kings, where he addressed members of the Assemblée and Sénat along with other dignitaries . It was the occasion for high-blown exhortation – an appeal for dedication to a renewal of France accompanied by a broad outline of his radical plans.

A break from the (failed) past was the primary theme:

“Until now, we were too often on the wrong track. We preferred procedures to results, rules to initiative, a society where you live off inherited wealth…Our democracy can only be nourished in action, and in our ability to change what is everyday, and real….It isn’t five years of adjustments and half-measures that we have in front of us….” The French are “expecting a profound transformation.”

Macron stipulated that some basic changes in governmental structures and procedures were imperative. They do not fit comfortably into the category of democratic nourishment. He proposes, inter alia: to shrink the number of legislators in both houses by a third for the sake of “positive effects on the general quality of parliamentary work” (that is, to ease passage for his legislative initiatives); to expand the Presidential power to issue decrees (already proposed Labor overhauls that will curtail workers’ rights); and procedures to bypass the full legislature to fast-track “minor” legislation. Macron also called for a reining in of aggressive magistrates who launch “manhunts” in the guise of seeking out wrong-doing (the Fillon judicial action, prompted by an expose from the Canard Enchainé, that made him President?)

Macron’s democracy transformation and new humanism features a codification of the emergency powers assumed by President Hollande in the wake of the November 2015 terrorist attacks.  His proposed  blueprint for augmenting the government’s police powers includes draconian measures. His draft law would give local representatives of the Interior Ministry the authority to declare security zones, define who can enter or leave them, use electronic tags to restrict the movement of people considered a national security threat, close mosques and other centers of worship, and — with only limited judicial oversight — search private property. In the same spirit, Macron plans to issue sweeping decrees to limit the power of unions over working conditions and company firing policies. Such proposals have triggered mass demonstrations and even a few violent clashes with police, in recent months. In the name of preventing “threats to public order,” the government over a period of 18 months already has issued 155 decrees banning protests, and 574 measures prohibiting specific individuals from taking part in protests against proposed labor law changes.

By sheer coincidence, the “incessant hunt for scandal” has already cost him three ministers, tainted by potential financial misdeeds.  It looks soon to be four. A French investigation into a Las Vegas tech party last year is putting new pressure on President Macron’s labor minister — Muriel Penicaud -and possibly the president himself . The Paris prosecutor’s office opened a formal judicial inquiry on July 7 into suspected irregularities in the organization of a costly, high-profile event at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show that Macron headlined when he was Economics Minister. The inquiry focuses on illicit “favoritism.”

If consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, then inconsistency is a sure sign of a great spirit.  

Macron stressed that “The French people have shown their impatience with a political world made up of sterile quarrels and hollow ambitions in which we have lived up until now” – recycling Charles de Gaulle circa 1958 and, once again, Obama. The latter’s words reverberate in Macron’s call for France to become “the center of a new humanist project for the world,” telling citizens to beware “the cynicism that lies dormant in all of us….And it is within each one of us that we must shut it up, day after day.”  France without cynicism is what? Belgium?

Macron’s domestic agenda is clear-cut – despite mention of only a few particulars. He has asserted consistently that the French economy is handicapped by excessive regulation, by state interference, by rigid labor protections, by excessive spending on social programs. His neo-liberal viewpoint is a carbon copy of the Republican platform in America and the Tories’ in Britain. Completely at home in English, and a frequent visitor to both countries, Macron seems to have assimilated the mindset of the ECONOMIST, the FINANCIAL TIMES, and the WALL STREET JOURNAL – with minimal adaptation to France’s political culture and history. In the circles that formed Emanuel Macron, that is considered reason for high praise and the best qualification for running the country.

Macron’s version of a “renaissance” conforms to a populace’s supposed “overwhelming thirst for renewal” that entails nothing less than “reweaving, between French citizens and the republic, the relationship that has dissolved under the mechanical exercise of power“ He added. “From efficiency, representativity and responsibility, I want the emergence of a contractual republic.” What these nebulous words mean is practice looks to be: more concentration of power in the Executive, aggressive promotion of business friendly neo-liberal policies, and an unravelling of France’s Scandinavian style network of social programs – including its world leading health care system.

Macron gave the game away a few days before the Versailles extravaganza in a talk to a group of entrepreneurs – the sort of people he admires and sees as the torch bearers for a renewed France. There, he boldly drew a basic distinction between “people who succeed and those who are nothing.”  Mitt Romney or Donald Trump couldn’t have put it more succinctly.

He enlarged on the theme at Versailles. Macron warned against the encroachments of the welfare state on the citizens’ “sense of personal responsibility…. Certainly, we’ve got to recognize the essential role of public service, and of our civil servants. But protecting the weakest doesn’t mean transforming them into helpless minors, …every French person has a responsibility and a role to play in the conquests to come.”

Whether this is what the French are “thirsty for” is an open question. It already is available in Texas and no one detects a flotilla of French refugee boats surging into Galveston Bay.

Macron most probably will get want he wants in the way of neo-liberal legislation. The ‘Left’ opposition has been reduced to a tiny rump minority. That distribution of power, though, does not correspond to the distribution of public opinions. The real battle will take place in the streets – in the old-fashioned French manner – emergency decrees that label the demonstrators terrorists notwithstanding.

On verra!

External Relations

Macron’s thinking about major international issues is obscure. His public remarks have been vague, and at times contradictory.   We do know that he takes an aggressive stance on global warming – as highlighted by his much publicized dig at Donald Trump.**  He talks a good game about reenergizing the European Union in partnership with Angela Merkel. Macron routinely criticizes Brussels for being overly bureaucratic and unresponsive to citizens. What exactly he proposes to do about it is hazy, though. A new humanism for the world may be France’s vision but any step in that direction could only be meaningful if taken in concert by the EU.

As to Russia, Macron has hinted at the desirability of surmounting the rupture caused by Ukraine, and he opposes ratcheting up sanctions. At the same time, he made an undiplomatic display of his anger at Russia’s alleged electronic interference in the political affairs of other countries and its domestic repression of LGBTQ (one of his carefully cultivated progressive issues that matches youth sentiment). He did so publicly at Putin’s side during the joint press conference they held at the conclusion of the latter’s early visit to Paris. Yet, Macron visualized Russia as a partner in the war on terror.

On the Middle East, Macron has expressed a few views that deviate from what has been the consistent French line under Sarkozy and Hollande. He drew back from implacable opposition to Assad. He’s stated that he saw no legitimate successor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and France no longer considered his departure a pre-condition to resolving the six-year-old conflict. While Assad may be an enemy of the Syrian people, he is not France’s and that Paris’ priority was fighting terrorist groups and ensuring Syria did not become a failed state. As to Russia’s role, Macron acknowledged that Putin does not have “an unshakeable friendship with Assad. He has two obsessions, fighting terrorism and avoiding a failed state, and so that’s why convergent views on Syria appear.”  He went on: “My deep conviction is that there needs to be a diplomatic and political roadmap. We will not resolve this solely militarily.”

At the same time, he gave credence to the claim of supposed sarin attacks while warning that a repeat will find France back in the bombing business. Whether he is prepared to question any significant aspect of the current American imposed line on Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Palestine is unknowable at this time. We do know that he is aware of the strangle-hold that the Quai d’Orsay (which aligns fully with Washington) has had on official policy in the region, and has moved to offset it by inviting a very senior opponent of it to serve as an informal advisor on Middle Eastern affairs.

The rest is aléatoire.

Notes.

* Macron has yet to be nominated for a Nobel Prize. That still might happen – given precedent.  The mystery of the Obama prize is dissipated. It’s a banal story. A couple of influential members of the award committee were enthralled by the Obama persona; they were desperate to meet him. They judged correctly that getting a White House appointment was impossible given the tight guardianship provided by Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarret, his gate-keepers. So, the only option was to bestow on Obama the Nobel Prize which would lure him to Oslo.  In Macron’s case, his chances of receiving such an invitation would be greater were he of Maghrebi origin.

* * Macron’s invitation to Trump to join him for a pomp-filled Bastille Day celebration on Friday is pure Obama. The justification was the perceived need for a dramatic gesture on behalf of Europe to transcend Trump’s unhealthy isolation in the Western camp – to bond, to find “common ground,” to overcome sterile “partisanship.”  I nice idea; a nice photo op. Il fait tout pour le parade– as a French cynic might say, carefully selecting which parade at which moment. This is exactly the approach that Obama took toward the Republican leadership in Congress and toward the Wall Street barons. They responded to his appeals to good-will by spitting in his face – repeatedly.

Why did Trump accept the invitation? Two reasons. He read Macron correctly as a lightweight who shied from direct confrontation with a powerful personality (“I respect President Trump’s decision on the Paris Treaty”). In addition, Trump the narcissist cannot turn down any chance to be in the spotlight on a grand occasion like 14 Juillet in Paris. Frankly, were he invited to be parade jefe in El Paso on Cinco de Mayo wearing a giant sombrero while riding a big white stallion (followed by a festive dinner fit for Montezuma served by a troupe of….), he’d jump at it.

*** As to the EURO, Macron has acknowledged that it has become “dysfunctional” for structural reasons. The two he emphasizes are the asymmetries in balance-of-payments between German and most of the other Eurozone members; and the discontinuities between a common monetary policy and still national fiscal policies. On the former, he’s urged German leaders to take into account the wider systemic effects of their surplus driven strategy (e.g. running a budget surplus) while avoiding any criticism of the underlying fallacy that everyone could emulate Germany’s export performance – an EU wherein everybody is better than average).

**** On the latter, Macron’s proposal is the radical step of giving the euro zone a single finance minister and a common budget.  Today, the Eurozone already does have a de facto common fiscal policy insofar as the existing strictures (enforced by Germany) on budget deficits deny national governments the option of following an expansionary fiscal policy in times of recession – the main reason for Europe’s “lost decade” of GDP stagnation. Given Berlin’s doctrinal commitment to antediluvian economics, that will not change. The notion that Germany would yield to a more egalitarian approach with an Eurozone fiscal institution is just “whistling the Marseillaise.” Anyway, Macron’s own orthodox neo-liberal thinking, too, devalues expansionary fiscal policies, stresses internal adjustments – squeezing more out of workers,  lowered social spending, and tight monetary policy

***** As to the immigration crisis, Macron has given little indication that he feels it to be a critical matter for the EU to address. It’s a domestic, highly political question. The exception is the blatant violation by Hungary, Poland, et al of existing agreements on accepting a quota from those already accepted into Europe. Italy’s plea for some redress from the enormous burden imposed on it by geography has been ignored. Brussels turns a deaf ear; so, so too will Paris.

How does the absence of meaningful ideas to deal with the two issues that could make or break an increasingly parlous European Union correspond to Macron’s high-minded call for a reinvigorated EUROPE?  Posing so blunt a question itself places one outside the loop of contemporary political discourse.

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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