13 July 2018

Have we reached Peak Macron?


The sight of Emmanuel Macron, air-fist-pumping next to a bemused King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium in the presidential box of the St Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, when Samuel Umtiti scored a goal during the France-Belgium semi-final, played less well in France than le Président might have expected.

When your poll numbers have taken a nosedive, with 59 per cent of the French criticising your policies, 65 per cent saying it’s fair to call you “the President of the rich”, and only 29 per cent believing you “understand their concerns”, it may even take more than a World Cup victory on Sunday to reverse the trend.

It’s not that the French aren’t deliriously happy at the perspective of reliving their 1998 World Cup triumph, especially after two decades of football frustration. It’s more that they remember Macron possessed with this kind of exaltation from before: when he was campaigning to win their votes. It worked then; it may prove hard to replicate.

Macron on the campaign trail shouted himself hoarse in rallies, a youthful, seductive alien in the predictable French political world, chewing the scenery like a young Olivier. His election transmogrified him into one of those Republican monarchs we specialise in, a hybrid of De Gaulle and Mitterrand in narrow-cut bespoke suits, staging cold spectacles and photo-ops in the nation’s historic palaces: the Louvre, Versailles, the Élysée, Chambord.

It certainly looked prestigious, and the French have a soft spot for prestige, especially after the accidental presidency of the hapless François Hollande, a man who couldn’t even manage to sneak out to visit his mistress without looking like a Fringe comedian (on the back seat of a moped, wearing a full-face helmet à la Daft Punk.)

But Macron also had an agenda, duly laid out in his manifesto, and restated earlier this week, in a State of the Union-type 90-minute speech to both Houses gathered at Versailles: reforming France in depth, breaking through layers of legislation, regulation, and a byzantine coil of avantages acquis, special perks and exceptions to a social structure not known for its simplicity in the first place.

There isn’t one public pension system, but at least 40, with different retirement ages and calculations. Tax legislation provides for breaks, special levies or loopholes more than anywhere else, save perhaps in the United States. The French employment code famously numbers 3,077 pages (about 100 more than Marcel Proust’s seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu), and is not likely to be reduced much by its recent reform.

At first, the French welcomed le choc de simplification (the official, quasi-Soviet term). For a longer time than any president in decades, Macron enjoyed a honeymoon with the country. He was helped in that by his ruthless demolition of both traditional parties, the Socialists on the left (who now poll barely 6 per cent of the vote) and the Républicains on the right, whom he split by judiciously hiring a few of the more amenable among them into his Cabinet, including his young PM, Édouard Philippe, a former deputy to ex-Chirac PM Alain Juppé.

Having neutralised the moderate Juppéiste conservatives, Macron cultivated Sarkozy, who was soon heard to comment that the young president was “even cleverer than me”.

That only left the more radical Républicain wing, led by Laurent Wauquiez, a former European Affairs then Education minister. Very much an insider with stellar academic and civil service credentials, Wauquiez reinvented himself into a rough-spoken man of the people and competes essentially with Marine Le Pen’s newly-minted Rassemblement National for France’s populist vote, under Macron’s gratified eye — they cancel each other, neither looking a credible alternative to the majority of voters, and diffuse harmlessly the protest vote.

At the other end, Macron positively welcomed the vocal opposition of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard-left France Insoumise (Unbowed France), calculating, which may prove a mistake in the long run, that their 17 MPs would similarly siphon popular stances away from the Socialists.

It was masterfully done, and Macron’s first successes — in ramming through a reform of the employment code toward more flexibility; in dealing with basilisk-like slowness with a dragged-out train strike where the main unions lost public support by sheer attrition — made him careless.

All French presidents are tempted, at one stage, to try on the mantle of the Sun King; Macron went further and theorised openly that the French had a hankering for its defunct monarchy.

His international successes had flattered the French, especially the way he seemed to assume the leadership of Europe while Angela Merkel floundered. Unlike the British, the French did not object to Macron’s Trump-whispering (Macron says French voters don’t get to pick the American president, and it’s best to deal with him as well as possible.) He became a darling of the quality international press, and let it be known: the Twitter bio of the Financial Times’s Paris bureau chief is a Macron quote; The Economist‘s bureau chief has written the first comprehensive Macron political biography in English: while an excellent book, overly critical it is not.

Yet Macron had lost a first battle early on, trying to create an official First Lady status for his wife, for the sake of “transparency”. Considering that Brigitte Macron, like every presidential wife, has secretaries and a chief of staff to deal with a heavy postbag and normal representative duties, this was in fact sensible, but it hit a nerve. The French don’t like clear-cut situations: the nation’s entire consensus is built on a fudging of boundaries that enables organic evolution of the country’s mindset. (This works far better than you’d expect.)

The notion of “transparency”, hastily grafted from an alien Nordic model, has more to do here with an age-old revolutionary mood of envy than a simple factual assessment: every year, the publication of ministers’ and MP’s personal assets lists, however modest, is an occasion for vitriolic comments, whereas the less-detailed register of interests, by contrast, is little-scrutinised.

Tax cuts gifted to business while snipping off seemingly tiny benefits (a five-euro monthly housing subsidy; a one per cent shave off state pensions), played badly in a country surprisingly fearful of déclassement. 55 per cent of the French fear falling into poverty, a figure that rises to 62 per cent of industry workers and to 69 per cent of service workers. Forty-two per cent of middle to top-level executives share this worry, but the figure falls to a remarkable 28 per cent among La République en Marche (Macronista) voters. These are found in large cities, especially Paris, and have a university or post-graduate Grande École education: they are the winners of globalisation, comparable to David Goodhart’s “Anywheres”. Swathes of the nation, willing Macron to succeed even when they hadn’t voted for him, started feeling he was unable to understand their everyday concerns.

This, of late, has been underlined by a number of presidential own goals. Brigitte Macron was tasked by her husband to pick a complete new china service for the Élysée: 1,200 plates from the Manufacture Nationale (formerly “Royale”) de Sèvres, France’s grandest porcelain maker, founded by Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, to replace the current State Dinner service, said to be faded from use. A special design has been created (the artists’ competition itself cost 50,000 euros) and the final bill is believed to be not unadjacent to half a million euros. Even the usually accommodating Le Figaro couldn’t help noting that the Élysée inventory already lists 13,644 plates and assorted pieces of china, mostly also from Sèvres.

Then came the news that Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron had ordered a (relatively modest) swimming-pool built inside the walled-in summer presidential residence at Brégançon, a medieval castle on a small islet off the coast of Hyères, on the Riviera. The Élysée press office tried to make the case that every time the President went swimming in the Med, the security detail needed to guard against terrorists and enterprising paparazzi cost an impressive number of police man-hours better deployed elsewhere. As spin, it unsurprisingly failed.

But the malaise may go deeper. A perfect product of the upper reaches of the French civil service — he only spent two and a half years as a merchant banker with Rothschilds, who had hired him as a luxury pilot fish to navigate the shoals of French officialdom — Macron is essentially a technocrat. This is not necessarily a crippling handicap in politics here: the French don’t want to love their leaders, they want them to be competent. Macron won his presidential debate against Marine Le Pen not in spite of the populist mood of the country but because of it.

No Ayn Rand libertarians, the French anti-système parties dream of a kind of modernised Bonapartism last seen between 1946 and 1974, during the immediate post-war era known as Les Trente Glorieuses. These saw the country rebuild itself at an annual growth rate of 5 per cent, with Marshall Plan subsidies, a Five-Year Plan, excellent self-funding welfare, pensions and health systems, and a slew of nationalisations (coal, steel, electricity, gas, transport, the largest banks and insurance companies), all overseen by a dedicated, competent and largely selfless cadre of civil servants. Voting for a younger version of such Serviteurs de l’État (servants of the State) made sense, even for natural Mélenchon and Le Pen voters.

Except that what they got instead was a moderniser familiar enough with the workings of the French State to be able to set depth charges under it. An authoritarian who leaves very little initiative to his ministers or to his MPs, Macron is obsessed with speed and control.

He is the first French president to have fully absorbed both Twitter time and the five-year term; the first to speak fluent English to the extent that he prefers dispensing with a translator; the first to kick out the Presidential press corps from the Élysée Palace itself, preferring communicating through managed Facebook videos and the odd staged speech; the first to risk announcing that the costly but beloved French welfare and safety net (32 per cent of GDP if you include health, pensions, unemployment and assorted benefits) needs “repurposing for the 21st century”. It is common knowledge that the President is banking on being re-elected in 2022 to complete all his reforms; unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t want to delay some of those to a hypothetical second term.

Because he has no working centre-right or centre-left opposition, Macron calculates he can last the course even if the discontent become more pronounced. This is where he is taking the most risks. On the far-right, it will take a little time before Marion Maréchal, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s grand-daughter and Marine Le Pen’s niece, who has left her aunt’s crippled Rassemblement National, has built up her own organisation. Maréchal, 28, officially renounced her seat in Parliament to create her own broad-spectrum political school: she believes in the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s theory of first conquering the “superstructure”, culture, mood and ideology. She has made carefully-calibrated appearances in America, at CPAC; in Sebastian Kurz’s Austria; more recently with Italy’s Matteo Salvini; and thinks, with some cause, that time is on her side.

The more immediate threat comes from the French Corbyn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a first-rate debater, who polled 19.6 per cent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election last year. Even allied to the rump of France’s old Communist party, France Insoumise was a victim of the first past the post, two-round system in the legislative elections. Yet Macron’s scorched earth policies mean the only vocal opposition he’s left in place comes from the FI little band: like Momentum and Bernie Sanders, Mélenchon radicalises the tone of the debate, anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, soft on Maduro, Putin and on Assad, avowedly Marxist, and strangely seductive to young and disenchanted voters.

Where the RN’s arguments largely remain toxic, FI’s sounds romantic, simple and convincing. Méluche’s tirades against global capitalism and the “power of money” resonate in France, an old country which has of long assimilated both Marxism and Catholicism. Jean-Luc Mélenchon alone can’t win an election, but he may one day reconquer the faltering Socialist party which spat him out exactly ten years ago, and win the most effective base from which he’ll mount a successful attack against Emmanuel Macron.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French journalist and broadcaster.