Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 French presidential election was widely regarded as a victory for liberal Europe, for the European Union and, potentially, for the concept of Europe itself. The populist tide, which had run almost unhindered from Brexit into Trump, had been – it seemed – stemmed. And yet, just a year and a half on from his victory, France has descended into violent protests that call for the resignation of the 41-year old president and a radical change of direction. Where did it go wrong for Macron, and what are the implications of the Gilets Jaunes protests for Europe as a whole, with the European Parliament elections just round the corner? In this article, I’ll cover his rise to the presidency and first months in office, hence provide a glimpse of why things turned out the way they did.
The year 2017 did not begin on a particularly good note for many in Brussels. Brexit was threatening to precipitate the beginning of the end of the European Union whilst the new occupant of the White House looked set to undermine the Trans-Atlantic relationship through a new, isolationist doctrine, that of “America First”. With a number of high profile elections on the horizon, the EU braced itselffor a radical shakeup. In France, the centre-right’s candidate, Francois Fillon, struggled to gain momentum, beset by an expenses scandal. The centre-left Socialists, in power from 2012, never truly stood a chance; radical change appeared inevitable. On the left, the veteran campaigner Jean-Luc Melenchon established a new ‘democratic socialist’ force, La France Insoumise, to push for the redistribution of wealth, and an ambitious environmental agenda, amongst other reforms. The right was increasingly dominated by Marine Le Pen, a politician credited with transforming the formerly fringe Front National into a major nationwide player. What united Melenchon and Le Pen above all was their euroscepticism, their desire to radically redefine France’s relationship with the EU, and therefore transform the EU itself.
Whilst Melenchon was steadily gaining steam, it appeared to many that Le Pen had a slight edge. Hers was a long-established party, she had already run for president back in 2012. Her father, Jean-Marie, was a controversial (nicknamed the “devil of the republic” by his opponents) yet widely known hallmark of the French far-right. She commanded support throughout France, but most prominently in the industrial northeast, a region particularly hard-hit by the decline of manufacturing over the past several decades (most similar areas in the UK voted heavily to leave the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum). Le Pen derived her political ammunition not merely from the many economic woes French people faced, however, but also the widespread fear and insecurity spawned by the series of terrorist attacks that had afflicted the nation over the preceding few years. In France, as in many other European countries, the perceived connection between terrorism and immigration
(primarily from Muslim-majority countries) was already firmly established. The notorious reputation of often troubled, immigrant-filled Parisian banlieues (suburbs) certainly played a role in this regard. The National Front continued to propagate this message, along with the simple yet attractive solution: ‘radical Islamic terror’ was largely the result of irresponsible, unrestricted immigration, and hence greater border security – taking back control of national frontiers – was the key to resolving the issue. More profoundly, Le Pen presented terrorism as symptomatic of a deeper, darker ‘truth’: multiculturalism cannot work. Integration is a process bound to fail. The way forward, therefore, was inevitably that of ‘control over our borders’.
Then the energetic, comparatively youthful Macron truly stepped into the fray. Despite having served in the administration of then president Francois Hollande, he positioned himself as an outsider, someone who would defend Europe’s liberal values against the reckless populist tide that threatened to bring the entire established order crashing down whilst recognising and acting upon the deep frustration of the ‘common people’ with the political elite in both Paris and Brussels. A former investment banker, Macron cast himself as ‘neither left nor right’, yet affirmed that “the system has ceased to protect those it should protect.” A centrist, albeit a tech-savvy, decidedly 21st century one, his was a tough path to tread in a country swelling with discontent with the fairly moderate policies pursued by presidents from Jacques Chirac onwards. Despite winning just 25% of the vote in the crowded first round of the election, he swept to power with more than 10 million more votes than Le Pen in the runoff. However, a strong case has since been made that much of his success can be attributed to a widespread hatred of Le Pen – and what she represented – rather than an overwhelming support amongst French voters for the centrist Macron himself. Much of the media was quick to praise him as a new dynamic, disruptive force in French politics who had blown a gaping hole through the bastion of establishment politics. The ideological centre had not imploded, journalists proclaimed; it had merely evolved.
A Nation of Startups
Emmanuel Macron stepped into the Elysee Palace in May 2017 with a sizeable to-do list. He was compelled to fire up the economy whilst treading carefully around the French welfare system, a hallmark of national pride. In Macron’s view, to truly ensure an economic renewal, it was necessary to push ahead with reforms to overhaul the French labour market. The aim? Provide employers with greater flexibility to hire and fire employees, thereby encouraging existing firms to commit to greater investment and expansion, whilst also sending out positive signals to potential entrepreneurs. Indeed, judging by the mood of many investors and prominent businesspeople, he has largely succeeded in that regard since becoming president. Lower taxes have helped spawn a new capital investment high, and the ‘nation of startups’ that Macron promised is gradually taking shape, according to many commentators.
Pourquoi il donne aux riches?
The problems, on the other hand, stem mainly from the youthful leader’s failure to tackle an issue that concerns many middle and working class French citizens: rising inequality. Whilst many workers feel that the economy is growing, there’s a widespread sense that the newly generated wealth is not reaching them. This is by no means a uniquely French problem; go to Italy, the United Kingdom or the United States and much the same grievance will pop up. What’s this inequality down to? Many would argue that it’s primarily the result of globalisation: the decline in formerly stable, decent-paying jobs as certain industries face mechanisation, extinction or shift, in large part, to the Far East. Le Pen offered a particular solution to the problem: economic nationalism, and therefore, protectionism. Macron, on the other hand, favoured the elimination of cumbersome regulations that stood in the way of growth. Tax cuts for those on middle or lower incomes were placed on the agenda by the new president, but they’re being phased in gradually over time; the majority of new cuts are set to benefit those with the most. On a trip to Paris back in September 2017, just four months after the election, I picked up a copy of the Nouvel Observateur magazine. The title on its front cover almost made me shudder: “pourquoi il donne aux riches” – ‘why he gives to the rich’. I had a feeling that this spelt trouble not too far down the line for Macron. A series of pro-business measures, such as the decision to scrap a tax on financial investments have rendered him the “hero of the rich” to the Left whilst the staunchly anti-globalist Le Pen also opposed the policies. Macron, despite his coming from a new third party ‘La République en Marche’ and despite his energetic, newcomer persona, soon fell into the same approval ratings downwards spiral as Sarkozy and Hollande before him. The following assessment, from the Guardian’s Owen Jones, provides a glimpse of the frustrations of many French citizens with the new president by comparing him to the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was herself a staunchly pro-business politician who oversaw a realignment of the UK economy away from state interventionism and nationalised industries towards privatisation and neoliberalism. Hers is a much-debated legacy which remains controversial in Britain and elsewhere to this day.
“Macron is a pound-shop Margaret Thatcher, redistributing wealth to
those with too much of it, while assaulting workers’ rights and France’s
hard-won social model. His tax changes have gifted the hundred
wealthiest households more than half a million euros a year: the top 1%
captured 44% of his new tax breaks.”
~ Owen Jones, writing in The Guardian (April 2018)
Frustration with Macron’s domestic reforms was therefore gaining steam not too long after his victory in the presidential election, yet, over the course of 2017, the French leader began to develop a decidedly pan-European persona as the defender of European liberal values at a time of great uncertainty and, according to some, the potentially imminent disintegration of the ‘European project’. His first trip was to Berlin to visit the increasingly embattled German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was under fire from both allies and the ascendant far-right ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ for her relaxed border policy with regard to asylum seekers. Together, Merkel and Macron began to formulate ambitious EU reforms (such as the creation of a new role, that of a transnational, Eurozone finance minister). Yet their ability to move forward with such contentious policies would depend on a number of factors. Firstly, the agreement of increasingly divergent groups of member states – such as the eastern Visegrad Group – and secondly, the security of their own domestic position. In the follow-up to this article, I’ll discuss the Gilets Jaunes protests that have rocked France, and Europe as a whole, whilst outlining what may happen next.
Written by: Jacob Grech