Emmanuel Macron, Part Deux
He’s relaunched his presidency for its second half. But is the makeover in style or substance?
There might not be second acts in American lives, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, but Emmanuel Macron is betting that maxim doesn’t apply to France. Since April, there has been much ballyhoo over the second act of the French president’s five-year mandate. It comes hard on the heels of his presidency’s momentous entr’acte, occupied by the yellow vest movement, the unprecedented mass protests that threatened to bring down the curtain for good on the government, and Macron’s equally unprecedented response: the three-month talkfest known as the grand débat national. The sheer length and logorrhea of the national debate have dampened the protests, with scarcely 12,000 demonstrators donning the vest this past Saturday—a massive falloff from the quarter million who had flocked to the early protests.
Yet the protesters, while not succeeding in their improbable aim of forcing Macron to step down, did manage to make him step back from much of the substance and style of his first act. Following the failed presidencies of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande—the former as frantic as the latter was flaccid—Macron believed the French sought a strong and stable president. As a result, he decided that even the magisterial model of Charles de Gaulle would not do and declared his desire to become a “Jupiterian” president.
In this vertical approach to governance, in which the National Assembly proposes and the Élysée disposes, Macron imposed a number of economic reforms. As part of its so-called green transition program, the government announced a hike in the country’s gasoline tax. At the same time, it also loosened labor laws and eliminated the solidarity wealth tax passed into law by the Socialists in 1981. The optics of the government’s attempt to ratchet up a regressive tax at the very moment it buried the wealth tax did not go over well. There were, moreover, several seemingly elitist remarks made by Macron—for example, expressing astonishment that the poor were “raking in the dough” from welfare programs—all of which earned him the reputation as “the president of the rich.”
With the sudden eruption of the yellow vest movement, Macron was forced to make a number of concessions and compromises. Though he drew a red line at the wealth tax, his government withdrew its plans to raise the gasoline tax and raised the minimum wage. Moreover, by launching a national debate, Macron conceded that his Jupiterian approach to politics, rather than drawing the French into his orbit, had instead driven them into the orbit of other parties or simply hurled them outside the political system altogether. At Macron’s nadir last December, less than 1 in 4 French approved of his performance.
Macron recently observed that leading a democracy means accepting unpopularity, but he would be the first to concede that accepting popularity is always preferable. Slowly but steadily, this has become Macron’s situation. With the waning of the yellow vest movement and waxing of the national debate, his polling has gradually climbed, reaching 30 percent this month. This recovery was aided enormously by his canny decision to throw himself into European Parliament elections last month, transforming it into a Manichaean struggle between the forces of light—Macron’s En Marche—and the forces of darkness, a role assigned to Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right National Assembly.
Though Macron’s involvement failed to push En Marche over the finish line first, he succeeded in prodding it into a close second. With a margin of less than 1 percent between the two parties, Macron could declare a victory of sorts. No less important, the implosion of the other parties— with the important exception of Yannick Jadot’s Greens—cleared the stage for raising the curtain on Act 2. The early previews are, by turns, reassuring and troubling.
In part, it appears that Macron will pursue certain themes he had introduced during the entr’acte. First and foremost, he doesn’t seem able to stop bragging about his newfound modesty. In an interview on Swiss radio this month, Macron apologized for his technocratic certitudes and monarchic mannerisms during Act 1 of his presidency. At times, he confessed, the government was “too far from our fellow citizens” while they crafted their solutions to various problems—all of which, he declared, was “a fundamental error.” Having seen the “suffering” of the French during their winter of discontent, Macron insisted on his determination to “reintroduce humanity and proximity” into his new relationship with the French. Later that same day, he doubled downed on his newfound social religion in a speech at the International Labour Organization. Warning that authoritarianism and populism flourish when people believe “democracy no longer protects them against the inequalities of capitalism gone mad,” Macron called on Europe to create a “social market economy where everyone finds their share,” rather than a system that sees “the capture of wealth by a few.”
Yet finding one’s share is meaningless if the share is not delivered. Time and again during the national debate, participants told Macron that they felt helpless when they faced the complexity of the state bureaucracy. As a result, and very much in sync with his effort to reinvent France as a “start-up nation,” Macron is now demanding that his ministers “deliver in a timely and concrete fashion” their services to French citizens. One means to become more efficient, Macron believes, is to decentralize the chain of command and give local civil servants greater latitude in both making decisions and making them responsible for seeing them through.
Of course, there is little that is new here: French politicians have long insisted on the imperative need to reform the state. But the “blockages” analyzed more than 50 years ago by the sociologist Michel Crozier remain largely unscathed. In part for this reason, many on the French left are no more buying this new and enlightened bill of goods from Macron than Jadot is buying Macron’s green credentials. During his interview in Geneva, Macron winked knowingly at Jadot and his fellow Greens by underscoring that Act 2 will lead to “an acceleration of our environmental and ecological ambitions, as well as an acceleration of our social preoccupations.” Yet the Greens leader has rejected Macron’s overture, mocking those who “are pretending to defend the environment today [when they were pretending] to defend social justice and democracy yesterday.”
Similar suspicions have haunted individuals and institutions in France and Europe seeking to defend the rights of immigrants. In his 2018 annual report, Jacques Toubon, France’s human rights ombudsman, denounced what he called the “criminalization of immigration.” He affirmed that Macron’s government has sought to “make migrants invisible” by both tearing down their shanty towns and refusing to provide any alternative to their sudden homelessness. Since then matters have only worsened for asylum-seekers. During a recent press conference, Macron did little to defuse these fears, surprising a number of journalists by raising the question of immigration, one that had rarely been broached during the national debate. In his opening remarks, he praised an “open” and “inclusive” patriotism but also warned that openness was not open-ended and that inclusivity entailed exclusivity. Explaining that nations are defined by their borders, Macron offered a facile formula—“To be open, it’s necessary to have limits”—while insisting that Europe was duty-bound to “protect its frontiers” and that “things will no longer be as they were before.”
It remains to be seen what things Macron has in mind. His proposal to impose a limit on the number of immigrants into France would violate international conventions on asylum. As the immigration specialist François Héran observes: “One cannot fiddle with the degree of human rights according to circumstances: One either accepts or rejects them.” Moreover, it is no secret that Macron seeks to redefine the Schengen Area, comprising the European Union’s 26 member states that allows its citizens unimpeded passage across its borders. But while Macron insists, rightly, that Schengen “no longer works,” he has not made clear how it could or should be repaired. Would the plan reduce the number of member states, excluding those nations with overly generous immigration policies like Greece or Germany? This would mean, in turn, excluding Macron’s allies within the EU. Or, instead, would it take aim at those member states, like Hungary and Slovakia, that refuse to participate in a common policy on asylum-seekers? If so, how could such a revision be passed while these same states remain members?
Ultimately, historians will judge the success of Macron’s second act on his ability not just to deliver services to the French but also to deliver on his original promises to keep French patriotism open and inclusive for all.