Argument

Macron’s Centrism Is Coming Apart at the Seams

The French president spent his first year steering his country to the right — and his supporters on the left are starting to wonder what they signed up for.

Emmanuel Macron arrives on the first day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron arrives on the first day of a summit of European Union (EU) leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels, on March 22, 2018. (JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

As a candidate for the French presidency in 2017, Emmanuel Macron frequently boasted that he was “neither right nor left,” championing his candidacy as a third way. He then amended this self-description to “both right and left.” In the run-up to round one of the elections, Macron even gave a class of elementary school students a charming lesson in the difference: the right stood for liberty, he said with a disarming smile, while the left championed equality. Promising to bridge the gap between the two, he would be the candidate of fraternity. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: It was a neat hat trick for the former philosophy student, who managed to beguile the roomful of schoolchildren with his Hegelian synthesis of France’s contentious revolutionary past.

Now, nearly a year into the Macron presidency — with his approval rating down to 40 percent after three consecutive months of decline — many who voted for him in the hope that he would indeed transcend the left-right divide have begun to ask whether they bought into a charade, despite the fact that Macron in power has done more or less exactly what he said he would do. Right-wing traditionalists balk at his plans to turn France into a “startup nation” modeled on Silicon Valley, while the left bridles at his efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration and offer tax cuts for the wealthy. The latter has earned Macron the epithet “president of the rich.”

The ire of the left was raised early. By October 2017, just a few months after taking office in May, Macron had eliminated the wealth tax on assets other than real estate, a move he had previewed — and justified — during the campaign as an incentive to investors and an enticement to the affluent to remain in France. Some 10,000 millionaires reportedly fled France in 2015.

Macron also pushed through a major reform of the labor code. Making good on an oft-repeated campaign promise, he extended labor reforms he had initiated as minister of the economy under Socialist President François Hollande. Although the details of the new labor code are complex, Macron’s measure essentially aimed to allow firms greater flexibility in hiring, firing, and setting working hours and conditions — standard neoliberal supply-side economics.

Then, to make up for some of the revenues lost through the elimination of the wealth tax, he imposed a “generalized social contribution” on certain retirees. But this merely reinforced the perception that he had veered to the right. Critics charged that Macron was out to soak the elderly in order to coddle the wealthy, and the charge has stuck: According to one poll, 71 percent of the French deem the new tax on retirees “unjustified,” even though it does not affect all retirees and will be partially offset by a gradual reduction in local property taxes.

In an effort to mollify retirees miffed by the new tax, Macron profusely thanked them — six times — in a televised interview with journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut in April. It didn’t have the intended effect: Viewers consulted immediately after the broadcast accused the president of showing “contempt” toward retirees and treating them as “second class citizens” because he taxed their benefits while cutting taxes on the wealthy.

Finally, Macron’s proposal to reform the French national railroad, the SNCF, has rankled those who see him as tacking ever-further to the right. The railway system — and railway workers — have long enjoyed a privileged place in the French imagination and economy. Seven out of 10 French citizens prefer the train over other means of transportation, and the SNCF is venerated as the quintessential public service.

France’s railway workers, known as cheminots, currently enjoy quite generous contractual conditions compared with other workers. Once hired, their jobs are guaranteed for life — layoffs are not permitted. All SNCF employees can retire as early as age 55, and those who must travel long distances from their home base, such as engineers, can retire at 50, although previous reforms are gradually increasing the retirement age and tightening the rules around retirement.

Macron wants to alter all this, partly in response to European Union initiatives intended to increase market competition in the railroad industry. He claims that the French railroad “is 30 percent less efficient” than the railroads in neighboring countries such as Germany. The unions dispute this figure. Labor leaders maintain that if the SNCF suffers from high costs, the chief reason is not the wages and benefits accorded to railway workers but the high debt the company carries as a result of heavy borrowing over the last 30 years to build high-speed rail lines that mostly serve the wealthy.

There is considerable disappointment that Macron as president seems to have tilted to the right. According to an extensive post-election survey, 45 percent of those who voted for Macron in the first round of last year’s presidential election voted for the Socialist candidate, Hollande, in the first round in 2012. In other words, Macron would not be president today had it not been for this substantial show of support from voters who identified with the left. But that shift was telegraphed at the outset of his presidency: Although several of his ministers, including Gérard Collomb on interior and Jean-Yves Le Drian on foreign affairs, come from the Socialist Party, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, and Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin all come from the right. Indeed, if the election had produced a president of the center-right, the government’s program might well have looked identical to Macron’s. Philippe was a top advisor to center-right leader Alain Juppé, and Le Maire was himself a candidate for the Republicans’ nomination.

In fact, Macron has given the right so much of what it wanted that he has effectively split the Republicans. A group of moderates, dubbed “Constructives” for their willingness to work with Macron, were rewarded with expulsion by the new Republican leader, Laurent Wauquiez. Being a conservative himself, Wauquiez cannot criticize Macron for granting the right the economic policy it said it wanted, so he has taken to attacking the president as an out-of-touch “elitist” who arrogantly “dictates” to the authentic people of the provinces and rules with the assistance of “a new state nobility” of Parisian bureaucrats. If Macron has his way, Wauquiez fumes, France will be transformed into a “startup nation” of “hyperconnected but rootless” individuals.

Further, the traditional right refuses to recognize him as a conservative because his plan to steer France toward an entrepreneurial high-tech future is seen as a threat to traditional values. Nothing pleases Macron more than to be attacked on both flanks, because taking fire from both sides lends credence to his claim of belonging to neither.

A case in point: On the evening of April 15, Macron sat down for an interview with two pugnacious journalists. Edwy Plenel, the editor of Mediapart, represented the militant left, while Jean-Jacques Bourdin of the radio station RMC represented the populist right. Both tried to pin him down in their crossfire. Macron reveled in the exercise, which demonstrated that his great strength as a political fighter is neither his left jab nor his right hook but rather his adroit rhetorical footwork, which keeps his opponents off balance. “People saw a president who can take a punch and throw one when necessary,” crowed the government’s spokesman, Christophe Castaner. The confrontation, he said, was “almost physical.”

Televised political pugilism is one thing, but French workers long ago perfected their own brand of street jujitsu. Three days after Macron’s televised interview, rail workers were back on strike, bent on disrupting transit two days out of every five until the government yields.

The president nevertheless promises to hold firm. He believes he has discerned the structures that stand in the way of progress and is determined to blast them away in order to clear a path to a brighter future. Macron, after all, is a devotee of the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who held that economic progress is a product of “creative destruction.” And the French president is a French technocrat at heart, one who believes that the state is the sole arbiter and representative of the general interest.

The danger is that the structural changes Macron intends to make will not produce the anticipated results. For a while it seemed that a general recovery of the European economy was working in his favor: The rising tide would lift the French boat along with all the others. But the recent signs of slowdown call this into question, and the outcome of the German elections has reduced the likelihood of any of the EU reforms that Macron has championed. This has only compounded the disappointment of his left-wing supporters.

Yet Macron’s eloquence and evident mastery of the machinery of government continue to impress sufficient swathes of the public and political class, which is why it remains doubtful that the various movements that have arisen in opposition will coalesce sufficiently to block his reforms. But it’s not without irony that Macron’s talent for navigating bureaucracy is proving to be his saving grace, even as his reputation for centrism dissolves.

Arthur Goldhammer is an affiliate of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. He blogs on French politics at http://artgoldhammer.blogspot.com

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