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Emmanuel Macron’s lightening victory in France to potentially unchecked political power has invited comparisons with all powerful leaders of the Hexagon’s past. Is he the Sun King, the most supreme of all Europe’s absolute monarchs? Or perhaps like another King Louis, XVI, who faced a revolt of the masses and lost his head.
After taking the Élysée Palace in May, Macron stormed the National Assembly. His 350 (out 577) seats dwarfed the 137 for Francois Fillon’s Republicans and 44 for Benoît Hamon’s Socialists’. Yet the voter abstention rate hit record highs of 58% in the second round of the parliamentary election. Despite his shock success, Macron’s hold over France is less solid than some predicted and he would like.
Already concerns are increasing over his love for pomp, for which he has been rightly ridiculed in the French press. Not content with French historical comparisons Macron has been reaching into classical mythology – promoting himself as King of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, no less.
As he raises himself up above the mortals, he’s also distancing himself from the press. He’s ended off-the-record informal briefings which his predecessor Francois Hollande enjoyed and cancelled the traditional Bastille day TV interview. On the sidelines of summits, the President has also refused to respond to questions about judicial investigations that take aim at his ministers. He prefers Twitter and Facebook Live videos produced by his own media team.
Most seriously Macron appears determined to by-pass parliament and rule by presidential decree.
Initial enthusiasm that France would see Macron’s ‘democratic revolution’ as the old, unresponsive parties of the establishment were swept away, may soon give way to disillusionment. A dramatic situation where the former banker and socialist minister may have all the levers of formal power but lacks backing on the streets.
Not that polls should be believed these days, but this week one indicated his ratings have fallen by 10 points over the past month, leading the media to ask whether his ‘state of grace’ is already over.
Macron’s ambitions are large. His sell to the electorate was to bring France and Europe back from the brink, after Britain voted to exit the EU and euroskepticism appeared to overwhelm even Europe’s founding member and long-time motor. His resounding defeat of Marine Le Pen in Presidential elections in May appeared to put paid to a Gallic rejection of the EU dream. The Front National secured just 8 seats, half of Le Pen’s own modest target of 15. But for how long?
The energetic 39-year-old has been declared France’s answer to Tony Blair, the ‘Third Way’ Labour leader who joined US president George Bush in the invasion of Iraq and was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (in the words of his powerful minister Peter Mandelson).
Like Blair, and other more recent European iterations of the pro-European centre-left, Macron pretends he’s reaching beyond the traditional left / right split in politics. He talks of “reforms” – code for rolling back of genuine reforms of capitalism secured by ordinary people and the Left in decades of struggle, from the ‘bloated’ public sector and welfare state to ‘rigid’ labour markets. Rather than workers, it is business interests that must be championed. Gone is the Gaullist defence of ‘difference’. The most pro-European French leader ever seems ready to embrace the federalist dream.
What marks Macron out from the likes of Blair and Italy’s Matteo Renzi (both of whom sought to change traditional parties from within) was his invention of a brand new movement La Republique en Marche, to pursue his project. Against forecasts that he’d soon be facing difficulties “cohabiting” with a parliamentary majority of one of France’s two major parties, in the space of just a few months he converted a vehicle to make him President into a party that overtook them at the ballot box.
The other big change in this electoral cycle was the dramatic collapse of the Socialist vote. After five dire years in office under President Hollande, the electorate has been unforgiving. Hollande made big promises to deliver jobs and defend the 99% against the rich and the greedy bankers.
Instead unemployment rose on his watch (only in recent months falling to close to the levels when he was elected in May 2012) while he quietly dropped plans to reign in France’s financial sector (responsible, among many crimes and misdemeanors for a big chunk of Greece’s unsustainable debt) as well as his 75-percent tax on earnings over 1 million euros. Hollande also promised to defend French interests against an austerity-crazed Germany swaggering over the Continent.
But instead of cultivating a possible pro-growth alliance of the weaker Mediterranean EU members, notably Greece and Italy, he buckled under pressure from Chancellor Angela Merkel, deluding himself France was equal partner in the famed Franco-German European motor.
The Socialists have been punished before from earlier betrayals – notably Francois Mitterrand in the 1980s, and recovered. But they have never been punished so thoroughly. The fate of Pasok – the dominant party in Greece from the time the country emerged from the era of the generals – stares them in the face.
Macron saw this too. So if he got lucky with a scandal in Fillon’s Republican camp, he already had a plan to deal with the socialists: like a vampire he would draw strength from a party that was bleeding to death.
Macron was a protégé of Hollande and then, in appearance at least, he stabbed him in the back. But the policies he is pursuing are just a rebranding of the least progressive elements of the last socialist administration, such as Hollande’s bid – opposed with varying success in the streets – to reduce labour standards and cut business taxes (leading to a huge hole in the public finances). His plans to slash housing benefit and to weaken France’s wealth tax so that it applies only to property, not investments will benefit the richest 10%, a study published last week found. For appearances sake, a youthful, apparent outsider was needed, and candidates with no political experience.
Macron’s plan – backed by many in the establishment, including within the Socialist and Republican parties – was as Tancredi in The Leopard puts it: “For things to remain the same, everything must change”.
But what of Jean Luc Mélenchon and his La France Insoumise (Unbowed France) movement? And of the more traditional left flank of the socialists, the communists (PCF). Parties committed to genuine, radical reforms. As in 2012, Mélenchon brought a message of hope with his brilliant oratory, mass meetings and clever use of digital technology. This time, he also effectively tapped into youth culture (Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in Britain perhaps learned a thing or two from him). Mélenchon was pipped for 3rd place by Fillon, with 20% of the vote.
But in the parliamentary elections, winner takes all (in the second round, run-offs, at least), and La France Insoumise and the PCF failed to co-operate, except in a minority of localities. This was partly down to frictions caused by a battle for hegemony over the radical left (similarly playing out in Spain between upstart Podemos and the Communist-led United Left), with Mélenchon seen as more assertive of the two.
There was the added complication that the Socialists under new leader Hamon had moved much closer politically to their left flank, again raising the question of co-operation locally. In the end, La France Insoumise and the PCF combined won 3 million votes and 27 seats, enjoying the funds and prominence that comes with a parliamentary group. But they nevertheless remain a marginal parliamentary force and importantly still behind the Socialists in terms of seats.
La France Insoumise and the PCF under leader Pierre Laurent will do what they can to oppose Macron in parliament, but the real resistance is going to be on the streets. The unions are already gearing up to resist Macron as he seeks to impose his hire and fire labour legislation, move France’s collective bargaining on wages and working time from the industry (where unions are stronger) to the company level (where they are weaker) and cap severance packages awarded by industrial tribunals (to cut costs to business). And in this and other battles organised labour is likely to find allies within society, as they did last year against similar attacks on workers, with the youth-led nocturnal protest movement known as La Nuit Debout (or “Up All Night”). Macron’s proposed housing benefit cuts – hurting some 800,000 students – have increased the prospects of just such an alliance.
As for the wider pro-European revival Macron seems to herald, how long that will last remains to be seen. Macron has been lucky that Europe’s single currency zone economy has seen somewhat of a recovery recently. But under the terms of Eurozone membership France, like other southern members, is permanently locked into a low-growth, low investment, low-skills vicious circle. There can be no country-level interest rate and currency flexibility (to cut borrowing costs and regain export competitiveness) and no boost to public spending (hitting schools and hospitals). Workers (sacrificing wages and working conditions) are required to bear all the (downward) adjustment. In France austerity rules. And Macron is condemned, like Hollande before him, to crisis management.
Le Pen gained 10.6 million votes in the Presidential elections on the back of calls for a referendum on EU and Euro membership, as well as her politics of law and order and proposed anti-immigrant clampdown. Even her much diminished three million score in parliamentary elections showed she has as much support as the radical left, whose position as critical supporters of the EU and European monetary union have seen many in blue collar heartlands to switch their political colours from red to brown. There’s been little Left Exit, or Lexit debate, in France, even though regaining political and economic sovereignty would be popular. The risks of ducking the issue are huge. For when Macron falters, do we really want Le Pen at the guillotine?