Sure looks a lot like conservatism

London Review of Books
By Didier Fassin

During his presidential campaign last year, Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that he was ‘neither left nor right’ was seen as the defining feature of his attempt to transcend old-fashioned politics. Jürgen Habermas declared that Macron ‘has dared to cross a red line untouched since 1789’ and ‘has broken apart the entrenched configuration of the two political camps of right and left’. This positioning caught the imagination of French voters disillusioned with Les Républicains, whose leader, François Fillon, had been disgraced in a nepotism scandal, and with the Parti Socialiste (PS), undermined by François Hollande’s disappointing presidency. Macron had been an investment banker at Rothschild and was minister of the economy for two years under Hollande. He appeared amenable both to a neoliberal approach and to the progressive programme of the socialists, although as a minister he was responsible for a pro-business turn. His much derided verbal tic – he will make a case for something and then say ‘en même temps’ (‘at the same time’) and give the other side – allows him to seem to situate himself above the political divide. Was Macron neither left nor right, or was he both at the same time? His portrayal of himself was so fascinating that many voters forgot their historic loyalties: Macron seemed like a new figure on the political stage, whose presence would require a rearrangement of the scenery.

 

Even so, the election result came as a surprise. As Sophie Pedder, the Paris bureau chief of the Economist, writes in her panegyric on Macron’s rise to power, no poll even bothered to test his presidential chances a year before the election: ‘his hopes of building a political movement capable of taking on the existing party machines on the left and the right, which had rotated power between them, under various names, for over half a century, looked like a far-fetched fantasy.’ No centre candidate had ever won the presidency under the Fifth Republic. The centrist vote usually came into play when its candidates, having been eliminated in the first round, decided which of the two remaining candidates to back in the second round of voting. It was a rule of thumb that for a party to win a general election it had to be firmly anchored on the right or the left, and then broaden its appeal towards centre voters. In 2017, with the popularity of the traditional parties on the wane and fear of the far right on the rise, Macron was able to position himself as a last-ditch defence against the National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen. The likelihood of a Le Pen victory was close to zero – opinion polls gave a substantial lead to any candidate liable to face her in round two – but voters, especially on the left, were taken with this argument. Robert Hue, a former general secretary of the Communist Party, and Patrick Braouezec, a charismatic reformer, called on party members to vote for Macron in the first round, rather than Benoît Hamon, the winner of the PS primary, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the candidate of La France insoumise (‘France unbowed’), who was previously allied with the Communists but was now taking a more populist line. Even PS voters seemed to follow this advice, condemning their candidate to a humiliating defeat and their party to obscurity, while Mélenchon fell 2 per cent short of a place in the second round. Having won round one with the support of only 18 per cent of the electorate, Macron beat Le Pen by a two-thirds majority in round two, although 34 per cent of the electorate abstained or cast blank votes: the second highest proportion in almost half a century. What did the victory of a man claiming to be of the centre who is also the author of a book entitled Revolution really mean?

 

Once he was in office, Macron’s politics became clearer. He began by choosing figures from the centre-right Les Républicains, the successor of Chirac and Sarkozy’s UMP, to fill key positions, with Edouard Philippe as prime minister, Bruno Le Maire as minister of the economy and Gérald Darmanin as minister of public action and accounts. His most prominent spoil of war on the left was the PS’s Gérard Collomb, who accepted the ministry of the interior (a difficult job, which carries responsibility for the treatment of migrants and refugees). Other important posts were offered to people who had made their names in the private sector: Muriel Pénicaud, the minister of labour, at the multinational food corporation Danone; and Elisabeth Borne, the minister of transport, at the civil engineering company Eiffage. When the cabinet was announced, James McAuley wrote in the Washington Post that ‘Macron’s “radical centrism” sure looks a lot like conservatism.’

 

More significant, though less visible, were the choices of chiefs of staff and senior administrators who had occupied similar positions under right-wing governments; these were intended, it was said, to compensate for the lack of political experience among the ministers brought in from civil society. Far from the media’s rebel against the system – of which he was in fact a pure emanation – Macron appeared to be an accomplished politician manipulating it. A reader of Machiavelli, he seemed to have retained the lessons of The Prince, but as Patrick Boucheron, a professor of history at the Collège de France, noted, Machiavelli had gone from politics to political philosophy, while Macron had moved in the opposite direction. He had presented his programme as ‘neither left nor right’, but once in the Elysée, he showed a definite leaning to the right. François Mitterrand, an acute political observer, would not have been surprised by this revelation, having once declared that ‘the centre is neither left nor left.’

 

It’s now more than a year since Macron was elected and we have had ample opportunity to consider the spectacle of ‘Macronism in power’, as the Mediapart journalist Joseph Confavreux puts it. In France, labelling presidents’ styles and ascribing an ism to them is common practice. Gaullism had a clearly identifiable worldview, characterised by what de Gaulle called ‘a certain idea of France’: a messianic vision of the nation’s historic destiny, a realist approach to international relations, a commitment to the strong state and a uniquely grandiloquent rhetoric. Sarkozy and Hollande, Macron’s undistinguished predecessors, have left very little trace of any doctrine. Is there such a thing as Macronism? In a chapter devoted to ‘his guiding ideology’, Pedder finds ‘a narrative built upon solidarity as well as opportunity’, an effort to strike ‘a new balance between liberty and protection, in which an enabling state becomes a tool for individual advancement’. This view privileges Macron’s words over his deeds. When one turns from the professed philosophy to the policies, what is left of Macron’s self-proclaimed ‘progressivism’? In place of ideology we find a banal pragmatism derived from a combination of neoliberalism and authoritarianism, and projected by means of impressive PR skills, on the international stage especially. From Thatcher to Blair, Reagan to Clinton, this formula has been characteristic of Western democracies in recent decades.

 

To many, it was a surprise – and a shock – that the guest of honour at Macron’s first 14 July celebration was Donald Trump, whose style seems the exact opposite. But the affinities between the two go beyond their unforeseen rise to power (‘You are like me a winner, a dealmaker. We’re going to work very well together,’ Trump told Macron on the day after the election). They share the view that politics combines the invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of the state. This belief was manifested in Macron’s first two major decisions: the abolition of the solidarity tax on wealth (ISF) and the enactment of new anti-terrorism legislation.

 

A wealth tax was introduced in 1982 after the victory of the left in that year’s elections, scrapped five years later by Chirac’s right-wing government, and reinstated in 1988 by Michel Rocard after the Socialists’ return to power. In its most recent iteration, it was a progressive tax on capital paid by individuals and couples with assets above €1.3 million. The highest rate, for assets above €10 million, was 1.5 per cent, generating €5.2 billion in 2015, equivalent to almost 2 per cent of the state’s total tax revenue. This levy had only modest effects on the capital held by the wealthy: since 1988 the assets of the top 1 per cent have increased threefold and those of the top 0.1 per cent fivefold. However, from the exchequer’s point of view, it wasn’t a trifling sum, corresponding to twice the amount spent by the state on culture, and almost two-thirds of the justice department budget. Right-wing politicians and business lobby groups argued that the ISF resulted in an exodus of so-called tax refugees, though there was little evidence for this: in 2013, only 714 of the 330,000 people liable to pay the tax had left the country.

 

Macron replaced the ISF with a tax on real estate, retaining the threshold of €1.3 million. But, as 80 per cent of the wealth of the very well-off consists of equities, while real estate, by contrast, constitutes 80 per cent of the wealth accumulated by the middle class, the reform clearly favoured the former. Macron also raised the so-called general social contribution (CSG) levied on income. Income here includes pensions, which saw a tax increase from 6.6 to 8.3 per cent, on all but the lowest ones. Macron sought to mitigate the unpopularity of these measures by abolishing the ‘residence tax’ – a tax on any owner or tenant – but this did not prevent pensioners from going out on the streets: a rare sight in France. Within months of his victory, he had earned the unenviable title of ‘president of the rich’.

 

Last November, Macron announced the end of the state of emergency. This might have been hailed as a victory for democracy if most of the provisions of the state of emergency had not been enacted into law the day before. Decreed by Hollande’s administration after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the state of emergency – the first since the Algerian war – granted special powers to the executive branch and law enforcement, and was extended six times. It was initially supported by 91 per cent of the population and voted for by 551 out of 558 representatives. It had no discernible effect on terrorist activity. According to a report on the first four months of the state of emergency published by the National Assembly’s Law Commission, only 12 per cent of administrative searches – police house searches which don’t require a warrant issued by a judge – uncovered illegal activities. Almost all of those were concerned with drug trafficking, possession of weapons and illegal immigration. Of 268 people put under house arrest, three-quarters did not have the warrant renewed, suggesting the wrong people had been targeted. During the early months of the emergency, its measures were mostly used to prevent political activists from protesting, especially at the time of the Paris Climate Summit. In any case, all these issues could have been dealt with under existing legislation.

 

The purpose of the state of emergency was essentially performative, making the authority of the government explicit and creating an atmosphere in which the exception could become the norm: army patrols in public spaces, the banning of demonstrations, racial profiling in regard to stop-and-search. The police took advantage of public anxiety to acquire powers they had long requested in vain, including the right to use weapons for more than self-defence. The new anti-terrorism legislation that replaces the state of emergency makes administrative searches and house arrest easier, authorises unrestricted surveillance of electronic communications and expands the use of stop-and-search in various parts of the country – areas that in total account for two-thirds of France’s population. The measures were condemned by two special rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Council. Macron could well be remembered as the president who vindicated Walter Benjamin’s assertion that ‘the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.’

 

The reform of France’s labour laws also illustrates Macron’s far from centrist instincts. It stops difficult working conditions – long or unsocial hours, physically demanding labour – being used to justify compensatory rights (mostly affecting retirement packages); makes redundancy cheaper for employers even when a company is profitable; lowers compensation awards for unfair dismissal; creates insecure fixed-term contracts while removing the bonus that workers with temporary jobs were entitled to; gets rid of commissions on health and safety; and allows negotiations on pay and working conditions to be carried out without union representatives. The heads of the three main employers’ federations expressed their satisfaction with these reforms; union bosses were cautious or hostile. The new legislation was not debated in the National Assembly or the Senate. Macron decreed the changes, as he had said he would during his campaign, using ‘ordonnances’, statutory instruments that circumvent parliamentary debate and the possibility of amendment.

 

Earlier this year, plans for the reform of the state rail company, SNCF, were announced. The European Commission wanted France to open up its transport networks to competition, but the reform plan was driven by a debt of €54 billion, a result of the company’s long-term investments in high-speed lines. Here was another opportunity for Macron to deploy ‘en même temps’ his neoliberalism and his authoritarianism. The reforms will, indeed, bring competitors into a liberalised rail market. Many of the favourable terms and conditions enjoyed by SNCF employees will be abolished. Although the government has denied it, the future of unprofitable routes is obviously in question. And despite promises to the contrary, the unions fear that the privatisation of the SNCF itself might be achieved indirectly by permitting it to accept private investment in its subsidiaries. As the rail workers went on strike in April, Macron threatened to push the reforms through by decree. He seemed to regard the changes to the SNCF as the cherry on the cake: in combination with the labour reforms, they served to weaken the influence of the unions, already on the wane in recent decades.

 

In launching his neoliberal authoritarian programme, Macron has relied on a relentless charm offensive, but there are signs that it is running out of steam. According to an opinion poll conducted in May, a year after his election, 55 per cent consider the government’s actions to have damaging consequences; the same proportion think its reforms are too authoritarian. Only 16 per cent view Macron’s politics as beneficial to everyone, while 76 per cent believe they help only the upper classes. Whereas 58 per cent appreciate the positive image of France that he brings to the international scene, only 15 per cent believe that he understands their problems. Not surprisingly, 69 per cent situate him on the right of the political spectrum and 7 per cent on the left. Having reached a historic low in terms of popularity for a president of the Fifth Republic only six months after his election, Macron seems to have stabilised his ratings, with 57 per cent of the population dissatisfied with him; the exceptions – not unexpectedly – are employers, professionals and senior managers.

 

Nowhere has the discrepancy between Macron’s campaign promises and his conduct in the Elysée been more conspicuous than in his treatment of immigration and asylum. On the day he declared the end of the state of emergency, he made a high-profile speech before the European Court of Human Rights in which he affirmed his belief in the right to asylum: he intended, he said, ‘to strengthen it, to render it more just and effective’. He wanted ‘those who seek asylum to be received everywhere with dignity’. Yet, the ill-treatment of asylum seekers, and the bill on asylum and immigration which is soon to be enacted, contradict his words.

 

There is a shortage of places in reception centres for undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers. Many sleep in the open, where they are harassed by the security forces, who destroy the tents and blankets provided by NGOs. Contrary to Macron’s campaign promises, babies and children continue to be held in detention centres. In Calais, the police use tear-gas to disperse refugees, and contaminate food and water provided by volunteers. Near the Italian border, they pursue migrants attempting the perilous journey through the mountains. The administrative court in Nice has ruled against the prefect of the Alpes-Maritimes on at least four occasions, finding him responsible for ‘illegal practices regarding migrants’ – notably unaccompanied minors and asylum-seekers who have been denied protection and deported. Humanitarian workers have been taken to court and fined or given suspended prison sentences.

 

The new legislation on asylum and immigration will make it harder to lodge an asylum claim in France and worsen the treatment of undocumented migrants and unsuccessful claimants. The period during which an asylum seeker can file an application and appeal against rejection is significantly reduced; the use of the claimant’s native language in the hearings is made only optional; the administration can insist on communicating information to asylum-seekers via email, which is often not available to them; and more deportations will be allowed even when a case is still at appeal. The police will be able to detain individuals for longer to verify their legal status: the maximum stay in a detention centre will be extended from 45 to 90 days. New penalties for unauthorised residence will come into force. The defender of human rights – an independent authority required by the constitution – described the bill as intended to hinder the granting of asylum and increase pressure on migrants. A few days before its first reading in the National Assembly in April, various representatives of Macron’s party, La République en marche, publicly expressed their reluctance to vote for it. The party leader, Richard Ferrand, threatened to expel them if they refused.

 

In view of all this, Macron’s indignant reaction to the refusal of the new government in Rome to let the Aquarius – with 629 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean on board – dock in Italy seemed inappropriate. He accused Rome of ‘cynicism’ and ‘irresponsibility’, provoking a diplomatic incident and a demand for an apology. ‘I cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to turn their backs when it comes to immigration,’ the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said. Once more, Macron’s ‘idea of Europe’, which Pedder praises as ‘grandiose, historically sweeping, overly intellectual, stylistically extravagant, baffling, but also admirable’, seems at odds with his actions. Not only has he failed to relieve the pressure on southern European countries – France has accepted only 6000 migrants of the 30,000 it promised to take – but he seems to be facilitating the rise of an axis of hardliners, which now includes the interior ministries of Italy, Austria and Germany.

 

During his campaign, Macron said he wished to restore the prestige of France’s highest office by being a ‘Jupiterian president’. Since the day of his election, when he delivered his victory speech in front of I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, he has sought to embody this ideal, but in doing so he has become isolated not only from the electorate but from his colleagues. In order to concentrate power in the office of the president, he has reduced it in the other branches of government. Ministers and representatives of his party know that they owe him everything; they rarely speak without his authorisation, and when they do speak freely, they are often put in their place. The power of the legislature has lessened, as a result of the use of decrees and special procedures, as well as the obligation on members of Macron’s party to vote without discussion for bills put forward by the government. In yet another proposed constitutional reform, parliament will have its size and role diminished. The scope of the judiciary has already been reduced: the counter-terrorism law extends the prerogatives of the police at their expense. In April, in a rare protest, several thousand judges and lawyers demonstrated against judicial reforms. Regional and local authorities have lost a substantial part of their budget with the abolition of the residence tax and a cut in transfers from central government. They also have less autonomy: they are now obliged to sign a multi-year contract with the state which imposes strict financial obligations on them. Trade unions and pro-asylum NGOs are also under pressure. Finally, the press has been marginalised: the president avoids contact with journalists, ignores those considered too critical and decides who is worthy of interviewing him.

 

Often regarded, especially outside France, as a bulwark against the rise of extremist tendencies that threaten democracy, Macron is rapidly undermining some of democracy’s crucial components: constitutional checks and balances, public accountability, and vigorous debate in the legislature and the media. A former research assistant to the philosopher Paul Ricœur, he might reflect on his mentor’s words in Oneself as Another: ‘Democracy is not a political system without conflicts but a system in which conflicts are open and negotiable in accordance with recognised rules of arbitration.’

Sophie Pedder
Biography