A ‘one-horse race’
Having returned from France at the end of March, I shared my view here that it was not a question of whether Emmanuel Macron would win the presidential election but by what margin. Thereafter, it looked like Marine Le Pen was closing the gap and the Macron campaign cleverly fanned the embers of apprehension that she might pull off a sneaky win. Macron even compared the election to the Brexit referendum.
Well, in the event, President Macron was easily re-elected last Sunday (24 April) with 58 percent of the vote compared to Le Pen’s 42, despite a relatively low turnout, a huge number of abstentions and many spoilt ballots. One could almost hear the sigh of relief emanating from Brussels.
But the Macron of April 2022 is not the emblem of virile, young blood, the shiny ‘new broom’, the brilliant technocrat and the great European hope of May 2017. For sure, he is still young at just 44 years old and a much more experienced, if slightly scarred, leader of a major country. He is no longer overshadowed by a long-serving German chancellor whose reputation for good ‘housekeeping’ was legendary − strange to think that Angela Merkel’s reign now looks like a disaster for Germany and for Europe as a whole – hindsight can be unforgiving. But the ‘Jupiterian demi-god’ of 2017 for whom anything was possible, now looks decidedly mortal.
In 2017, Macron was a centrist, techno-populist who had never stood for elected office of any kind – though he had been economy minister in the government of François Hollande. In accordance with the doctrine of separation of powers which goes back to Montesquieu, ministers under the constitution of the Fifth Republic may not be MPs. Now, he is a president with a track record – one that many French people do not like. In 2017, Macron was the man to shake up the French political elite; today he is the French political elite.
In his victory speech Macron was conciliatory. He wanted, he said, to unite France. That will be more easily said than done. The French are disgruntled. Many who incline to the left regard him as the “president of the rich”. They see Macron as arrogant, aloof and self-important – a man who displays contempt for anyone who does not share his liberal, internationalist mindset. At the same time, many who lean to the right, especially in the countryside, where Catholic patriotism still flourishes, regard him as an embodiment of ‘Davos Man’ – a Parisian globalist with liberal instincts on sensitive issues such as “out-of-control” immigration.
The debate about immigration is likely to become even worse tempered since the arrival of refugees from Ukraine has highlighted the distinction between “deserving” refugees (mostly women and children) and “undeserving” economic migrants (overwhelmingly young males). Also, the deterioration of food security in north Africa is likely to trigger another immigration crisis, with more boats than ever crossing the Mediterranean. Watch this space.
Toujours les politiques
Legislative elections will take place on 12 and 19 June. Macron II’s first challenge will be to secure a working majority in the National Assembly. If he fails in that objective, life will become more troublesome for his presidency as he may have “to cohabit” with a prime minister of a different party. Macron’s political ‘machine’, La République en Marche, has failed to nurture grassroot support. It is not so much a political party as a vehicle for his ego. Its current MPs tend to be young, little known and motivated principally by presidential patronage.
That said, the mainstream parties of both left and right look weak and fissile. The Socialist Party, which has produced two presidents of the Fifth Republic, fared disastrously in the presidential election. Its candidate, Anne Hidalgo, who is mayor of Paris, garnered just 1.7 percent of votes cast in the first round. And the Republican Party – the party of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, which is sometimes compared to the UK’s Tories – fared little better. The Republican candidate, Valérie Pécresse, won just 4.7 percent of the votes on 10 April. As that was below the minimum five percent threshold, she will receive no state support for her campaigning expenses and is liable for about €5m, to be paid out of her own pocket.
Macron was the first choice of only one in four voters in the first round. Many of the traditional backers of the Socialist Party were swayed by the overtly Marxist candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Similarly, many traditional Gaullists – now rebranded as Republicans − supported Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. What explains this polarisation of French political opinion in recent years, to the point where it has become mainstream to be on the fringe?
This is much debated. But some point the finger at the constitution of the Fifth Republic itself. It has at its centre a monarchical president who is both head of state and head of government – just as in the US. But, unlike in the US, France has not been able to develop a stable, bipolar party system with widespread, grassroots support. That is probably because the magnificent US system maintains a constructive tension between the legislature (Congress) and the executive (the White House). But there is no such equivalent in France’s Fifth Republic.
The constitution of the Fifth Republic was drawn up by General Charles de Gaulle in the late summer of 1958 at a moment of extreme crisis. The war in Algeria was going badly, and France itself was on the verge of civil war. The ultra-parliamentary constitution of the Fourth Republic (1946-58) was deemed chaotic, even though it was during the Fourth Republic that France finally became an advanced industrial nation with more people living in towns and cities than in the countryside (something England recorded about one century earlier). Rural depopulation continues to this day, which is why most French villages look abandoned, except those which have been revivified by British and Dutch homeowners.
France today exhibits some of the maladies of post-modern, western democracy. There is reduced loyalty to, and membership of, established political parties. However, France is not unique in that respect: Britain’s Conservative Party had a membership of over three million in the mid-1950s; now it has under 200,000 members). Electoral turnout has been declining. Once a president is elected, unlike in the US, there is no constitutional mechanism to unseat them. On the other hand, Macron will not be allowed to run in 2027. Who will challenge Le Pen then?
France has always been, as the historian Robert Tombs recently wrote, a political laboratory in which ideas and institutions are created before being adopted by the rest of Europe. France since 1789 has fluctuated through periods of democracy and extreme authoritarianism, including Bonapartism, which flourished twice. The Nazi collaborationist regime of Marshall Phillippe Pétain (Vichy France, 1940-44) left deep scars. De Gaulle’s constitution for the Fifth Republic was an attempt to combine authority with democracy. It was France’s 15th constitution since 1789 and, arguably, has been widely accepted. Few French people want to return to the parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic – even though GDP growth rates of more than 10 percent per annum were seen in those days.
For all Le Pen’s right-wing credentials, her policies were a celebration of the welfare state. Her platform was a marriage of left-wing economics with old-fashioned, law-and-order patriotism. She offered the under-30s an exemption from income tax altogether. In contrast, the maverick writer, Eric Zemmour, pushed a form of radical capitalism which rightly targeted the byzantine French tax code.
In the first instance, Macron will be expected to address the cost-of-living crisis which is afflicting virtually all EU countries as well as the UK. The reality in France, however, just as in the UK, is that there is no quick fix for the impact of soaring energy and food prices on household budgets. At least France does not face the dilemma, as does Germany, of whether to spurn Russian gas and plunge the country into instant recession or to continue to fund Putin’s war machine. France is a relatively modest consumer of Russian gas and enjoys the huge strategic advantage that 83 percent of its electricity grid is generated by nuclear power.
The key to Macron’s programme for his second term is to raise the normal retirement age from 62 to 65 – still lower than that in Germany or the UK. This will be necessary in order to forestall further deterioration of France’s debt-to-GDP ratio. But it will not be accomplished without widespread opposition and indeed popular protest. Reform of the pensions system in France has proven thorny, although some progress was made during the president’s first term. France spends about 14 percent of its GDP on retirement pensions – more than any EU country except Greece and Italy.
French national debt increased under Macron I, but not for investment purposes. New debt (as in the UK) was largely used to finance consumption through more generous transfer payments. When Macron came to power in 2017, the economic environment was characterised by a fear of deflation and the cost of borrowing was near zero. During his first term, Macron oversaw an increase of almost US$600bn in government debt for an increase in GDP of US$139bn. But now, in 2022, the main economic angst is about inflation, which is running above five percent, and the risk that servicing that government debt will become intolerably burdensome as interest rates rise.
Like other European leaders – such as Boris Johnson – Macron has no evident handle on this. When Macron I came to office, France’s debt-to-GDP ratio was about 100 percent; Macron II begins his term with a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 115 percent. Last year the fiscal deficit amounted to 6.5 percent of GDP. France already has the fourth-largest debt pile in the world (after the US, Japan and China) and it is likely to get even bigger under Macron II.
On the plus side, Macron’s reforms of labour-market laws made hiring easier, pushing down unemployment to a 13-year low of 7.4 percent at the end of 2021. And while the UK is raising corporation tax, taxes on corporate profits are set to fall in France this year. Macron’s other tax reforms during his first term, such as raising taxes on fuel, were stymied by the ‘gilets jaunes’(yellow vests). As elsewhere, Macron’s most ambitious plans were then derailed by the pandemic. Some of the electorate understood that. And Macron was successful in attracting inward investment to France. A report by EY last year found that France topped the European league for foreign inward investment in capital projects.
Yet there is little prospect that Macron II’s France will regain its economic-growth ‘mojo’. France is a bloated state with 5.5 million civil servants, 35,000 elected and salaried mayors and over 500,000 councillors. Government expenditure accounted for nearly 60 percent of GDP last year. There is no policy to reduce that figure.
While Macron declared that the French presidential election was a “referendum on Europe”, Le Pen had long since abandoned her avowal of any form of “Frexit”. She wanted to reform rather than leave the EU – something she now admits would be impossible. But the danger is that Macron will interpret his re-election as a mandate to accelerate his federalist ambitions – much against the will of the Eurosceptic nations of eastern Europe such as Hungary and Poland (though, it is true that those two states are now diametrically opposed regarding relations with Russia).
Macron wants the eurozone to have its own finance minister (no doubt French) and its own budget. He is proposing EU-wide controls on executive pay. He wants EU members to be allocated funding in accordance with their “respect for the rule of law”. That would entail penalising Poland when it is the front-line state against an aggressive Russia and is now home to over two million Ukrainian refugees. He thinks that EU member states should lose their veto on EU-level, foreign-policy initiatives. He asserts the primacy of EU law over that of nation states.
Macron also aspires to the creation of a common, EU defence force which would initially include a 5,000-strong brigade which could be deployed in combat by the European Commission. This could be a prelude to the formation of an EU army in which the armed forces of all member states would be effectively merged. EC president Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council president Charles Michel – fellow techno-populists − are thought to be supportive. But the fact that both Sweden and Finland are edging towards NATO membership suggests that many states on the European periphery see the Atlantic alliance as the ultimate guarantor of their security. Macron will not have it all his own way.
Behind the lunge towards “European sovereignty” – Macron wants Europe to have its own internet search engine and its own social-media platforms – there resides a strain of pure protectionism. Europe should compete, Macron thinks, by selectively isolating itself from international competition.
Despite Le Pen’s defeat, right-wing populist support is still rife across the EU. Viktor Orbán was re-elected as Hungary’s prime minister for a fourth term on 3 April; and on 11 April the far-right Vox party entered the Spanish regional government of Castilla y León as a coalition partner.
Macron is due to make a speech next month in his capacity as president of Europe in which he will articulate a vision of the EU’s future. He will try to do in Europe what he has done in France – to secure a sustained majority against populism. Germany’s reluctance to supply heavy weaponry to Ukraine and its equivocation about ceasing to buy Russian gas has put the Paris-Berlin axis under strain – but it is still the ‘engine’ of European integration.
After the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, Macron continued to legitimise Putin’s actions with regular telephone chats – 20 hours of them in the first month, according to AFP − even as evidence of war crimes began to accumulate. And yet most French people seemed to think that he was doing a good job by keeping France in the top league of diplomacy. Macron’s standing in the polls increased.
The problem is that Macron imagines he can formulate western geopolitical strategy by himself. He invited Putin to his Mediterranean retreat at Fort de Brégançon in August 2019 without consulting his NATO allies. He upheld the inequitable Minsk II Agreement – forged between Russia, France and Germany in 2015 – and even proposed Minsk III, which would have sealed Russian control of Crimea and possibly the Donbas indefinitely. His attempted interventions in Lebanon have proven useless. He has abandoned Mali and much of sub-Saharan Africa to Russian mercenary units.
We now know that Paris continued to sell military hardware to Moscow until recently, using a loophole in EU sanctions, thanks to a recent EU report. The post-2014 sanctions allowed EU states to supply “dual-use” equipment such as rifles which might be for civilian use. Maybe that’s another reason why, according to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin regards Macron as weak – like one of Lenin’s “useful idiots”.
Relations with “les rosbifs”
Franco-British relations have fallen to a modern-day, all-time low under Macron, as I discussed here last December.
He labelled the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine “quasi-useless” during Europe’s worst public- health crisis for a century. That was either out of ignorance or was a deliberate lie since the Oxford vaccine had been proved to be highly effective and had been offered to the world at cost. The French vaccine champion, Sanofi, was never in the running – and Macron was resentful. The consequences of this for the global south, where vaccine hesitancy intensified, were, according to Professor Sir John Bell, “incalculable” − and were exacerbated by Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns. By the way, the French still think that the British mortality rate from Covid was much worse than theirs. They are misinformed in that regard.
Macron is apt to equate the will of the Franco-German axis as the will of Europe − when it is no such thing. Successive French governments gave Merkel & Co. carte blanche to impose strangulating austerity measures across southern Europe. The French gave their imprimatur for the Germans to become entirely dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. Yet Macron, as president of France, has not been inclined to apologise for these policy disasters imposed on Europe as a whole.
And rather than drawing a line under the UK’s departure from the EU and endeavouring to form a constructive partnership with an important strategic and commercial ally, Macron chose to double down and to try to punish his northern neighbour for the conceit of thinking differently. He is happy that the Chinese Communist Party obtains a better agreement on financial services than the UK. He railed against the AUKUS pact like an unruly teenager – and displayed zero understanding of its logic. The Australians had to cough up €3bn in compensation for the cancelled submarine contract – even though it was widely acknowledged that France’s diesel-electric subs were unequal to the task of protecting Australia from China’s encroachments (as exemplified by China’s military presence in the Solomon Islands).
Macron has proven entirely intransigent on the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland protocol. And let’s not even talk about fisheries.
Notwithstanding the Brits, Emmanuel Macron’s biggest battles lie ahead. He is a small-spirited man, whose elitist education has led him to believe that he is omniscient. He is not. He has limited diplomatic skills and few insights into economics or geopolitics. He is likely to ‘emmerder’ the strategically vital eastern Europeans even more as times go by. His legacy could be marred by further estrangement along both the EU’s north-south and east-west fissures. And, as Le Point observed on Wednesday, second terms for French presidents usually end badly.
But even though I am not his greatest admirer, because I still love France, where I have lived and was partly educated I still wish Emmanuel Macron luck.