Rethinking Europe

Will Macron End Like François Hollande – Or Matteo Renzi?

France’s current political fight is over the country’s ability to accept evolutionary – rather than revolutionary — change.

Credit: Alvaro www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • It’s a French tradition to expect the state to fix everything. But if an effort is made to fix what’s broken, French leaders face militant protests.
  • France definitely needs structural reforms. This has been recognized by many in France for a long time.
  • France’s current political fight is over the country’s ability to accept evolutionary – rather than revolutionary -- change.
  • Macron's biggest mistake was to give the impression in the presidential election in 2017 that his reforms would not hurt anyone.
  • If Macron is unable to convince his constituents of the need for painful reforms, France could step into Italy's political and economic footsteps.

It is a longstanding French tradition to put excessive demands onto the state. It is supposed to fix just about everything.

But if an honest effort is undertaken to fix what’s broken, the few French presidents who dare to reform the country regularly face militant protests, including political strikes, that drive them on the defensive, if not to abandon their reform path.

Emmanuel Macron has been president of France since May 2017. Via the founding of his new movement “En Marche,” he managed to collect many dissatisfied people and create a spirit of change and optimism.

In order to succeed in his election campaign, he also gave the impression that he did not want to change anything serious in the “comfort zone” of the welfare state, which could really hurt.

With his campaign strategy, Macron understandably sought to get around the paradox of French political culture. However, that approach is now catching up with him.

What is the French paradox?

On the one hand, high level of mobilization often drives French governments on the defensive. In addition, perhaps owing to its revolutionary traditions, political strikes are allowed in France.

On the other hand, the primacy of politics over the economy and society is recognized in France across all party lines and in all strata of society. To justify its dominance, the central government is called upon to assume universal responsibility.

The dominating role of the state leads to a broken relationship with the concept of a market economy. Everything can be interfered in from the central level.

Meanwhile, the core promise of a market economy – finding decentralized solutions to the existing problems and pursuing evolutionary change of the country’s economy and society in a decentralized manner – are given little chance.

Can the state fix all ills?

That the state cannot possibly respond favorably to all the demands constantly put upon it is as logical as it is systematically preprogrammed into the French political economy.

The state needs to act as an arbiter. But if it makes the required choices and changes, which inevitably creates winners and losers, the state risks militant protests that put it on the defensive.

This leads to a pronounced polarization of society and a standstill when it comes to problem solving.

After weeks of protests marked by rising violence, the French government this week suspended the controversial eco-tax on diesel and gasoline for 12 months, among other steps to freeze pre-planned reform measures.

DreamOn.org, the French way

Predictably in the French revolutionary tradition, for the “yellow vests” these retreats of the government were not enough: “The French are not sparrows. We do not want crumbs, but the whole baguette.”

On Saturday, further protests and mass demonstrations are called for in Paris. President Macron is accused of being a president of the rich at the expense of the poorer.

Wealthy citizens would be relieved by a reduction in property tax for real estate, poorer citizens would be burdened by higher energy taxes and environmental regulations.

France definitely needs structural reforms. This has been recognized by many in France for a long time. The socialist Francois Hollande, for example, after his election as President of the Republic in 2012, vowed serious policy changes. In March 2014, Hollande confirmed his reformist intentions by appointing Manuel Valls as Prime Minister.

Soon after, in August 2014, the left-wing critic of economic reforms, Arnaud Montebourg, was replaced by tEmmanuel Macron, then a young reformer, as economics minister.

Under the auspices of a socialist government, Macron launched the law on “Growth, Economic Activity and Equal Opportunities.” He liberalized some professions, reformed dismissal procedures and allowed shop hours on Sunday.

Are the French ever ready for reforms?

Notably, this law could only be enforced by relying on Article 49-3 of the French Constitution. It allows the Prime Minister to enact a law without a direct vote in Parliament by linking this law to the vote of confidence.

The fact that the law on “Growth, Economic Activity and Equal Opportunities” could only be enforced by applying Article 49-3 of the constitution proves that President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls had no majority in their party for their economic policy course at that time.

In 2016, Manuel Valls was also forced to rely on the Article 49-3 mechanism to gain passage of the “Law on work, modernizing the social dialogue and securing professional careers.”

It had caused massive public protests and sometimes violent actions. (At that point, Emmanuel Macron had already quit his post as Minister of Economic Affairs and founded the En Marche movement to launch his campaign to fight for the office of President of France).

Conclusion

By the end of 2018, Macron appears to be in the same situation in which Hollande and Valls found themselves in 2016.

From today’s perspective, concerning his political legitimacy, Emmanuel Macron’s biggest mistake was to give the impression in the presidential election in 2017 that his reforms would not hurt anyone.

It is important to note that the same mistake was made by Italy’s hopeful Matteo Renzi when he seized the leadership of his left-of-center Democratic Party and forced himself into the prime minister’s post.

The wave of “easy-fix” optimism he ran on dissipated quickly, making for a short-lived tenure as Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016.

The long and short of it is this: If Macron is now unable to convince his constituents of the need for painful reforms, then France could step into Italy’s political and economic footsteps, with all that this entails for the future of the Eurozone.

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About Norbert F. Tofall

Norbert F. Tofall is Senior Research Analyst at the Flossbach von Storch Research Institute.

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