If you live in a certain section of reality, the world right now is witnessing a resurgence of liberalism and tolerance thanks to a select troupe of American and European leaders.
Hillary Clinton is leading “the resistance,” while Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and German chancellor Angela Merkel are on the front line fighting against encroaching right-wing barbarism. (Never mind, of course, that Merkel is a conservative who opposes gay marriage and has spent years bludgeoning Greece into poverty, and that Trudeau combines the energy policy of Donald Trump with the arms sale policy of Donald Trump.)
The latest recruit to this line-up of supposedly woke real-world Superfriends is French leader Emmanuel Macron, who in May beat Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right (though, she will insist, no longer antisemitic) National Front, in the presidential election. Since then, Macron has been the object of liberal admiration the world over, with pundits and observers swooning at his courage for standing up to Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well rejecting Le Pen–style xenophobia.
Like Trudeau and Obama, Macron is young, handsome, and charismatic. And, as with Clinton (and particularly Trudeau), he has embraced symbolic shows of social liberalism while explicitly positioning himself as a roadblock against the far right. All of this has helped obscure the more disconcerting elements of his beliefs, particularly his staunch support for economic reforms that would shift France toward a more free-market model.
In this sense, we can think of Macron as an updated, French version of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, with a dollop of the newer generation of triangulators. He’s consciously cast himself as the outsider who will break from politics as usual in defense of decency and democracy — and he’s done it all in the service of implementing a right-wing economic agenda.
“France is blocked by the self-serving tendencies of its elite,” Macron said at a rally in April. “And I’ll tell you a little secret: I know it, I was part of it.”
Macron is half-right: he was in fact part of the elite, but it’s difficult to argue that he ever left. In 2004, Macron graduated from the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA), an elite graduate college for civil servants.
The United States has the Ivy League. The UK has Oxbridge and Eton. But none hold a candle to ENA, which has now produced four French presidents and eight of its last sixteen prime ministers — not to mention many of its civil servants and lower-ranking ministers (many of Macron’s own ministers are ENA graduates). In 2012, four of the presidential hopefuls were former graduates.
After graduating, Macron naturally went into government service, becoming a financial inspector for the French economy ministry, an elite position reserved for the top graduates. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government tapped him to work on the Attali Commission, an economic reform panel whose final report he helped draft.
In the incestuous worlds of government and big business, the connections Macron made in government proved useful as he launched a career in the private sector. A philosophy graduate with no experience in finance, Macron nonetheless landed a job with Rothschild, one of France’s top banks. According to the Financial Times, it was a fellow financial inspector Alain Minc who got him an interview.
Macron’s government contacts made up for his lack of initial financial knowledge, sending him hurtling up the ranks. As the Wall Street Journal reported, he was recommended as a “danseur mondain,” or high-society dancer, “a very singular person with lots of contacts,” according to one staff member, who could use his connections to get business for the firm. The deal that made Macron his fortune — Nestlé’s $12 billion acquisition of a Pfizer division in 2012 — was facilitated by the fact that Nestlé’s chairman had served on the Attali Commission.
While still at Rothschild, Macron worked on Francois Hollande’s successful 2012 presidential campaign, for which he was rewarded a post as Hollande’s deputy chief of staff. Two years later, he was appointed economy minister, during which time he made sure to secure constant publicity for himself (something Hollande would tease him about behind closed doors). Then in 2016, sensing an opportunity, he launched a new political formation called En Marche, a transparent effort to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Hollande and his inner circle viewed it as a slap in the face, but it was an entirely predictable move for people who knew Macron.
“He always wanted to be in politics, be elected,” said Gaspard Gantzer, a Hollande staffer who had attended ENA with Macron. “He talked about it all the time.” When one ENA classmate asked him where he saw himself in thirty years, he replied, “president of the Republic.”
Macron’s adult life has seen him graduate from what is in essence a factory for politicians, serve eight years in government with some short, additional stints in the middle, work four years for a well-connected, multinational bank in which he regularly leveraged his government contacts — all before becoming president. If the establishment has tried to “kill” him, it’s tried to do so with kindness.
“At the Same Time”
During the campaign Macron privately made no secret of the fact that he wanted to be “the French Obama.”
And in public, it showed. Macron ran an Obama-like campaign that exuded positivity, hope, optimism, and togetherness, and presented itself as existing in some kind of political Phantom Zone outside of earthly ideology.
His opponents complained that he was monopolizing the covers of glossy magazines without putting forward anything of substance. He criticized Le Pen for her hateful rhetoric, proudly set himself apart from Trump (“I don’t want to build a wall . . . Can you remember the Maginot line?” he joked), and studiously avoided providing policy specifics. (When asked what his solution to the refugee crisis was, he replied, “I want to pursue an asylum policy that is both more humane and more efficient,” without giving any details.)
For his acolytes, however, this wasn’t proof of his vacuousness but rather his intellectural heft. Indeed, the other notable feature of brand Macron is that he’s as a kind of French Jimmy Neutron, a boy genius whose towering intellect is unfathomable to mere mortals. His recitation of “both sides” of the argument was not a calculated way to avoid taking a firm stance on anything, Le Monde maintained, but a reflection of his “preference for complex thinking.”
“Emmanuel Macron was never a kid like the others,” explained journalist Anne Fulda, who penned the biography, Emmanuel Macron: A Perfect Young Man. Explaining how she fell in love with him, his wife says she was “completely subjugated by the intelligence of this young man” whose “mind is so full and perfect” and whose “capacities are completely beyond any normal human being’s.” She privately told a friend that she felt like she was “working with Mozart.”
In his book, Macron described how from the age of five, he would spend hours learning history, geography, and grammar from his grandmother; one of his former professors claimed Macron “had an exceedingly high level of intelligence well above the norm, with the capacity to absorb and interpret complex, contradictory concepts and to integrate them with his own ideas.”
This tic has carried over into his presidency: Macron skipped the four decade-long custom of holding a Bastille Day press conference because his “complex thought process lends itself badly” to such a format. Some of those complex thoughts? That anti-Zionism “is a reinvention of antisemitism” and that problems in Africa are “civilizational.”
Neither Left, but Right
Let’s set aside Macron’s apparently demigod-like intellect and his claim to float above the petty concerns of mortals’ political ideologies. What does he actually stand for? A conventional program of Third Way triangulation, it turns out.
Despite his former membership in the Socialist Party, Macron has spent the last decade trying to make France lurch to the right. The Attali Commission report that he helped draft proposed “a sweeping liberalisation of the economy,” as the Economist put it. Its recommendations included deregulating professions like taxi drivers and pharmacists and reducing social security charges paid by employers while making up for it by hiking taxes.
Before commissioning the report, Sarkozy had in fact tried to convince Macron to join his team. But Macron, ever the opportunist, reportedly made it known he was betting that Hollande would be president in 2012. A former Sarkozy adviser noted that while Macron had chosen the center-left, “intellectually I do not see very well what separates us, at least in economic matters.” The conservative Le Figaro later ranked him number one on its list of “the 100 leaders of tomorrow.”
It was in Hollande’s government, however, that Macron would earn the reputation of a “copy-and-paste Tony Blair” and push the president rightward on the economy. Macron made no secret that he viewed France’s pro-worker policies as an obstacle to be dismantled. He complained about “the trap that sees the accumulation of workers’ rights become an obstacle for those who are jobless.” France, he said, needed to “shift the social model from a lot of formal protections toward loosening bottlenecks in the economy,” and argued that “by overprotecting, we end up protecting nothing.” Reforms “will probably be painful,” he acknowledged, but “France will succeed.”
He therefore urged Hollande to abandon his proposal to slap a 75 percent tax on those making more than €1 million, warning it would turn France into “Cuba without the sun.” On his very first day, he caused an uproar when he hinted that he might let companies depart from France’s thirty-five-hour work week. He wanted to reform unemployment benefits, angering unions.
He helped convince Hollande to adopt his 2012 “Responsibility Pact,” which traded €50 billion in cuts to public spending for €40 billion worth of tax cuts for businesses. Aiming to avoid a “lost decade,” Macron and his German counterpart also released a report in 2014 calling for a “new deal.”
This wasn’t your grandfather’s New Deal, though. The report warned that “the size and effectiveness of government” was “an issue we need to address.” It called for easing up on mandates for a thirty-five-hour work week, making open-ended contracts more attractive and fixed-term contracts less so, altering the frequency of mandatory wage negotiation, indexing the minimum wage to productivity instead of inflation, and allowing companies to introduce “flexibility” in times of “more challenging competition” rather than just during an economic downturn.
These efforts culminated in the so-called “Macron Law” of 2015. Among other things, the legislation deregulated certain industries, allowed Sunday trading, and made it easier for employers to fire workers. When massive protests broke out across the country, supporters pushed it through parliament without a vote — not once, but twice — using an obscure constitutional mechanism.
The measures, while controversial, were all part of Macron’s larger economic vision. As he explained it in 2014, “we will not return to the Trente Gloriouses” — France’s postwar golden years — “with the same job, in the same company.” Rather, “young people will experience ten to twenty changes in their careers, they will work longer, their wages will not increase, not all the time.”
It’s a vision of an Uberized economy, a vision that people like Macron might find exciting and innovative, while others — say, workers — might view as dystopian and terrifying. But it’s consistent with Macron’s business-first ideology. Entrepreneurs, he’s lamented, often have “a harder life than employees” because “they can lose everything and have fewer guarantees.” His version of leftism is about “recreat[ing] the conditions to invest, produce and innovate.”
Macron has said he wants a France that “thinks and moves like a startup,” and that he takes inspiration from Silicon Valley — a place that creates rampant labor abuses, unsustainable inequality, and life-sucking working conditions just as surely as innovation and “positivity.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Macron has had a frosty relationship with workers. During his campaign, he was egged and told to “get lost” by union members in a Communist-controlled suburb of Paris. While visiting an appliance factory facing job loss, Macron was yelled at by one woman who lamented that “there is no work;” Macron responded that it was “important not to feel anger but to be up to meeting expectations.”
In another, more infamous incident, Macron got into an altercation with protesters demonstrating against the Socialist government’s labor reforms while visiting a school in the small town of Lunel. Macron told one man, a sixty-year-old teacher, that he should start his own business if he was worried about unemployment. When an unemployed twenty-one-year-old told him he couldn’t afford a nice suit like Macron’s, he replied that “the best way to pay for a suit is to work for one.”
Macronism in Action
Campaigning is one thing, governing another. So what has Macron done since winning the presidency?
In keeping with his commitment to neoliberalism and post-partisanship, Macron made half his cabinet women, and split the cabinet between left and right. Crucially, however, both his cabinet minister and minister of “action and public accounts” are right-wing. The former, according to the Telegraph, wants the “privatization of France’s labor offices, the end of subsidized jobs, and capping of welfare benefits.”
Some of Macron’s proposals aren’t bad, such as limiting class sizes to twelve in deprived areas and a one-off €500 payment to eighteen-year-olds to buy books or access cultural material. He also wants to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 and introduce proportional representation in parliament.
Others are not so good. A mere sixteen days after taking office, Macron began consultations on labor reforms. His aim was to go further than previous reforms, including reinstating provisions that had been dropped from the 2015 Macron Law or had been first proposed in his 2014 “new deal.” Measures included a cap on payouts for unfair firings, allowing in-house labor agreements to take precedence over sector-wide ones, reducing the period during which employees can challenge a redundancy, and making it easier for companies to terminate employees for “economic reasons.”
This is on top of Macron’s regressive tax proposals: €64.5 billion worth of cuts over five years, including €13 billion to local authorities — €4.5 billion and €3 billion more, respectively, than he had pledged during the campaign. He also plans to scrap local government tax for most households, further starving local governments of revenue.
In its more candid moments, the Macron government has admitted its policies aren’t particularly progressive. When the Financial Times suggested to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe that the president’s economic policies were, contrary to his campaign messaging, rather right wing, he laughed at the reporter, saying, “Yes, what did you expect?”
Potential future measures include scrapping property taxes (price tag: €10 billion), and, in the hope of luring banks from Brexited London into France, removing the highest payroll tax bracket on bankers, giving financiers an income tax break of as much as 50 percent, and setting up the right to exclude foreign properties and assets from the wealth tax for eight years. Corporation tax would also be lowered to 25 percent by 2022.
With a set of economic policies that would make finance drool, one might hope that the rest of Macron’s program would at least be redeemable. But much like other Third Wayers, Macron’s politics only go so far when they leave the realm of rhetoric.
Similar to Trudeau, Macron eagerly declared himself a feminist, told the public he wanted his prime minister to be a woman, and called for more female candidates to join his party. But as the New Statesman’s Pauline Bock has written, Macron chose a man as prime minister, chose a man over two women to be speaker, and gender equality among party candidates is already French law. Even worse, his budget cuts will end up hitting women’s refuges and all manner of other programs that French women rely on.
How about LGBT rights? Macron won praise and plaudits when he challenged Vladimir Putin on Syria, Russian propaganda, and his curtailment of gay rights. No objections there. But what happens when such criticisms have to be lobbed at a state that isn’t the West’s current bogeyman of choice? Like, say, Saudi Arabia, a violently repressive, misogynistic, and homophobic state.
Macron did say that “it would be an error to show excessive support of Saudi Arabia, as we have in the past.” Yet as economy minister, he toed the party line while Hollande coddled the regime. Macron was one of a number of top officials who met with the crown prince when he visited Paris to receive the Legion of Honor in 2016, a meeting Macron kept off his public schedule.
When he was asked about arms sales to the country during the campaign, Macron brushed aside the question, saying “France has not sold much to Saudi Arabia.” But in fact, the Saudis have spent the last decade as France’s most frequent weapons customer, with Qatar a relatively distant second. France authorized $18 billion worth of arms licenses to Saudi Arabia in 2015, and its furnishing of weapons to the country has been celebrated by the government even as it fuels the Saudis’ horrific war in Yemen. Macron’s decision to play down the issue is a peculiar reaction from someone who professed in his inaugural speech that “France will always make sure to be on the side of . . . human rights.”
When Macron isn’t making empty promises about defending human rights, Macron he’s been busy embracing the military. His inauguration day was loaded with military symbolism to show his “deep empathy for the defenders of freedom.” After being criticized by the military for cuts to the defense budget, he quickly backtracked and pledged to increase military spending in subsequent years, taking it to 2 percent of economic output by 2025 — up from 1.7 percent at present — even as he slashed public spending elsewhere.
For a supposed beau ideal of international liberalism, Macron has also proven himself a rather poor defender of liberal democratic rights. At the same time he announced he would end the state of emergency France has been under since 2015, Macron promised new anti-terror laws that would let authorities shut down places of worship and secure areas it considers at risk, without permission from the courts. Macron also wants to make some of the emergency laws’ provisions permanent, including those that empower authorities to place people under house arrest, order house searches, and ban public gatherings without a judge’s approval. (The laws have already been used against hundreds of activists, environmentalists, and labor rights campaigners.)
Anti-democratic gestures are par for the course for Macron. In July 2015, he lamented that the toppling of the monarchy following the French Revolution left an “emotional, imaginary, collective void” that the French president was meant to fill. Fittingly, in power, Macron has not only stated his desire to pass his unpopular economic reforms by decree, rather than through parliament, but he also wants to cut the number of lawmakers by a third, threatening to put it to a referendum if parliament doesn’t agree.
In an hour-long speech, Macron told assembled MPs that the legislative process would be streamlined as “the pace of designing laws must meet the demands of society” in areas where rapid response was particularly necessary, singling out security and, of all things, digital copyright. He called “legislative proliferation” a “disease,” suggested parliament should take a more “supervisory” role while the executive acted, and cautioned against turning the nation’s vulnerable into “permanent wards of the state.”
Perhaps most galling, however, given the way Macron was elected, is his migration policy. Macron consciously touted himself as the anti–Le Pen candidate. Recently, his government revealed plans to shorten the asylum request process from one year to six months and create more housing for asylum seekers. In June, a government spokesman announced that Macron had ordered local officials to show “more flexibility” and “humanity” toward migrants. And in July, police moved thousands of migrants sleeping rough to temporary shelters.
But Macron has also appointed as minister of the interior Gérard Collomb, who took a hard line against refugees. He ruled out setting up a new migrant reception center in Calais because “we don’t want to create a gathering point where numbers would swell,” sent in 150 more police to prevent migrants from erecting new camps, and promised to send in more riot police to prevent the area from becoming an “abscess,” only a day after Macron’s order for “more humanity.” Collomb referred to the migrants as “encysted,” and his stance was praised by Generation Identity, a far-right youth group, which offered their services to the minister.
French security forces have also continued their harsh treatment of migrants under Macron. Humanitarian groups accused police in Calais of beating migrants, putting gas in their sleeping bags and canteens to make them unusable, and preventing aid groups from distributing water and food. Similar accusations were later repeated by the national ombudsman, leading high-profile French actors and lawmakers to appeal to Macron. According to Doctors Without Borders and a group of French LGBT activists, such harassment continued well after Macron’s order. And for all his talk of having “not listened enough to Italy’s cry for help on the migration crisis,” Italian officials say there’s no real difference between Macron and Hollande’s closed-border approach.
Just imagine liberal outcry if a more noxious figure was pursing the same policies — seeking to undermine the power of the legislature, slash taxes on the rich and weaken workers’ protections by executive decree, harass migrants, and permanently codify repressive emergency anti-terror measures.
The Mandate to Resist
Macron’s depiction of himself as a brave, orthodoxy-defying outsider was always a barely veiled sham. Both his previous career and his actions in office make clear he’s a painfully conventional Third Way politician, one whose willingness to take on sacred cows and challenge power structures only holds as long as those sacred cows and power structures are workers’ rights and unions. All one needs to do is look at how quickly Macron folded when the French military pushed back on his spending cuts.
Most of the press at least recognizes this reality, tending to refer to him somewhat more accurately as a “centrist.” What is mind-boggling, however, is that despite his record, his image in many circles continues to be as a champion of liberal values and democracy.
The greater worry is that Macron, buoyed by global swooning and his supposed election mandate, will be able to successfully implement his agenda. Macron is right about his mandate in one sense — he beat Le Pen by 32 points — but wrong in another, much more significant sense: the French election saw the lowest turnout in history, dipping below 50 percent for the first time ever, suggesting that the French public wasn’t terribly happy with either candidate, and that many voted for Macron simply as a bulwark against French neofascism. Indeed, Macron’s approval rating has already fallen ten points.
Macron is betting his policies will cause unemployment to drop to 7 percent by 2022. Perhaps it will. But historically, slashing public sector jobs and curtailing public spending while starving the government of money by slashing taxes for the wealthy has not had a great track record.
Absent mass opposition, Macron will likely exacerbate the inequality and economic insecurity that helped spur Le Pen’s rise in the first place — only this time, she would also inherit the anti-terror laws Macron is planning to set in stone.
So don’t celebrate Macron. He may have temporarily blocked the far right from taking power in France, but he’s doing everything he can to bring it roaring back.