By Juliette Legendre*
French President Emmanuel Macron has been crusading to all corners of the world, receiving applause for his impassioned pleas on behalf of the postwar liberal order in the face of rising authoritarianism and nationalism.
This spring, in his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the new French leader compared the ongoing political divisions within Europe to a “civil war” and pledged to never “yield to any fascination for authoritarian sovereignties” — a clear reference to the ongoing democratic backslide in Hungary and Poland.
“I do not want to be part of a generation of sleepwalkers,” the 40-year-old president declared. “I want to belong to a generation which has made a firm decision to uphold its democracy.” He also pledged to “defend European sovereignty because we fought for it.”
A few days later, the French president was in Washington D.C. as President Donald Trump’s first visiting head of state. In his address to the U.S. Congress, Macron reiterated the need to stand up for democracy and urged lawmakers to preserve and strengthen the liberal international order the U.S. itself helped to create. “The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism,” Macron said. “You are the one now, who has to help preserve and reinvent it.”
Yet in practice, Macron’s own relationship to democracy has often contradicted his lofty rhetoric. Although 63 percent of French people think Macron has improved the image of France abroad, 58 percent are dissatisfied with his presidency — and 73 percent described him as authoritarian, according to a recent IFOP poll. And no wonder: Macron has repeatedly undermined democratic processes in France to implement his unpopular neoliberal reforms.
As a former investment banker at Rothschild, Macron envisions the transformation and revitalization of France through a Silicon-Valley-style neoliberalism, which embraces the “creative destruction” theory of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. And, as a graduate student of the elite National School of Administration and a former finance minister, he also envisions governance through the lens of a French technocrat, who believes in the verticality and centralization of power.
Both perspectives reflect a thin conception of representative democracy — one that puts the supposed needs of the market over popular deliberation and participation.
In his presidential campaign book Revolution, Emmanuel Macron blames the inaction, disconnection, and elitism of traditional French political parties for the rise of extremism and democratic decline. Running as a “neither right nor left” independent, the former investment banker promised to transcend this traditional divide to modernize and transform the French political and economic system into a “startup nation” driven by innovation and a “spirit of conquest.”
His first year of presidency, however, has proven that he is neither a centrist nor an avant-garde leader, but rather an old-fashioned, right-leaning neoliberal determined to overhaul France’s hard-won social model under the guise of modernism and emancipation.
In an interview with Les Inrockuptibles, Canadian intellectual Alain Deneault describes Macron’s governing style as “extreme centrism.” If this label sounds like an oxymoron, Deneault argues that Macron’s political approach is extreme in the sense that “its policies are destructive, unfair, and imperialistic. They consist of maximizing the profits of big corporations and shareholders, and facilitating access to tax havens.” Macron’s regime is also extreme from a moral standpoint, because it uses “intimidating discourses” and is “intolerant towards anything that is not its own,” Deneault adds.
Deneault compares Macron and his party, La Republique En Marche (The Republic on the Move), to an “ideological steamroller which aims at convincing people that there is an imperious urgency — without taking the time to debate — to apply a political vision, his specifically.”
Indeed, Macron has been using his executive privileges to rule by decree and bypass parliament to speed through often unpopular reforms. Aiming to make France friendlier to the globalized business elite, he enacted “pro-business” labor laws making it easier for employers to hire and fire employees, slashed the corporate tax rate from 32 percent to 25 percent, and scrapped the longstanding impôt sur la fortune, or wealth tax, which taxed non-professional net wealth above about $1.5 million.
During a recent interview with the business magazine Forbes, Macron announced that he plans on repealing the 30 percent “exit tax” implemented in 2014 to discourage tax evasion. “People are free to invest where they want,” Macron told Forbes. He then compared the economy to a marriage: “If you are able to attract, good for you, but if not, one should be free to divorce.”
Partly in response to the Fourth Railway Package, an EU-led mission which aims to “revitalize the rail sector and make it more competitive vis-a-vis other modes of transport,” the French government pushed through major reforms of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. This controversial move has sparked fierce protests from unions, who have been fighting back with nationwide rolling strikes since March.
Chris Wallace asked the French president on Fox News Sunday if he would back down in the face of the increasing opposition. Macron firmly stated, “No chance.”
When asked why he won’t yield, Macron repeatedly uses a variation on Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan, “There is no alternative,” which becomes in Macron’s mouth: “There is no other choice.” The slogan is slightly different, but the idea is the same. His neoliberal reforms aren’t presented as policy choices, but as an essential and natural step in the course of French history that cannot be altered.
On June 14th, the French Senate overwhelmingly agreed to turn the SNCF into a joint-stock company and scrape some of the rail workers’ employment benefits. Unions fear it’s the first step toward full privatization.
Macron hasn’t transcended the traditional left-right dichotomy he deemed archaic. Instead, he replaced it with a new binary that divides the world between those he calls the “backward-looking conservatives” and those, like him, who are “progressives reformers who embrace modernism.” If you’re not part of the latter camp, then you will be squeezed out.
This binarism comes out frequently in his speeches. Recently he described a train station as a place where you meet “those who succeed” and “those who are nothing.” He often describes those who oppose his neoliberal reforms as “slackers and cynics.” In other speeches, he pits “the doers” against “the do-nothings,” the “rationals” versus the “ideologues,” or the “optimistic globalists” against the “reactionary populists.”
In sum, Macronism doesn’t transcend political divides, but instead redefines them as a battle between “progressive modernists” and “reactionary slackers.” Hiding behind the argument of rationalism and efficiency, Macronism seeks to “fix” the economy by cozying up to a tiny wealthy elite who has been binge-eating resources and capturing wealth at shocking rates.
Although top income shares have increased much more in the U.S. than in France, French economist Thomas Piketty argues that France has not been exempt from rising inequality. His new study on income inequality in France shows that “between 1983 and 2015, the average income of the richest 1 percent has risen by 100 percent (above inflation), and that of the 0.1 percent richest by 150 percent, as compared with barely 25 percent for the rest of the population.”
In the meantime, at the global level, “the top 1 percent richest individuals in the world captured twice as much growth as the bottom 50 percent individuals since 1980,” according to the 2018 World Inequality report. Trickle-down economics clearly work — for the rich.
In the world of Macronism, pluralism isn’t the essence of a functioning democracy, efficiency is. In the world of Macronism, the democratic debate is reduced to a thumbs up/thumbs down activity. In the world of Macronism there is no other choice but Macronism.
*Juliette Legendre is a researcher for Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.