A lot, a real lot, now rests on promised work reforms

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics

21 June 2017
By Simon Heffer

The clear-out of the Assemblée Nationale accomplished by the victory of Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (REM) and MoDem on June 18 is one of the larger in French history.

The number of seats won [308], however, is well behind those of right-wing coalitions in 1958, 1993 and 2002; and the Bloc National, which won power in 1919 with over 400 seats on an anti-Bolshevik platform and the slogan “Make Germany Pay”. Making Germany pay partly led to Hitler’s rise; the Bloc National had gone by then, losing the 1924 election because of French economic decline under its stewardship. It is a lesson M Macron should note: a huge mandate is no guarantee of delivering on promises, or of things going well. And an abstention of 57 per cent in the second round should concern him deeply, for it suggests that most of France, while fed up with the old political class, finds little appealing in him either.

M Macron was fortunate that the man who probably would otherwise have become president, François Fillon, was crushed by scandal. He beat him and Marine Le Pen despite having no established party. Rapidly, M Macron has made a party, a list of candidates most of whom are now in the Assemblée but with little political experience. One, Marie Sara in the Gard, is a female bullfighter: she narrowly lost. Cédric Villani in L’Essonne, is a mathematician whose dress sense resembles that of the Mad Hatter. 

M Macron has kept promises about pursuing gender and race equality – half of REM’s candidates were women, and many from ethnic minorities – and he has broken the mould of French politics by reducing the old parties, particularly the Parti Socialiste, to rubble. But that is only the start. The future, in which M Macron and his new friends must transcend novelty and gesture politics, will be interesting.

The new president might have preferred to win less heavily. Great victories create expectations: they suggest anything is possible, and that manifesto promises will be implemented. If, however, they are not, it creates enormous difficulties. The PS declined notably because so many former adherents, disappointed by its failures, joined REM. This time, they expect results. If those are not forthcoming, other political formations will benefit. The Front National, which appears in disarray since Marine Le Pen lost to M Macron, is not a corpse but an invalid. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the defeated far-left candidate in the presidential election, has warned his fellow French that a big majority for M Macron would make him think he could “walk on water” and, effectively, turn France into an elective dictatorship.

 

M Macron should recall that 49.4 per cent in the first round of the presidential election voted for an anti-EU candidate. Many may be among the abstainers, holding their fire. M Macron, since entering the Elysée, has made no secret of his pro-Europeanism, and so far that has caused no difficulties. If he does not secure reforms that improve the economy – the structural changes to the labour market, for example, that Brussels continually called for during the benighted rule of François Hollande, but to which the trade union movement is resolutely opposed – then anything could happen.

 

His promised labour reforms are the centrepiece of an otherwise vague programme, but they alone may be enough to derail the whole Macron project. Remember what happened after Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007, when he tried, and conspicuously failed, to implement a huge deregulatory project.

M Macron has promised to cut public spending and pensions, which will also aggrieve the unions and rattle that substantial proportion of the electorate wedded to the idea of a large, generous, interventionist state. He hopes for a classic transfer of resources between the unproductive and productive sectors of the French economy and promises, as a consequence, to increase investment. That, though, will largely be up to the private sector, and how far it perceives a sea-change in attitudes after the Hollande years in which hundreds of thousands of France’s most entrepreneurial wealth-creators chose to work abroad. M Macron’s predominantly centrist party seems to have no absolute ideological opposition to state intervention. Sadly for him, many of the most successful businesses – whether in France or internationally – do have such an objection. Their boards, used to moving their businesses around the global economy, like low marginal rates of tax for themselves and their employees. France may have accomplished a revolution in its politics; it now needs one in its approach to economics, and economic management.

Since becoming president, M Macron has won a reputation for aloofness, being much more a head of state than a down-and-dirty head of government. That serves a leader well when things are going well; but he should be ready to adapt, or it is a recipe for the fastest personality collapse in history.

A vast parliamentary party will inevitably factionalise: it has no traditional ties of loyalty, and many who find themselves on the back benches or marginalized by the leadership for whatever reason will start to cause trouble. It is the same the whole world over. Then other challenges may confront him: the constant threat of terrorism, the need to conduct a sensitive foreign policy in a world whose uncertainties are dominated not just by Russia and China but also by America; and the threat of continued tensions in the EU over growth, unemployment, debt defaults and banking crises.

Tony Blair and Barack Obama were two world leaders cut from a similar cloth to M Macron’s. One is now widely despised and the other, while liked, is regarded as having largely failed. Apart from managing France, M Macron must manage expectations. Given the huge number of abstainers on June 18, he starts with a country overflowing with sceptics. If he succeeds in transforming France, he will become a world-historical figure. But it will not be easy.

Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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