Could the re-election campaign of France’s President Emmanuel Macron be any less inspiring?
Yet this year the stakes for France, Europe and the world are even higher in many ways. With Germany’s new coalition government still finding its footing after the Angela Merkel era, the European Union’s second biggest economy and only nuclear power could well be leading the continent’s response to a high Covid-19 debt load, a brutal war on Europe’s doorstep and a costly shift away from fossil fuels.
It’s not just the combination of pandemic and war that is smothering excitement on the campaign trail. Macron has changed his tune — the former disruptor is being cast as protector-in-chief by an entourage seeking to keep him above the fray. Wags have named it the “eiderdown” plan: sleepy, safe and padded with budget giveaways. Macron’s legacy and leadership are to speak for themselves. He’s avoiding debates with rivals.
The ennui was evident at a recent campaign stop in Avesnes-sur-Helpe, a small town 20 minutes from the Belgian border. As a few locals hurled anti-Macron insults outside the red brick building, a parade of panjandrums rose up inside to defend Macron’s record before an audience of 150 voters, local officials and party faithful. Despite being “unlucky,” facing protests, a pandemic and now a war on his watch, they said, Macron had delivered reforms, tax cuts and spending that had changed France for the better. Warning of the rise of his far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen, a dangerously close second in the polls, one minister asked: “Who do you want in charge?”
Attendees applauded and joined the president’s crew in a lusty rendition of the Marseillaise. The appeal to centrist values and crisis management has been enough to keep Macron top in the polls, but not enough to stop Le Pen climbing by the day. Voter apathy has been contagious, with turnout projected at a record low.
Which begs a question: If a candidate is running on his record, what should we make of Macron’s legacy after five years in power? To what extent has his mission to transform France succeeded? And could it all be reversed by a far-right resurgence?
Compared with the stasis of the past 20 years, France has certainly seen changes. Energized by reforms, its economy has weathered the Covid storm better than others; it ranks fifth in Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience index. France’s influence in Europe has risen. All that has happened even as its establishment political parties have steadily declined.
Yet Macron’s glass was so big that it could never be half-full. Much remains undone. Some plans outright flopped. Political polarization and social divisions, meanwhile, have deepened. They could produce a late election upset by Le Pen. And even if Macron wins, these forces won’t disappear.
“The tensions on display during the last presidential term have been unheard of, and only a pandemic was able to keep them relatively contained,” Jean-Philippe Derosier, of Lille University, said last month. Macron the revolutionary delivered change, but he may not avoid another revolution before long.
One change Macron can claim is the performance and perception of France’s economy, long caricatured as a basket case. Even after protests that stopped his reform agenda, and a pandemic that dealt the worst recession since World War II, he’s left the economy in better shape than he found it.
Unemployment is at a 15-year low, economic growth is outpacing Germany’s and corporate investment has rebounded.
Calling that a “revolution” might be a stretch: France’s debt-to-GDP ratio of 113% is among the highest in the euro area. Its social spending is among the highest in the developed world. And Macron’s pre-Covid bid for a “Copernican revolution” in the country’s Byzantine pension system fizzled in the face of protests and the pandemic.
Yet when put into context, Macron’s effective “step-by-step” reforms have set him apart from his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, who were forced to backtrack on many of their pledges. Their failures made Macron, whose brief ministerial career had yielded small-bore successes in liberalizing bus routes and Sunday trading, look in 2017 like France’s next homme providentiel — a term used by historian Jean Garrigues to describe the savior figures embraced by elites in times of crisis throughout history.
Macron’s early reforms as president made hiring and firing easier, capped employment tribunal rewards and created a bigger window for companies to negotiate a 35-hour workweek. Trade unions had neither the support nor the stomach for a fight.
He also passed controversial tax cuts that earned him the nickname “president of the rich” — slashing a levy on net wealth to cover only property, cutting corporation taxes to 25% and instituting a flat tax on dividends. “He’s the right-wing president we never expected,” one rival exclaimed in 2018.
In a modern twist on the post-Napoleonic monarchy’s offer of 1 billion francs to aristocrats who had fled the revolution, Macron’s tax cuts and investor-friendly reforms stemmed brain drain and brought back exiles who were either filling the trading floors of investment banks in London or the golf resorts of tax havens abroad, data from the French prime minister’s office and French consulates suggest. Efforts to foster a more attractive environment for foreign direct investment, symbolized by Macron’s glitzy “Choose France” summits at the Palace of Versailles, paid off in a pre-Covid rebound in volumes measured by the World Bank and a bump in the annual rankings of the EY consultancy.
Beyond the well-off bankers bidding up apartments in Paris to eye-watering levels, broader property tax and income tax cuts have perked up the middle class. These were accelerated when protests over the cost of living by workers suffering wage stagnation — the so-called gilets jaunes, or yellow vests — called for a counterrevolution of sorts from Macron, in this case backed by 17 billion euros of budget giveaways.
Macron’s tendency to write checks ramped up after Covid-19, as exemplified by 100 billion euros in pandemic stimulus, and his more statist stance today is dubbed “the protectionist revolution.” Still, the common thread connecting Macron the disruptor and Macron the protector has been bringing more people in an aging population into the workforce and shifting resources away from retirees.
Apprenticeships have boomed, as have bonuses for those hiring workers under 26 years of age. France’s furlough schemes ensured that jobs were saved, avoiding deep economic scarring despite a painful recession.
And while talk of reindustrializing France after decades of factory closures remains more hope than reality, economic gains from stimulus spending are being felt even in former manufacturing heartlands, where Le Pen’s blue-collar base has felt abandoned by the state and impoverished by waves of deindustrialization.
Funds have been poured into green-energy projects like vehicle retrofitting at Greenmot or industrial production at AvosDim, which manufactures curtains and blinds. “This is the most business-friendly environment we’ve ever seen,” AvosDim founder Adrien Lombart says. Jerome Dron, founder of Redison, a music-technology startup that tapped a regional fund supported by the state, says the cash was a real “boost.”
Macron’s other big ambition beyond the economy was to liberalize the French state. If one plank of his legacy was a state of entrepreneurs, the other was the entrepreneurial state. It was to be remolded in his image: younger, more meritocratic, more digital, more open to competition and more McKinsey-ish. Macron in 2016 called the profligacy of the state an “act of cowardice” on the part of French governments.
Yet had Macron’s 2016 manifesto imagined France’s current level of public spending and expansion of the civil service, commandeered by a head of state determined to protect supermarket chains from foreign takeovers and ordering state utility Electricite de France SA to cap power bills, it might have been subtitled: “So What’s New?” The country today has 170,000 more civil servants than in 2016.
Covid shifted outrage from the over-allocation of state resources to their under-allocation. Furlough schemes and a “whatever-it-takes” approach to state spending, backed by a well-oiled bureaucracy and regulated economy, earned praise. The highly centralized Parisian administration got the blame, however, for mask shortages, nurses’ poor pay and patchy public services in local areas. And France’s inability to develop a Covid vaccine of its own exposed a lack of spending on innovation.
Meanwhile, Macron’s pledges to make the state more efficient have become increasingly rhetorical, focused on technocrats groomed in France’s top academies (where he himself studied). His symbolic war on the elite, whom he accused of “betrayal,” has veered into populism. He accused the diplomats of the Quai d’Orsay of working as a “deep state” against his plans to bring Vladimir Putin in from the cold. He waged a long internal battle with his own government to shutter the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and the hypercompetitive rankings that decide who gets the most prestigious postings. He opened their ranks to outsider applicants.
For Chloe Morin, a former government advisor, Macron has scored only small victories against those she calls the “un-movables,” the technocratic advisors and top civil servants who pack the corridors of power. She cites the ENA’s overhaul under a new name, his appointment of a new wave of prefets — the emissaries of the state who are spread far and wide to oversee policy — and his renunciation of his own pension rights as president. Yet the cozy world of dominant elites in France in her view remains best summed up by a cooking analogy: “Any object inserted into a pickle jar will, over the course of several weeks, become a pickle.”
As for the enarques themselves, many slam their alma mater’s overhaul, seeing a dilution of a prestigious institution that will lead to more outsourcing and less efficacy. The goal of a more diverse student body, while worthy, looks to some like a category error. In their view, more attention should be paid to growing elite disaffection with a career in the civil service, which looks less glamorous after the 21st-century boom years of finance and Silicon Valley.
As alumnus and former civil servant Nicolas Colin puts it, the debate should be over what role the state should have in today’s world and in what kind of economy. Judging by Macron’s re-election campaign, a revolution here is unlikely.
Other pushes, such as for a more transparent French state and society, look here to stay. Macron’s own entourage has not been spared: His centrist allies got tangled up in graft, his bodyguard Alexandre Benalla was filmed beating up protesters dressed as a policeman, and his environment minister was forced to step down after lavish dinners of lobster and Chateau d’Yquem. A recent string of high-society scandals, from an incest accusation that shook Sciences Po university to conflicts of interest in the respected Goncourt literary prize, point to an establishment increasingly under scrutiny.
Of course, Paris remains Paris, and not Copenhagen. The Automobile Club of France is still closed to women candidates; the French CAC 40 index is only about to welcome its second female CEO. French elites have railed against the import of le wokisme — Macron’s wife, for instance, has pointedly noted that “There are two pronouns, he and she.” But gender equality initiatives are gaining ground, with one law passed in December setting quotas at management level.
Alongside re-creating France’s internal makeup, Macron’s aim was to bind France closer to Europe at a time of rising euroskepticism. His lofty ambitions to kick-start the EU’s Franco-German engine again after bitter financial and migration crises earned him the label “the last president of Europe.”
For a while, it looked more like talk than action. He fielded plenty of proposals and ideas, championing a more sovereign EU to resist Donald Trump’s trade threats, trying to coax Vladimir Putin into a reset with Europe and playing the bad cop in Brexit talks with Britain. But Germany seemed broadly unmoved, and his labelling of NATO as “brain-dead” served to annoy allies.
Yet Macron can claim credit for a European shake-up brought about by Covid, when he proved that France could wield the Archimedean lever of Europe to its advantage. Securing Merkel’s support for a bazooka-shaped $1 trillion joint borrowing plan to rebuild the virus-scarred bloc, called “NextGenerationEU,” was a game-changer.
Barely a decade after Germany had insisted on austerity in response to the meltdown hitting Greece and Southern Europe, Berlin was now blessing an effective bailout partly funded by German taxpayers. The step closer to a “transfer union” for so long demonized in the German imagination proved that Paris and Berlin could muster leadership, and integrationist momentum, even after Brexit and Covid.
It showed that Macron — dubbed “complex” by Merkel — had restored France as a credible economic partner. Sarkozy and Hollande were trapped in a “Madame Nein” relationship in which France proposed and Germany disposed. Had either been in power during Covid, there might still have been a bazooka, but perhaps not as big.
And it also neutralized some of the loudest objections from domestic “Frexiteers” who had long railed against the EU as a German-led machine for austerity-driven policies that straitjacketed France.
In grabbing the slogan “whatever it takes” from former European Central Bank head and current Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and applying it to fiscal stimulus in France, Macron appropriated some of the supposed benefits of Frexit. His rivals on the far right and far left are as contemptuous of Brussels as ever, but Frexit is “off the menu” in 2022, says Joseph de Weck, author of a biography of Macron. Le Pen, for instance, is no longer campaigning to take France out of the euro.
While certainly revolutionary in its own way, this shift doesn’t preclude future internal fights on the EU’s direction. A joint push by France and Italy to keep the EU from reimposing fiscal limits too soon, and a recent proposal to launch more fiscal stimulus after the Ukraine war, have had a chilly reception.
And the French have yet to be reconciled with an EU that has been a convenient political punching bag. An IFOP survey published last month found that while the French were proud to be European, more of them favor sovereignty at the national government than EU level.
Still, France’s influence in Europe has clearly risen since Macron’s arrival, proving to be a force multiplier for the country. While his ill-judged attempts to woo Putin with a charm offensive were unsuccessful — Macron’s regular phone calls since the invasion have delivered few obvious gains — France’s focus on strengthening European defense and its preference for nuclear power have been vindicated.
Macron’s biggest and most visible change at home, however, has been one that could cause even more turbulent revolutions to come: his championing of Third Way politics and defeat of the left-right political parties that had governed for decades. The reshaping of the French electorate, which has left behind the 20th-century pillars of Catholicism and communism, is still underway and remains both an opportunity and a risk for Macron.
The “Macron country” he created in 2017 by appealing to a “bourgeois bloc” of aspiring white-collar urban workers with pro-EU tendencies is still loyal to the incumbent, as he throws out a mix of left-and-right policies for 2022, from hiking the retirement age to 65 and cutting taxes to increasing wages for teachers.
It is a country of the mind, and the metropolis. Surveys show Macron supporters to be more optimistic than the rest of the population, more inclined to believe France can change. They have tended to be young urbanites, a subgroup of the elite, in an aging country with a median age of 42, even if more retirees vote Macron these days. And a high proportion of them have master’s-level education, according to political analyst Luc Rouban.
But with Macron’s mix of elite political competence and appeals to sweep out the old — which academic Christopher Bickerton has called “techno-populism” — came increased polarization, frustration and violence.
Macron’s seeming inability to broaden his appeal beyond his voter base has made him vulnerable. While he will be reassured by left-wingers recently crediting him with “getting the job done,” and the half of center-right candidate Valerie Pecresse’s conservative wing that saw his election as a good thing for France, he remains unloved, and his “Jupiterian” top-down style grates.
“Le Pen country,” meanwhile, has also grown. Macron’s nemesis has also been strengthened by the death of establishment parties, and by her loyal disaffected blue-collar base. Research by Jean-Laurent Cassely and Jerome Fourquet examining the Alsace region’s voting patterns in 2019 showed urban areas, tourist zones and wine country had gone to Macron, while areas that once hummed with textile factories and potash mining were in Le Pen’s hands.
Fears of rising inequality have also fueled the far left. French billionaires have seen their wealth over the past decade increase more than in any other country bar China, according to UBS/PwC. Ruchir Sharma, author of “The 10 Rules of Successful Nations,” notes that France has a rising proportion of billionaires who inherited their wealth. Purchasing power for the poorest 5% of France has fallen since 2017, making inflation a scarier prospect.
Macron has championed economic prosperity and liberalism over security issues like crime, terrorism and justice, and these areas are still seen as his weak points, partly explaining the rise of far-right anti-immigration pundit Eric Zemmour.
Gaps in France’s security services came under scrutiny after multiple terror attacks in 2020. The gilets jaunes lost eyes, and limbs, as police found themselves up against sporadic protests and guerrilla tactics they hadn’t known. Music producer Michel Zecler was beaten by police after an apparent Covid lockdown check gone wrong.
In the first week of January, when parliament was voting on vaccine passes, 28 lawmakers received death threats. Surveys suggest a quarter of those aged 18 to 25 consider violence to be an acceptable way of expressing anger.
More broadly, what began as democratic fatigue, exemplified by Macron’s rise to power, is turning into exhaustion. Turnout in his 2017 presidential election was about 75%; in the 2019 European elections, it was 50%; in 2020 local elections, 42%; in 2021 regional elections, 33%. Currently, only about 70% of French registered voters are “sure” of voting, 15 points less than in 2017. That could yield surprises.
A lot of Macron’s legacy is wrapped up in one man. Macron has kept power centralized, Parisian and solitary. He replaced his popular prime minister Edouard Philippe with a relative nonentity. Defense committees and scientific advisors encircled the president, elevating his image while rendering those below a little more invisible.
Indeed, Macron’s biggest failure has been his inability to turn his party into more than just a machine for handing out leaflets or rubber-stamping laws; it is seen as rootless. Some of the faces that stood out, like spider-brooch-toting mathematician Cedric Villani, have broken off from the party. Others, like Brune Poirson, have simply left politics.
Despite these failings, Macron may well be re-elected rather than turn out to be an accident of history. Describing what he calls the “French paradox,” Jean-Louis Missika, former advisor to Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo, notes that more voters today self-identify as centrist — neither left nor right — than before Macron’s 2017 election, despite the collapse of political parties associated with the center. In fleeing the center for more polarized ground, he argues, Macron’s rivals have made a serious miscalculation.
Yet as Le Pen’s surge in appeal shows, the divisions in French society and politics remain real, deep and abiding. Macron has changed France, and done so step-by-step rather than through revolution. That may propel him to another term. But rather like the case of the 18th-century minister Turgot who came up with his own kind of bus-route liberalization alongside other administrative initiatives during the Ancien Regime, moderate reforms don’t always head off revolutions. Even if Macron wins, what happens next for France may not be so measured.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.
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