France – President Macron: From Jupiter to Janus?

French President Emmanuel Macron has openly declared himself to be an adept of ‘vertical’ relations at the summit of the State. In the Macron presidency, there is little room for doubt: the President determines the main orientations and sets out a roadmap for others to follow and implement. The metaphor of Macron as Jupiter, the god of gods in Roman mythology, is intended to renew with the figure of the Republican monarch, fallen into disuse since Chirac (the absent President), Sarkozy (the fast President) and Hollande (the normal President). Jupiter is above common mortals, and determines the fate even of the most powerful gods. The President is cast as a supra-partisan republican monarch, who symbolizes the State and borrows the trappings of prestige from the pre-Revolutionary monarchy (his victory speech at the Louvre, his reception of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Versailles Palace, where he convoked the Congress a few weeks later) and whose rare parole gives meaning and direction to the Nation. This construction is in obvious contrast with Hollande and his ‘normal’ Presidency. Macron’s positioning is intended not only to signify a return to sources of the Fifth Republic, but equally to impose an image, rather than allow a critical media to dictate a negative image, as in the case of Hollande and Flanby. Jupiter also confers the image of a President above the fray, above the routine competition of parties, suspicious of parliament, alone vested with supreme decision-making authority. Finally, it is a ‘performative’ metaphor: to remind electors that President Macron has renewed with the noble expression of State authority, with the expectation that Saying is equivalent to Doing.

The positive framing of Jupiter was intended to celebrate a return to authority and leadership at the heart of the State, a posture deliberately contrasted with the perceived failings of his three immediate predecessors: Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. There is no room for a diarchy at the top. The order of protocol and priorities was clearly demonstrated in early July, with Macron addressing the two houses of parliament united in the Congress at Versailles on July 4th , followed by Philippe presenting the governmental programme to the National Assembly in Paris one day later. A rather classical division of authority between the visionary President and the implementation of the presidential programme by the premier. There are several novel features, however: not only did Macron intervene very closely in the selection of ministerial staffs, down to the offices of individual ministers, but the President and Prime Minister share many advisors, in the main selected by Macron and controlled from the Elysée. A similar concern for control is demonstrated in the attempts to reform the operation of the French parliament, perceived more in terms of a body for scrutiny and control of (presidentially determined) objectives than a site for legislation and deliberation.

Quite apart from the natural bombast involved in comparisons with Roman gods, the Jupiterian phase of the Macron presidency was intended to give a new sense of purpose to political choices, in the register of transformative political leadership. The Jupiter metaphor allowed Macron to announce clearly the reforms that would be undertaken during the course of the quinquennat, to guide the way. After a shaky start (the sacking of the chief in staff of the Army, the poor reception of cuts announced across governmental budgets without prior negotiation [and specifically of the housing benefits], the obvious inexperience of several new ministers and members of the governing LREM party), the early months of the presidency have followed, fairly clearly, the roadmap announced by the President. The law on the moralisation of French politics forbids the practice of employing family members as staffers , and places limits on expense claims. The decrees reforming the Labour Code (enhancing firm-level bargaining, limiting severance pay, reforming the operation of trade unions, especially in the smallest firms, simplifying and unifying staff representative committees in the workplace) are intended to modernize France’s system of industrial relations and encourage investment. The 2018 budget is characterized above all by the powerful symbolic reform of the Wealth Tax (impôt de solidarité sur la fortune) into a tax on property (impôt sur la fortune immobilière), along with the adoption of a 30% ‘flat tax’ to encourage investment in the ‘real’ economy and risk taking. The first budget of the Macron presidency has announced education, defense and culture as spending priorities, with housing, transport and sport the main losers. The main novelty is to move towards a five-year budgetary logic. Announcing spending priorities and commitments across the five year period (2018-2022) is intended to modify the meaning of the annual budget cycle, with a view to ensuring fiscal and policy stability over the medium term and encouraging investment. Forthcoming reforms of the pension sector and of professional training will likely reserve surprises and mobilise opposition. But it would be an act as bad faith to accuse Macron of not putting into operation his campaign promises.

Thus far, Macron has been carried by the favorable winds of change. He represents generational and political renewal and is boosted by a higher than expected rate of economic growth. Nowhere has Macron sought to seize the opportunity more than in the field of European integration. Macron was the only candidate explicitly endorsing enhanced European integration during the 2017 campaign. The drive to reform internally is in part a function of restoring France’s good name: demonstrating the capacity to reform, to withstand the Street, to overcome the usual veto players. His European vision was central to his speech at the Sorbonne (September 26th 2017). Macron called for the elaboration of a new democratic bargain and argued for a renewal of democratic dialogue across Europe in relation to the European project. His vision of Europe and its future renews with a repertory not really seen since Mitterrand in the 1980s and early 1990s. Moving beyond process, and the centrality of the Franco-German relationship, the real questions lies in the substance of the new European grand bargain. It is difficult to see the Germans allowing further mutualisation of euro-debts, or agreeing to enhanced fiscal transfers within the Euro-zone. Macron’s proposal for a super minister for the Eurozone budget has thus far been received politely, but its fate will also be determined in part by the Germans and allies? Will the function of such a minister be to tax and spend? Or to ensure conformity with a strict application of rules, in the German ordo-liberal tradition? Even in the latter case, it is unclear that such a proposal would get German support. And what about creating a euro-zone parliament? Here the main obstacle will come from the European Commission, inter alia, for whom the European parliament already provides a democratic oversight of EU institutions. What about new security and defense cooperation? The post-BREXIT scenario certainly makes such co-operation more likely to materialize, but central and eastern European States, as well as more Atlanticist minded ones, remain attached to the primacy of NATO. And what about new taxes on the GAFA (Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon)? There might be a political will to move in this direction amongst many EU states, but there are also determined opponents. The commitment to reform the posted workers directive, finally, will be difficult to achieve. After the German elections, the FPD and the CSU are likely to oppose at least some aspects of Macron’s grand bargain.

In the schema of J.-M. Burns, the style of the Jupiteran president is a transformational one, but the hard transactions are only now beginning. Rather than Juperiterian, Macron is likely to adopt a Janus-style approach, looking both ways, twin-faced, integrating contradictory pressures, conscious of past legacies while attempting to provide leadership and direction. Even the best laid plans can go astray. Has Macron decided on too many objectives? On precise timetables that lay too many hostages to fortune? Or, quite simply, is there too much hyperbole? When the tide turns, the Jupiter metaphor might also give rise to ridicule. But one ought not to under-estimate the transformative potential of Macron: he benefits from a favorable constellation of stars, both domestically and in terms of the post-Brexit EU. Drawing on past presidential legacies is a core part of Macron’s message: especially those of Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981) and Mitterrand (1981-1995) who provide rather different templates for a leadership vision in the field of European integration. The success of Macron’s presidency will depend in part on whether this vision is performative, whether its guides the actions of others and produces transformation. The jury is still out.

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