France – Emmanuel Macron as the new ‘fast’ president

During the early days of his presidency, Emmanuel Macron was sometimes compared with the classical gods Hercules and Jupiter. The metaphor of Macron as 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. Is Macron a regal figure? Or a republican monarch? Such labels are the usual metaphors of French Presidents In fact, Macron’s presidential style has a syncretic quality, drawing on practices and symbols of past French and foreign presidents.

There is a conscious and continuing reference to the practices, routines and gestures of his predecessors, with the nine Presidents of the Fifth Republic providing a rich empirical pool for developing a repertoire of presidential action. De Gaulle is the most obvious model, as the General’s return to power in May 1958 was followed by a six month period of governing by decrees (‘ordonnaces’), and calling on high civil servants (rather than politicians) to govern the country. There are many similarities between Macron and the first six months of the Gaullien period, not least in the negation of party politics and the creation of a presidential movement to support the action of the provident individual; in sum, the de Gaulle heritage for Macron signifies in part a leader against parties and the old cleavages. Next, in terms of significance, from President Giscard d’Estaing (1974-81), Macron demonstrates a youthful modernity and calls to reform blocked France that aspires to be governed in the national interest beyond left and right. From President Mitterrand, Macron proclaims a grand European design, eloquently presented in speech to the Sorbonne, following in the steps of Mitterrand over three decades earlier. The counter-models are the two ‘radical-republican’ Presidents Chirac (who held a hazardous referendum on the future of the EU) and Hollande, the deliberate anti-model. Beyond France, the most influential model and source of inspiration is the US President Barack Obama (‘Yes, we can’) and, at a distance once-removed, J-F. Kennedy. There is nothing entirely new under the sun, but Macron’s leadership goes beyond a careful cultivation of – and respect for- selected predecessors and comparators.

More recently, there have certain parallels with Sarkozy (2007-2012). The speed of Macron’s reforms bears some similarities with the early Sarkozy period. I argued elsewhere that in 2007-2012, the personal governing style of ‘speedy Sarko’ combined with a changed set of rules of the presidential game (the quickening rhythm of the quinquennat) to create the fast presidency, an evolution of the traditional presidential office . The Sarkozy presidency was inaugurated with a discourse of rupture –a break with existing political practices and established interests, a skilful political construction that captured the reform theme for the French right. A clearer presidential mandate gave rise to a more explicitly assumed policy leadership. Most of the key reforms of the 2007-2012 were directly associated with Sarkozy; from the reforms to the 35 hour week and flexible working ( 2007), through the detailed interventions in the field of state reform (RGPP, 2007-2012), the universities (2007), the environment (2008), local government (2009-2010) and the pensions reform (2010). The rhythm of the early period could be explained because the incoming President was fully vested with the legitimacy of a decisive electoral victory. The overall evaluation of Sarkozy’s reformist record, tempered by the impact of economic crisis, was rather paradoxical. If Sarkozy’s presidency was a reformist one, almost all of the key reforms introduced in 2007-08 had been modified or abandoned by 2012. The economic crisis of 2008 recast the dice and gradually the memory of the early reform period receded.

Fast forward ten years, and leaving aside the natural bombast involved in comparisons with Greek and 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. It would be an act as bad faith to accuse Macron of not putting into operation his campaign promises. The Macron presidency has, thus far, revealed itself to be one of the most ambitious and reformist in the history of the Fifth Republic. Around a dozen major fields were opened in the first few months, with clear sequences intended to give meaning to political action throughout the five year period. 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 followed, fairly clearly, the roadmap announced by the President. The law on the moralisation of French politics forbad the practice of employing family members as staffers, and placed 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) were intended to modernize France’s system of industrial relations and encourage investment; any analysis of their impact is premature.

The speed and rhythm of the reform programme cast Macron as a new ‘fast President’, announcing multiple reforms in a blitzkrieg designed to destabilize the opposition, rather reminiscent of the early Sarkozy (2007-08) or Blair (1997-98) periods. The 2017-18 reform programme was an ambitious one, and few sectors were absent: the moralization of politics, the reform of labour law, a new internal security law, the abolition of the wealth tax, the changing rules for university entrance, the reform of the unemployment insurance and training regimes, immigration reform, prison reform, civil service reform, the overhaul of school examinations (the Baccalaureate) and even the sacred cow of the special statute for national railway workers.

In both cases, Sarkozy and Macron, a clear presidential mandate was followed by a vigorous programme of social and economic reforms. In both cases, also, an active presidential leadership was framed as the antithesis of an earlier period of stasis; the immobile Chirac, for Sarkozy, or the compromised Hollande, for Macron. In both cases, finally, the speed of reforms was designed to destabilize adversaries and exploit to the maximum the window of opportunity opened by precise concatenations of circumstances.

There are also contrasts, naturally. First, in relation to the strategic use of time. The image of the Duracell president under Sarkozy implied action and energy, rather than deep strategic reflection. Macron can claim to have integrated a more strategic use of time. Reforms have been closely sequenced, designed to underline that the President alone is the ‘timekeeper’ (le maître de l’ horloge). The first six months were an economic sequence, designed to set France on a course of economic reform and competitiveness (standing on the right-leg); the next period was intended to re-balance, to offer a social counterpart to economic reform (standing on the left leg).

More generally, the management of time forms a key part of Macron’s agenda. The strategic dimension of time management can be illustrated with the 2018 budget. The headlines of the 2018 budget concerned the powerful symbolic abolition of the wealth tax, along with the adoption of a 30% ‘flat tax’ to encourage investment in the ‘real’ economy and risk taking. The main novelty, however, was to move towards a five-year budgetary logic. Announcing spending priorities and commitments across the five year period (2018-2022) was 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. In the case of Macron, an overarching strategic timeframe (the budget, the quinquennat) is coupled with a clever tactical use of time; involving social partners in consultation, floating ideas subsequently to be watered down, and forcing deadlines on negotiations.

Second, in terms of style and method, Sarkozy’s presidency was based on a transgression of the key personal and institutional codes, most notably on a deeply political reading of the office, whereby the political leader dispensed with the discourse of national unity, slated opponents and invited unpopularity in response to detailed interventionism in politics and policy-making. Notwithstanding Macron’s double or triple language, and the tendency to ‘speak the language of the people’ when faced with controversy (see the recent Salon de l’Agriculture), there is more method. The announced reforms have followed a similar pattern: the promise of consultation (but not negotiation) with social partners and other interested parties; a strictly controlled government timetable; the announcement of ambitious targets to be achieved; a stated preference for the procedure of decrees and limited parliamentary oversight, and a strong investment in new instruments of central steering (the creation of a territorial agency for local government, a new training agency etc.).

Thus far, there is little practical opposition to Macron; the veteran left-wing leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was forced to admit that Macron had ‘won the first round’ as attempts to mobilise against the reform of the labour code fell flat; the Socialist Party (PS), a shadow of its former self, is engaged in a process of introspection and leadership selection; the National Front (FN), having already suffered a split, is about to engineer a name change in the hope of recapturing its dynamism of the 2012-17 period; the Republicans are reviving somewhat under Laurent Wauquiez, but the inheritor party of the UMP has been deserted by its centrist and centre-right elements and electors; finally, the trade unions are more divided and ineffective than ever. The window of opportunity for reform remains open, but the Sarkozy comparison points to the dangers of managing reform in the medium and long term. The real test of time will be in 2022.

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