President-elect Emmanuel Macron votes in France’s presidential runoff election

Opinion: Can Emmanuel Macron change France?

  • President-elect Macron’s reform program is promising but vague
  • An effective shakeup will require subduing the all-powerful bureaucratic elite
  • Insiders could hijack Mr. Macron’s movement if he doesn’t pick the right parliamentary slate

Faced with a choice between a social democrat and a far-right nationalist, French voters chose Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen by a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent. Yet, more than a third of the electorate did not vote at all or cast blank ballots – a new record for a presidential runoff in France. Mr. Macron is now free to tackle the country’s numerous structural problems, as promised. What are his prospects for getting France back on track?

Mixed messages

Despite a self-congratulatory farewell address from outgoing President Francois Hollande, the country is certainly not in a better shape after his five years in office. Despite subsidized jobs and costly employment programs, unemployment was still at 10.1 percent in March, near a 17-year high. The number of unemployed has increased by more than half a million. Economic growth remains sluggish, at 1.1 percent in 2016 and 0.3 percent for the first quarter. Public debt is approaching 100 percent of gross domestic product and spending is stuck at 57 percent of GDP, with a bloated government sector employing 5.6 million civil servants.

Against this backdrop, the president-elect’s economic program – even if one overlooks the hollowness of many of its proposals – could be seen as unambitious and possibly even worrying.

Of course, Mr. Macron wants to simplify France’s complex and unwieldy labor code (by a series of presidential decrees over the summer), push collective bargaining down to businesses from the national level, and cut the corporate tax rate from 33 percent to 25 percent. All of this could help boost the economy. He plans to gradually roll back public spending (by about 60 billion euros each year) while cutting the “rents” attached to privileged jobs and professions – something he already tried as finance minister under Mr. Hollande. Mr. Macron also proposes to take a stab at pension reform and to introduce more transparency in politics. All of this sounds rather good – provided he can deliver.

The sparse detail in Mr. Macron's reform proposals raises concern, as does their lack of ambition

But the sparse detail in these proposals raises concern, as does their lack of ambition (particularly on cuts in public spending) given France’s dire financial straits. Mr. Macron’s campaign promises suggest a blithe disregard for budget planning. For example, he pledged to lift the housing tax for 80 percent of French households and increase a wide range of welfare spending – from raising the minimum income for elderly people and providing them with cheaper eyeglasses and hearing aids, to reducing the maximum classroom size to 12 for elementary school pupils in “sensitive areas,” to more student housing and a 500-euro “culture voucher” for teenagers that seems to have been borrowed directly from Italy’s Matteo Renzi.

Inside job

It’s not completely clear how much change can be brought by this ambitious young thirty-something. Like so many of his fellow French politicians, he is a graduate of the elite Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA) and is a former senior civil servant. For someone who wants to “change the system,” Mr. Macron looks very much like a person who embodies it.

Even so, he could give the system a good shake. There may be a move toward centralization, as municipal revenues shrink after the housing tax cut and the government assumes responsibility for setting unemployment benefits from the old paritarisme system enlisting employers and unions.

These are precisely the sort of “Bonapartist” gestures calculated to appeal to some French voters

More importantly, Mr. Macron wants to wrest the policy reins from the technocratic elite by introducing a new “spoils system” – i.e., expanding the number of top posts subject to political appointment (the model for this change is the executive branch of the United States). Together with the decrees on labor laws, these are precisely the sort of “Bonapartist” gestures calculated to appeal to some French voters – and infuriate others, such as the trade unions. Labor unrest could be a distinct possibility.

Cobbled together

The president-elect suggested renewing and “moralizing” politics. Given the level of polarization among the electorate and the large number of protest votes for extreme parties of the left and the right, this sounds like a welcome proposition.

The current style of French government – with several costly layers of “centralized but decentralized” administration, unaccountable politicians, bewilderingly complex regulations, and lots of redistribution programs that leave people addicted to public handouts – has been a drag on the economy. The outcome has been a widespread conviction that politics is corrupt and a pervasive atmosphere of mistrust. At each end of the political spectrum, the “other” is to blame, either the migrant or the boss.

Emmanuel Macron and Jacques Attali at a conference
Old hands like Jacques Attali (R) have helped guide Mr. Macron’s meteoric rise (source: dpa)

The first obstacle to cleaning up politics will be the compromises President Macron makes to win a majority in the National Assembly. This will be his biggest challenge in the short term. The French system is expressly designed so that legislative elections follow on the heels of presidential elections. Usually, this means that newly elected presidents win a majority in the 577-seat lower chamber.

This time, however, things are different. While Mr. Macron received two-thirds of the second-round votes, many were simply voting against Marine Le Pen. In terms of real party preferences, the country is divided more or less evenly into four blocs, ranging from the extreme right (Le Pen’s National Front) to the extreme left (Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France insoumise), with the center-right (Francois Fillon’s Republicans) and center-left (Mr. Macron’s En Marche!) in the middle. That leaves out Mr. Hollande’s weakened Socialists, who now find themselves torn between the hard left and Mr. Macron’s movement. Given this level of polarization and fragmentation, it will be very hard for the new president to cobble together a clear parliamentary majority.

Old wine

When his En Marche! movement was very young, Mr. Macron said half of its representatives should come from civil society – i.e., they should be ordinary citizens. That is all very well, but to win elections, one needs experienced politicians – especially because in local contests, people often vote for the individual, not the party or the movement. The prospects for fielding a mostly green slate of candidates in May to win a general election in June are rather bleak. To organize an effective administrative reform, it also helps to have people familiar with the inner workings of government.

It is therefore unsurprising that some old political “hacks” have joined the ranks of En Marche! These include the former mayor of Paris, the current mayor of Lyon, the president of the National Assembly, former presidential hopeful Francois Bayrou, environmental activist and March 1968 veteran Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and even a former leader of the French Communist Party, Robert Hue.

Mr. Macron has welcomed defectors from the Socialists, as long as they run on his party ticket

Mr. Macron has welcomed defectors from the Socialists, as long as they are willing to run on his party ticket. Former Socialist party leader Segolene Royal said she supported Mr. Macron, while former Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already volunteered to be a parliamentary candidate for En Marche! Several dozen Socialists would happily jump on the Macron bandwagon, which could help Macron’s movement reach a majority at the lower house. And the man reputed to be the key intellectual guru behind Mr. Macron’s meteoric rise – Jacques Attali – is a very familiar face, especially from his stint as special advisor to Socialist President Francois Mitterand in 1981-1991

So much for the renewal. French voters may end up feeling betrayed by this patchwork quilt of former officeholders afraid to lose power. It seems almost as if Mr. Macron’s movement is an unavowed attempt to do for the Socialists what Tony Blair did for “New Labour” – rebrand the party with a slightly more social democratic, center-left, pro-business orientation. Whether this warmed-over approach will be enough to win a presidential majority is difficult to predict.

Wasted opportunity

The deep fragmentation of France’s political scene seems to require a coalition government. Yet this has not been the French tradition, and the idea has been explicitly rejected by Mr. Macron, Ms. Le Pen and Mr. Melenchon. The center-right Republicans are mostly focusing on cohabitation, or forming a government in opposition to the president.

Generally, cohabitation is a recipe for weak government, since a French president can slow down any initiatives from an opposing prime minister. But an opposition government could also support the president on points of agreement – in this case, perhaps, watered-down reforms. In preparation for the general election, the Republicans have already announced that they are ready to soften the ambitious reform proposals Mr. Fillon floated in the presidential campaign. Plus ca change…

France may be poised for another five years of wasted opportunity, or perhaps some reformist tinkering around the edges. Its unsustainable fiscal policies have been propped up for years by the European Central Bank. But the soothing effect this has had on government borrowing costs could disappear the instant ECB President Mario Draghi scales back quantitative easing, following in the footsteps of the Federal Reserve. Then France will have to wake up. Most likely, with a hangover.

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