On May 14, Emmanuel Macron began his five-year term as president, at a time when France faces a number of major hurdles. Economic growth is back, but unemployment remains stubbornly high and reforms are well overdue. Six months into the Macron era provides an opportunity to examine the challenges he faces.
In the twilight period of François Hollande‘s presidency (2012-17), years after the recession brought about by the global financial crisis of 2008, the French economy was sluggish, social cohesion was low, and the general mood was downbeat. At the same time, populism had been on the rise in several European Union countries, like Greece, Austria and the Netherlands. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Front National, stood an outsider’s chance of winning the election in 2017.
Macron’s victory was initially viewed as a triumph of centrism. Here is a brief assessment of how his programme of reform is being implemented:
French politics rebooted
For decades, the political scene in France was dominated on the left by the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste), and on the right by The Republicans (Les Républicains). Emmanuel Macron’s project for a viable alternative was first viewed with scepticism across the political spectrum, and even pity on the part of colleagues in the Hollande government in which he had served as minister of finance.
But the presidential election in May, and the parliamentary election in June 2017, rebooted French politics. The Socialist Party regressed into factional infighting, and even had to put its headquarters up for sale, as Le Monde reported. The Republicans, which imploded after the unsuccessful presidential bids of two leading figures, Alain Juppé and François Fillon, is trying to recover from its internecine strife.
In forming his first government, Macron appointed three members of Les Républicains to the cabinet of twenty-two members: Edouard Philippe as prime minister, Bruno Le Maire as minister of finance and industry, and Gérald Darmanin as minister for the budget. By joining the government, these ”Macron-compatible” conservatives, as Le Point called them, exacerbated the internal strife within their party. He has also adopted a high-risk strategy of what he called a “Jupiterian” presidency – wielding dignified authority like the Roman king of the gods, as detailed in an in-depth Guardian profile by Emmanuel Carrère.
As for the President’s own party, The Republic Marching Ahead (La République en marche, LREM), – often still referred to as En Marche – the challenge now is to grow into a more normal political organisation. As roughly half of its members in the national assembly had no political experience prior to their election, this may not be easy.
The government policy being implemented is meant to reassure those who pay a higher band of income tax. They have long felt that the rate of taxation on wealth dissuades them from investing in most French sectors, except for property. Fiscal reform aims at reversing the outward flow of young talent while wooing back French entrepreneurs. It also seeks to attract highly qualified foreign professionals who work in sectors like artificial intelligence, financial services, science and technology, but who might be considering leaving the UK because of uncertainty linked to Brexit.
Labour relations, economic policy and unemployment
Still hovering around 10 percent, the unemployment rate is a harsh reminder that France has failed, in part, to adapt to the fourth industrial revolution. After World War II, labour unions enjoyed a pre-eminent role in labour negotiations, granted by the government because they had taken an active part in the resistance movement against the Nazi occupation. But today’s social reality shows some striking differences: while a large majority of employees in Germany are affiliated to a labour union, unionised French workers are a minority, however with large variations: membership is high in the public sector, low in private enterprise.
There were large demonstrations in mid-October (as reported here by Le Monde) against Macron’s proposed changes in the labour law, but the government, in implementing its programme, so far has not had to deal with the paralysing disruptions of previous decades. Macron has been keen to explain that his economic and social programme is not about sectoral adjustments, but about a comprehensive modernisation of France. In France the economy has grown about 2.2 percent over the past year, as The Guardian reported, but a more durable success will depend on overall economic performance, which itself is reliant upon world trends in investment, industry, technology, commerce.
In the short and medium term, these economic and social issues will play out on the political scene, where three political parties are vying to become the main parliamentary opposition: The Republicans, who are in the process of electing a new leader; Unsubmissive France (La France insoumise) led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and the National Front (Front National) led by Marine Le Pen.
Education and professional training
Generations of sociologists have pointed out the high social cost of the French education system, with its centres of excellence for a ”meritocracy.” Professional training was and is still considered a second choice, thus having a negative impact on the economy. Far too many students are reading sociology or history of art, fields in which employment is rare, while mathematics, technology, project management graduates or biologists are in demand. Because the French system has shied away from entrance exams to universities, the dropout rate can be extremely high, for instance at the end of the first year in medical studies. The government is looking at other models where academic education and professional training are considered, and indeed funded, on an equal footing, for instance in Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
Modernising parliamentary representation and public administration
France is one of the countries in the world with the most layers of representation and levels of administrative inspection and control. A series of French leaders have sought to implement reforms of state structures and procedures, many which date back to Napoleon, such as the département which was defined as a territory a citizen could travel through on horseback in one day.
François Mitterrand was the first to devolve some administrative powers to regions; Jacques Chirac was more cautious; Nicolas Sarkozy promised a major reform, but did not follow through; François Hollande brought down the number of regions from 22 to 14, but did not act on his promise to reduce the number of representatives in the national assembly and the senate.
In six months, President Macron has brought about several changes. Gender equality stands at 38.6 percent in the national assembly, where women now hold 45 percent of the seats occupied by his own party. He obtained the resignation of three recently appointed cabinet ministers with potential conflicts of interest. He is gradually winding down the long-standing practice of politicians holding multiple elected jobs (mayor, member of parliament, member of a regional assembly).
But more will be needed to implement the modernisation Macron is calling for. These include reducing by one third the number of members of the national assembly (currently 577) and the senate (currently 348); and reducing the number of municipalities (currently 63,000).
One of Macron’s biggest challenges will be to effectively reduce the number of députés, many of whom will probably resist the move. As a candidate, Macron had also called for a degree of proportional representation in parliamentary elections, but he has yet to outline a timeline and process to achieve this aim.
From garage start-up to political heavyweight
In less than 18 months, a group set up to support a candidate’s presidential bid, Forward March (En marche! EM, which are also Emmanuel Macron’s initials), has grown into a major political force. With an absolute majority in the national assembly, LREM is helping the government to pass urgent legislation. And although LREM suffered a setback in the senate elections in August 2017, it holds a comfortable enough majority to help push through the government agenda.
The challenge is now to keep alive the bottom-up process of EM, which claims to have more than 200,000 members, who seem uncertain as to how best to carry forward their grass-roots contribution. Whereas local volunteer work is continuing in areas such as housing, public transport or waste disposal, involvement in policy issues at a national level seems less assured, now that the people elected under the LREM banner are dealing with them in the national assembly.
Global climate change
The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) was hosted by President Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, with the aim of getting as many countries as possible to commit to a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. When United States President Donald J. Trump signalled his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement, his French counterpart, and also the leaders of India, China, Canada and many other countries, stated that the plan would go ahead, with or without the U.S. In domestic politics, Macron’s commitment on tackling climate change was underlined by his nomination of Nicolas Hulot, a veteran environmentalist, as minister for the environment.
In September 2017 at Sorbonne University in Paris, President Macron outlined wide-ranging proposals aimed at making the organisation more efficient and closer to citizens, covering security and defence, migration policy, economic and social goals, sustainable development, digital and innovation policy, democratic institutions, and youth. Unofficial reactions in member states have ranged from prudent expectation to strong support. The parties involved in the formation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet issued a joint statement underlining the importance of German-French relations – reported here by Politico.eu. Paris is aware that, as long as the Chancellor has not composed her coalition government, pushing Germany to take a position on major EU issues would not be helpful.
The Brexit process
France shares the views of other EU member states: London and Brussels must first agree on settling pending financial questions (involving the UK both as a creditor and as a debtor), before the future relationship between the UK and the EU can be discussed.
While President Trump has questioned the relevance of NATO, President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and others have underlined the importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation for the whole of Europe. Currently, the European members of NATO – and indeed the US delegation in that alliance – are pursuing their work, and quietly downplaying Trump’s rhetoric.
Europe would argue that its position is vindicated by the increased Russian military activity on the borders of NATO members states, as well as by the risk of a new phase of nuclear proliferation, sparked by North Korea’s testing of nuclear arms and long-range missiles. As the UK is absorbed by Brexit, and as Germany, for historical reasons, refrains from taking initiatives in the area of collective security, France’s role is considered important in the Trans-Atlantic alliance.
President Macron’s approval ratings
Recent polls show a fall in support for Macron from 45 percent in September, to 42 percent in October 2017, reflecting dissatisfaction on the part of civil servants, public sector employees, pensioners, and high income earners. These are people who feel most affected by Macron’s fiscal and budget policy. It may take anything between a few months and two or three years for his comprehensive modernisation programme to show results, and in that period, approval ratings could stay low.