Macron’s Napoléon Problem
The price of French President Emmanuel Macron’s likely historic electoral success will be the uncertainty about what follows when he leaves the scene in five years.
Winter 2023 Issue: New Economic World Order
The temperature is finally rising in France’s presidential election. Far-right Marine Le Pen is starting to catch up with incumbent Emmanuel Macron in the polls. But with less than two weeks to go to the first round and Le Pen still eight percentage points behind, Macron seems likely to win a second term on April 24—the more so considering that past presidential polls tended to overestimate the Le Pen vote.
If Macron indeed becomes the fourth two-term president of modern France, the chances that Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), will win a majority along with its allied centrist parties in the June legislative elections are equally high. Important MPs of the traditional center-right Les Républicains (LR), whose presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse has been disappointing in the campaign, have already jumped ship and joined LREM. After Pécresse’s likely elimination in the first round, there will be another exodus of LR MPs who will hope to secure their political survival by rallying to Macron or former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s party Horizon. From an historical perspective, winning parliament again would be a major achievement. Macron would be the first president since Charles de Gaulle to control the executive and legislative for 10 years straight. François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac governed for two terms, too, but they failed to win the intermediate parliamentary elections and thus had to enter so-called “cohabitation,” ruling alongside their political rivals. For large parts of their presidencies, they had little say over domestic issues, such as economic, energy, and education policy, but had to be content with the presidential competencies of foreign affairs and defense policy.
Macron thus has very a good chance of going down in history as the electorally most successful French president since de Gaulle. That poses the question of what will he do with all this power? Well, possibly not that much.
Two weeks ago, Macron presented his reelection campaign program in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers. Compared to his 2017 election platform, it is strikingly unambitious.
In 2017, Macron started off his term with a three-legged reform tsunami: Labor market liberalization, payroll charge cuts, and tax reductions for corporations as well as for capital investments. Macron’s competitiveness agenda was modelled on what most European countries had done in the 2000s and 2010s and surprise, surprise, it also worked for France.
The unemployment rate dropped from 9.5 to 7.4 percent during Macron’s first term. And perhaps more importantly, this success did not come at the price of stagnating real wages and the creation of a German-style low-wage sector. In parallel to the liberal supply-side reforms, Macron increased the net minimum wage more than socialist François Hollande did over the past 5 years. The poorest 20 percent gained 6 percent in purchasing power, the middle class 5.9 percent, while the richest 20 percent gained 2.8 percent during Macron’s first term—levels not seen since Jacques Chirac’s presidency (1995-2007).
It is this data point that explains Macron’s likely reelection. According to the polls, 57 percent of the French say “purchasing power” is what matters most to them. Health (28 percent), pensions (24 percent), security (24 percent), the environment (22 percent), and immigration (19 percent) are ultimately sideshows.
So, in terms of economic policy, not much remains to be done for Macron apart from staying the course and dealing with incoming external shocks, such as Russia’s war in Ukraine, and inflation. Just like Angela Merkel had the luxury of not having to do any important economic reforms during her chancellorship (2005-2021), since her predecessor Gerhard Schröder had done the job, Macron can hit the pause button during a second term.
Spend, My Friend
Macron’s campaign program is thus essentially a compilation of fine-tuning measures and some unfinished business.
Macron proposes a €7 billion cut to production taxes, which should help boost industrial competitiveness. The big weakness on Macron’s economic record is the huge trade deficit, which is a mirror of the continued weakness of French industry.
Then, there is the pension reform Macron had to pause in 2020, due to the pandemic. Macron wants to raise the pension age from 62 to 65. To preempt protest, he promises to raise the minimum pension by €100 and is likely to rush through the reform in the summer months, when the French are on holiday.
Apart from the pension reform, Macron’s program includes little social dynamite, but a lot of goodies for voters. €8 billion is earmarked to eliminate the €138 fee every household pays for a TV and radio license per year as well as for raising the free allowance for the inheritance tax from €100,000 to €150,000 per child. The latter has the benefit of profiting Macron’s core voter base from the upper-middle-class French, but being highly popular across the population, polls show.
But the big oomph of Macron’s program is on state spending. After having restored France’s competitiveness, the objective is now to render the country less fragile and more sovereign. €35 billion is designated to boost defense, health, education, and social policy. For Macron, France needs to be competitive not because growth is an end in itself, but because it allows the French state to deliver on its republican promises.
That all sounds well and good. Once he gets pensions reform done, Macron’s second term should be less marked by social conflict. Not only because Macron’s reform ambitions are smaller than in 2017. But also, because Macron has learnt to better hide his arrogance and because the Yellow Vests have taught him a lesson. The huge sums of money that Paris is currently burning to keep gas and fuel prices in check are a testimony to this.
Perhaps even more important is that Macron will not be able to run again in 2027. This completely changes the political dynamic. Opponents will not be able to say Macron does what he does simply for electoral gain. Centrist politicians from the left and right will not attack Macron as hard. No candidate will be able to win without grabbing at least a part of Macron’s 25+ percent centrist voter base that will be up for grabs in five years’ time.
In this context, perhaps the most important task for Macron is to prepare the ground for when he leaves power. With an outgoing president, populists often have their shot at winning after long periods of hyper-centrist rule, as the example of US President Barack Obama shows.
To avoid this scenario, Macron needs to contribute to the formation of a centrist political force that can outlive him—either by allowing his LREM to develop a life of its own or by paving the way for a return of the center-left and center-right parties that dominated France’s political life before his election. Both options presuppose that he gradually loosens his grip of the LREM parliamentary caucus and allows possible successors their time in the limelight.
Macron must thus depart from his modus operandi that has formed the basis of his reform success—a top-down exercise of power not seen since de Gaulle, who departed the scene in 1969.
In exile on the island of St Helena, Napoléon wrote: “The destiny of France depended entirely on the character, the actions, and the conscience of the man on whom it had conferred this accidental dictatorship. From that day on ... the state was me. … I was, myself, the keystone of a new edifice built on such fragile foundations! Its survival depended on each one of my battles.”
In five years’ time, Macron won’t be able to fight any more battles. His legacy might very well ultimately be defined by whether he realizes that for France to succeed, others also need to start winning.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.