French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the Summit of the Heads of State and of Government of the G7. May 27,2017.Blondet Eliot/Press Association. All rights reserved.“He’s a cat – you throw him through the window and he manages to fall on his feet.” This is how Alain Minc, an old acquaintance describes the most rapid coming of age in modern French politics. Emmanuel Macron is the youngest president of France in over 150 years. The recent French presidential election was historic because, for the first time since the creation of the Fifth Republic, France’s third longest lasting regime after the monarchy and the Third Republic, the two coalitions which have ruled France since 1958 were in disarray. Divided on the European Union of which France was a founding member, neither the Socialist nor the Républicain party inspired much confidence among the voters.
Was the election a case of man meeting destiny or a particular set of circumstances allowing one exceptional figure to emerge? That Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé, François Fillon, François Hollande and Manuel Valls all fell on their sword offered an irresistible opening which, to a degree, was impossible to foresee. When he launched his movement En Marche less than 18 months ago, resigned from the government the following summer and announced he would stand as candidate for the French presidency, Emmanuel Macron was derided by the vast majority of commentators and heavyweight politicians. His election vindicates the judgement of French observers who were convinced their fellow countrymen would avoid following in the populist footsteps of British and American voters.
They were reassured on the night Macron debated his extreme right wing opponent Marine Le Pen on French television in the run off to the second round. The 39-year old former banker could hardly disguise his combined sense of contempt and amusement at the leader of the National Front. The bleu eyes were steely as Macron pointed out that his opponent was getting her knickers in a twist – not least when she mistook the Euro for the Ecu. Marine le Pen dropped the mask of reasonableness she had worked so hard to put on for five years. Emmanuel Macron came across to millions of French people as an iron fist in a smooth velvet glove.
The announcement of the new prime minister and government after his election on 14 May broke with all precedent since 1958. Some ministers were from the Républicain party – the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, the mayor of Le Havre and the all-important minister of finance, Bruno Lemaire. Naming a German-speaking conservative was a smart choice, likely to reassure the number two of the German government, Wolfgang Schäuble. Other ministers hailed from the socialist party such as Gerard Collomb, the respected mayor of Lyon and Jean Yves Le Driant, the new minister of foreign affairs who had been François Hollande’s safe pair of hands at the ministry of defence throughout his presidency. Others hailed from the centre like Sylvie Goulard, at defence while some had refused multiple offers to join governments of left or right such as the very charismatic Nicolas Hulot, the icon of the environmentalists in France.
Another inspired choice was Françoise Nyssen at the ministry of culture. She co-founded, with her father, the publishing house Actes Sud in – of all places, Arles in 1978. Actes Sud now challenges the more than century old Gallimard as one of the most successful and high brow publishing house in France. Back in 2015 it could boast, among its authors the Nobel prize for literature, the Byelorussian writer Svetlana Alexievitch, the Goncourt prize for the first novel, Kamel Daoud, an Algerian whose take on Camus’ novel L’Etranger, Meursault, Contre Enquête, has been translated into 30 languages and Mathias Enard, the winner of the Goncourt prize. To entrust a ministry which has often been seen as a cultural trophy to a women who understands culture and is a successful private entrepreneur could give it greater capacity to face the multiple challenges the arts face in today’s increasingly digital world.
Sylvie Goulard also offers an interesting case. A centrist deputy in the European parliament, she is articulate an unafraid of defending the centrality of the EU project to France’s future. Unlike many of her peers in France, she refuses to bash Europe to court popularity in France. At the same time she is not afraid of acknowledging the shortcoming of the EU. A good mastery of German and English will help. To critics who point out she has no military experience one could say that her task will be to project the European context of security at a time when Donald Trump’s flip flops on NATO and Brexit – which risk weakening UK military ties to Europe, make for great uncertainty.
Emmanuel Macron is an iconoclast, not a populist. His chiselled use of the French language, his love of classical music, his passion for Europe and conviction that France has the talent and capacity to adapt and change – no easy task in a country famous for its conservatism with a small “c”, stands in sharp contrast to the pessimism laced with nationalism which has been characteristic of French politics since the millennium. The new president is, like Tony Blair, a great seducer. He met his wife Brigitte when she taught him drama. He may not have an original mind but he became used, very early on in life to being the smartest person in the room. A friend who met him during the campaign remarked that he was a polymath who quickly absorbs every subject (music, economics etc.) he encounters and has the enormous asset of making everybody he meets feel intelligent. His memory is phenomenal. Macron enjoys arguing with people who disagree with him – his encounter with Whirlpool factory workers who backed Marine Le Pen in the run off of the election was typical of the trust he has in his own charm to win over opponents.
The first hurdle of the president’s ability to reform France is electoral and will come in June. If La Republique en Marche candidates gain a majority, that would ease the challenge of economic reform. Economic luck is on his side as he comes to office on the back of a strengthening economy. As Martin Sandbu noted in the Financial Times Will Emmanuel Macron succeed? on 12 May: “Enthusiasm for his victory is drawing investment into European equities. And French private sector employment has just reached a post-crisis high, giving a boost to wages.” Domestic economic success would offer the president an excellent tool in eurozone diplomacy – not least Germany.
The second hurdle lies in his ability to convince union leaders to give companies more freedom to discuss working hours and wages with employees rather than comply with rigid sector-wide rules. The good omen here is that for the first time since its creation a century ago, the CFDT supplanted the more hard line CGT as France’s biggest union by winning the largest share of worker representatives in the private sector. This has put its leader, Laurent Berger who believes his union’s momentum provides a historic chance to overhaul France’s often conflict-ridden labour relations and move it closer to the more collaborative German model, in the spotlight.
Faced with a president who might be tempted to fast track reforms by enacting them through “ordinances”, Mr Berger is fond of quoting the former prime minister, Michel Rocard - that “the path was as important as the outcome.” The next few months will tell whether Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to reform France succeed and whether a Macron-Merkel axis can strengthen European institutions and overcome widespread disaffection towards the EU which is so visible in France and Italy.
Laurent Berger, Secretary General of the CFDT, France's biggest union. Wikicommons/ Info-Com CFDT. Some rights reserved.