Since his election in May 2017, international observers have fairly unanimously welcomed Emmanuel Macron as today’s modernizing figure in French politics and depicted him as a pro-European Social Democrat with an assertive reformist touch. Yet, it took no longer than one year for the French to qualify him as a “right wing” president. Looking at his political agenda and governing style, there are indeed no grounds for thinking that l Macron contributes to the renewal of social democracy in any sense or way.
The French President has attracted enormous sympathy due to his bold voluntarism on the international stage, currently populated mainly by various kinds of autocrats, an outrageous Donald Trump and a declining Angela Merkel. But behind the seductive style of a young and charismatic leader, a careful examination of his domestic action unveils a blend of socio-economic neoliberalism, authoritarian conservatism and monarchical governing philosophy.
The embodiment of the “bloc bourgeois”
Over the past ten years, political scientists have analysed how national party systems are slowly but powerfully being reshaped by a structural sociological change in traditional constituencies. The left-right divide has been increasingly disrupted and overtaken by a new opposition between those citizens who see the economic and cultural opening to Europe and the world as a positive development and those who feel threatened by such integrative trends and call for closure of the national space behind strictly demarcated borders. The new cleavage clearly rests on a sociological divide insofar as the first group embraces mainly urban well-educated, well-earning people, while the second is mainly constituted by blue collars, the unemployed and people leaving in desolated rural and semi-rural areas. The fact that the mechanisms of representative democracy only work within the framework of the nation-state (when they are still effective) whereas important decisions regarding especially socio-economic policies are made at the EU or global level has slowly brought about the dissolution of a strong sense of popular sovereignty and its replacement by a widespread feeling of powerlessness and anger.
Against this backdrop, Macron has unambiguously profiled himself as the representative of the wealthy part of society so much so that he is now dubbed as “the president of the rich”. He embodies the attitude, the values and the desired trajectory of the upper classes, on the one hand, and he conducts policies that serve their interests, on the other. This is confirmed by opinion polls conducted recently for the first anniversary of the presidency. Those who support both the personality and the action of the president are rather old (37% of the 65+) and educated, 42% of them are managers and 48% earn more than €6000 a month. In contrast, those who reject both the president himself and his agenda are rather young (42% of the 18-24 age group), less educated (workers or blue collars) and tend to live in rural regions. 51% of them earn less than €1250 a month. The fact that 42% of those who voted for the very conservative candidate François Fillon in the last presidential election are now part of the most enthusiastic supporters of President Macron is furthermore very telling of the social forces on which his presidency relies.
Old neoliberal recipes
The fiscal policy measures enforced rapidly in the first year of his presidency have all pointed in one direction: alleviating the fiscal pressure on owners of all sorts of capital, be it companies or the richest households. It was quite telling that Macron and his government awkwardly referred to the fallacious, elitist and outdated concept of “trickle-down economics”, a theory which has been meanwhile abandoned by all serious economists.
The main socio-economic reform has been a further deregulation of the French labour market and labour law which will make it easier to lay off workers and accentuates the trend towards the decentralisation of collective bargaining. In contrast, the extension of unemployment benefits to freelance workers (and those who voluntarily leave their jobs under certain circumstances) will only come at the price of a lower level of welfare benefits and the enforcement of new disciplinary measures (such as sanctions and the cutting of benefits if claimants reject more than two job offers). Moreover, current projections suggest that the measures will only benefit a handful out of millions of potentially concerned workers.
Resources dedicated to public investment into social policy and education remain scant. The decay of French universities and the massive problems of the school system with continuously decreasing resources against a background of a growing population are a good illustration of the President’s double tongue modernisation discourse. One response suggested so far by the government has been plans for possible further decentralisation leading to more competition among schools and universities.
In short, Macron is undertaking a neo-liberalisation of the French economy and society à la Blair or à la Schröder 20 years later, precisely at a time when British and German societies are experiencing the deterioration of social cohesion resulting from such policies.
Authoritarian securitisation and societal conservatism
More interestingly, though, also from the point of view of cultural and societal issues, Macron is failing to adopt a new left vision, and rather resorts to newly – yet unconvincingly – packaged conservative policies.
Many of his actions have been particularly at odds with his pro-opening, tolerant discourse and show clear focus on security at the expense of civil liberties. The government’s migration policy has proved so authoritarian that it triggered not only resistance from civil society, but also from former campaign advisers and supporters (like Jean Pisani-Ferry) who are now shocked by the brutality of state and police practices (criminalisation of citizens playing host to refugees, police searches and arrests on the premises of associations, etc.). Over the past year of Macron’s presidency, France has adopted one law on anti-terrorism which makes certain features of the state of emergency long-lasting, and another on asylum and immigration which confirms the expeditious way in which the French state intends to deal with dramatic human situations and indeed stem immigration.
Even from a societal point of view, Macron has not proven particularly progressive. While a large majority supports the authorisation of birth surrogacy for all women, including single and homosexual women, the President has delayed the adoption of the law and is now fearful of Catholic movements’ mobilisation against it. In a different domain, the allegedly pro-European and progressive French government is opposing the directive proposal submitted by the European Commission to extend the duration of maternity and paternity leave across Europe, mainly because it would be too costly to implement domestically.
A dubious governing style
When he was elected, Macron was widely acclaimed as a modern leader fighting the forces of populism. He has been very successful in building a positive image internationally through an effective communication strategy. However, his governing style has proved rather questionable. While his reference to “Jupiter” has come over as rather ludicrous for many, he has consistently developed a governing style characterized by and a governing method which he has himself described as vertical.
It is fair to say that, after the hyperactive and “bling bling” Sarkozy and the seemingly “normal” and sometimes grotesque President Hollande, the French are only too happy with a return to a degree of solemnity in the exercise and image of the presidency. However, the style and attitude adopted by Macron go far beyond a desirable rehabilitation of the presidential function. He has repeatedly and emphatically used the unconscious appeal exerted by the monarchical figure among the French public. This has been illustrated by a sustained use of historically symbolical places and monuments such as Versailles for political purposes and events. In a different vein, he recently claimed that he embodied French taste for romantic heroes, which triggered some perplexity across the country.
In governing, Macron has consistently sought to establish a direct link with the people by weakening mediating bodies. He has, for example, kept the press afar and recently decided to move the press room established at the Elysée for 40 years out of the presidential palace. Traumatised by the powerlessness of Hollande, he has used a unilateral, if not authoritarian governing style whereby potential resistance from the unions is overcome by using “ordonnances” to issue legislation swiftly, as he did for labour market reform and now plans to do to reform the SNCF. The fact that these are a legacy of the French monarchy, whereby the kings had exclusive legislative authority, is telling in itself.
After one year in power, there is not much in his record for considering Macron as a figure of some kind of new left. Rather, he enforces neoliberal reforms with the support of the best-off groups in society and accentuates the excessively authoritarian policy initiated by previous governments on security and immigration. This “new right” agenda is framed by pompous references to historical legacies which aim to suggest that he, the chosen and talented child of the nation, will make France great again.