Slow Down, Emmanuel Macron!

The French president is looking toward the future—but his country feels left behind.

French President Emmanuel Macron runs to greet people, after the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2018. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron runs to greet people, after the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2018. (PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images)

The bloodletting of Emmanuel Macron continues this week as the French president finds himself facing another embarrassing confrontation with a young constituent, another embarrassing resignation of a cabinet member, and another embarrassing round of poor polling.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the hope-and-change, first-time politician. When Macron entered office in May 2017, he managed to be the candidate of neither the right nor the left yet the preference of both. His landslide defeat of the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was celebrated the world over as he proved capable of doing what the political machines in the United States and the United Kingdom could not: push back on populism, rein in nationalism, and make the case for a middle way. And as commanding as his 62 percent approval rating was a year and a half ago—a figure substantially higher than nearly every other democratically elected head of state—that number still failed to capture just how significant his popularity really was. The adoring headlines, the left-right armistice, the flag-waving rallies, the congratulatory calls from world leaders—Macron penetrated the impenetrable pessimism of French politics. “Onward!” was his slogan, and onward the French believed their country would go.

Yet all that is now slipping away. Macron appears to be losing the love of young voters—a demographic whose support was always tenuous—as he mouthed off at one this summer to call him “Mr. President” and at another this weekend to buck up and find a job. He appears to be losing the love of his cabinet—once a remarkable and fragile amalgamation of leaders on the left and right—as his environment minister resigned last month and his interior minister this week. And he appears to be losing the love of the French people as his support has been cut in half to a devastating 30 percent.

One would assume the problem to be a collision of expectations and reality. Running as Macron did on an agenda of massive reform projects, it follows that his unpopularity could be the consequence of an inability to deliver. But having unveiled his plan to “transform the French health care system” this week, having revealed his plan to “build a French Islam” last week, and having ushered in overhauls of France’s railway service, labor laws, and educational landscape in the preceding few weeks alone, it is clear enough that the president’s problem is not a failure to make good on his promises.

The problem is precisely what so many politicians before him have faced—the obligation, as the cliché goes, to campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Macron ran for president on a particularly enchanting vision of the future, one of high-tech and big business, but as that vision comes to be, its appeal has failed. Indeed, the same overly ambitious policies that once left his voters dazzled are now leaving his constituents dissatisfied.

A notable example comes from his deregulatory crusade to produce jobs and economic growth. From his first day in office, Macron set out to restructure—which is to say, to slash—France’s notoriously intractable regulatory landscape. The existing legal framework around jobs in France had made unemployment sticky as employers were wary to hire in good times when they lacked the ability to fire in bad times. Macron’s belief was that by easing restrictions on employers, by allowing them to operate more flexibly and fire more freely, France would ultimately become a more attractive hub for industry. And as France vies for British business in a post-Brexit world, Macron figured, business-friendly deregulation would be pivotal in his pitch.

On the one hand, Macron’s reform was met with immediate validation. Shortly after his executive order took effect, Amazon, Facebook, and Google announced plans to invest in the country. On the other hand, it did not take long for many of France’s core, low-skills employers—such as Groupe PSA, Carrefour, and Pimkie—to announce a fresh round of firings.

For Macron, however, the sudden layoffs of several thousand workers was a testament not to the failure of his economic reforms but rather to the fact that France cannot be competitive as a low-skills economy. It was a testament to the “skills mismatch” that burdened France, to an education system that could not face up to the 21st century. And so he was on to his next project.

Macron’s labor reforms took effect in January, by mid-month the waves of layoffs were announced, and by the end of the month a plan to modernize the baccalauréat—the exam French high school students take to receive their diplomas—and “embrace the digital world” was rolled out. Since then, his educational crusade to make France a “start-up nation” has not slowed.

At all times, Macron appears to be thinking and governing in the future. There are benefits to this, to be sure, as the reorientation of the secondary school system toward digital skills will likely have continued payoffs as time progresses. The liberalization of the French economy has also proved capable of siphoning away British business and will likely continue to do so.

But there are many costs to avoiding the realities of the present. The central problems of France today—weak economic growth of 1.7 percent, stubborn youth unemployment of 25 percent, and a manufacturing sector ill-suited for the 21st century—have not been solved or reduced by Macron’s new measures. It is unclear how France’s $1.8 billion investment in artificial intelligence over the next five years will help today’s economic growth; how his technological revamping of the baccalauréat, which is scheduled to take effect in 2021, will help today’s “lost generation”; or how this first batch of deregulation will help today’s anemic manufacturing sector.

It has largely become a compliment in the West to say that one lives in the future. But, in politics, that isn’t, and shouldn’t, necessarily be the case. For Macron, a relentless pursuit of modernity is coming at the expense of the present—and of the people who live in it. As each reform effort comes and goes, French voters are left frustrated that the future for which they voted is not serving them. Macron’s preference to pursue opportunities as they may come tomorrow rather than confront problems as they exist today speaks to a certain aloofness that we see equally in his crafting of policy and in his interactions with constituents. At every turn, Macron appears to turn away from the lived challenges of the day. In a different dimension of his reform project, we can see him asking an even more damning question: Why face up to Islamism and Islamophobia today when I can construct my own Islam tomorrow? 

As his rallies become strikes and his cheers become boos, Macron cannot ignore his new unpopularity in France. To counter it, the president launched charm offensives in every direction—telling protesters, “I hear the anger,” as they took to the streets; offering bitter retirees six mercis for their hardships during his tax reform; and reassuring his constituents that everything will work out in the long run. But his popularity continues to plummet.

There is no clear road back to a 60 percent approval rating. If one exists, however, it will be a road in reverse. He must reverse the perception of Macron the monarch, reverse the perception of “president of the rich,” and reverse the perception that jobs of the future matter more than the jobs of today. But such a charm offensive in reverse cannot come without a policy offensive in reverse. He must reverse his habit of governing by executive order by reincorporating the parliament, he must reverse his big-business concessions by reinstating the solidarity tax, and he must reverse his priority of a “start-up nation” by returning government revenues to public sector employers. 

Politicians are generally guilty of presentism, an overriding concern for and commitment to the problems of the present. This has never been the case with Macron, and down the road France will almost certainly be better off for it. But he must show how they will be better off, ensure that they will be better off, and not let them continue to believe that he is forsaking today for tomorrow.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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