It is a remarkable moment for France, the country voting for the 39-year-old political newbie, Emmanuel Macron, as its next president.
It is a remarkable moment for France, the country voting for the 39-year-old political newbie, Emmanuel Macron, as its next president. In just a year since creating his centre-left party En Marche!, Macron defeated second-generation politician Marie Le Pen, who, evoking an inward-looking “nationalism”, was feverishly anti-Muslim, promised to counter terrorism with violence, close the country to immigrants and “salvage” France out of the European Union (EU). With Macron’s win, there is a distinct sigh of relief across Europe.
In 2003, when I was 23, I had started working in the office of the President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac. I was policy analyst to Jerome Monod, Chirac’s chief counsellor. The 71-year-old president closely relied on Monod, who’d been an astute businessman for decades. Once elected, Chirac requested Monod to quit his position and join him at the Elysees. The loyal Monod agreed, later earning the reputation of being the crafty “shadow president” of France.
Interestingly, my conversations with both were always sprinkled with marvellous references to France’s history. They had deep respect for the distinct cultures of the east. Their mannerisms were always poised; they seemed to embody the stature of “old France”, as did most of Chirac’s cabinet ministers, “grands hommes” of politics and business. Severely nationalistic, old-wordly men, who’d lived the history of France, and found it difficult to take France into the future now.
They fiercely defended France on the international stage, but at home, they floundered on reforms. Flip-flopping on economic issues, under their leadership, impending reforms in France’s labour market never saw light. Immigrants rioted as employment and living conditions worsened. For progress, “old France” desperately needed economic reforms, which it never could achieve.
Chirac’s presidency ended in 2007, but France had little respite thereafter. The country suffered another decade of obscure political leadership, with a GDP growth rate that hardly budged above one per cent in the past five years. Its people were further traumatised by numerous terror attacks. Meanwhile, several manufacturing companies moved out of France, to the eastern parts of the EU which had more flexible labour laws. Many French citizens also work clandestinely, to benefit from the state’s unemployment dole that can even equal 80 per cent of one’s salary. Any attempted reform by the government has only led to the French going on strikes.
A year and a half ago, I first met Macron. He was then France’s minister of economy. Devoid of any airs, he spoke candidly and laughed over a conversation about technology, economy and France. We talked about the labour market reforms France urgently needs. He told me he supported open borders, free trade and free movement of labour. I remembered my years at the Elysee — I was sure that no one from the 2003 cabinet ministry would have Macron’s worldview.
In conversation, Macron suggested that France must prove itself capable of serious internal reforms, to persuade the EU towards less austere economic policies. I agreed, but also pointed out that former French presidents, including President Chirac, had tried labour market reforms, but failed terribly.
However, I was convinced that Macron represents hope. He is young, passionate and well-meaning. What he proposes — labour market reforms — is the source of much of France’s problems today. Many former governments gave up when the French took to the streets in opposition. It is therefore a marvellous moment in France’s history that many of the same French citizens who were anti-reforms have now voted for Macron.
France is ready for change, finally. But will young, inexperienced Macron be able to deliver it to them?
Soon after Macron’s victory, the newly elected president said, “I will protect and defend France’s vital interests. I will protect and defend Europe.” His main goal, he said, was to “calm people’s fears, restore France’s confidence, gather all its people together to face the immense challenges that face us.” His speech was heavy on generalisations.
He even talked about a digital revolution, an ecological transition. But his speech was entirely bereft of mentions of specific economic reforms.
Today, Macron’s challenge for France is two-fold: To pull the French out of a nationalism that mainly draws energy from its historic, sometimes imagined, greatness, and to roll out economic reforms. Unless France bifurcates its long-nurtured, inward-looking nationalism from politics, its people cannot be mobilised to collaborate towards the economic progress of their country, in an open world.
Indian Express, May 9, 2017