Tag Archives: Emmanuel Macron

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.

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.