Macron’s California Revolution

Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Trogneux, Paris, April 23, 2017

Among the many ideas put forward by Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, was to institute an annual speech to the French parliament, a sort of State of the Union à la française. It seems that he couldn’t wait more than ten days after the legislative elections to give it a try. On Monday, in a major speech in the French Parliament, Macron compared his election to a “new start” for a country that is “regaining optimism and hope”; he also introduced a raft of bold proposals for streamlining government. But even bolder than his proposals was the speech itself, and the American-style executive it seemed to usher in.

Along with the speech, there has been Macron’s quasi-official investiture of his wife, Brigitte, as a highly visible First Lady. And then there are the market-driven economic policies he has endorsed. All this has seemed—from the French point of view—emblematic of Macron’s fascination with the United States. Or to be more exact, with the California version of the United States, where Silicon Valley libertarianism mixes with a general progressivism on social issues—access to education and health care, openness to immigration and minorities, support for gay marriage, efforts to control climate change, etc. Didn’t he declare, on June 15, visiting VivaTech, a technological fair, that he intends to transform France in “a nation of start-ups” able to “attract foreign talents”?

Among other proposals announced on Monday, Macron said he planned to reduce by one third the number of representatives and senators in parliament, while offering them bigger staffs to make their work more “fluid” and “efficient.” He wants to abolish parliamentary immunity, so that ministers of the government and members of parliament will remain “accountable for their acts” and can be judged just like normal citizens by regular courts during their mandate. He also wants to lift the current state of emergency by fall, following the passage of a new antiterrorist law. Last but not least, he announced that he will indeed come back once a year to address the Parliament.

It was stunning: a man with hardly any political past or party apparatus rising to win the presidency—and then a vast majority in the National Assembly. It was the French electoral system, a legacy of General de Gaulle, with its two-round voting system, that allowed Macron to pull this off. That system, which emphasizes stability over political fairness, strongly favors the leading party: with only 28.2 percent of the votes in the first round of the legislative elections, the macroniens managed to get 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

But the electoral system alone was not enough. Much as de Gaulle and his supporters regained power in 1958 by repudiating what de Gaulle called the “party system”—a system incapable of governing in a stable manner, much less finding a solution to the colonial war then being waged in Algeria—Macron has gained enormous support by playing on widespread disgust with the political class. As in 1958, France is in the midst of a serious crisis—in the present case, one driven by the effects of an unprecedentedly long economic downturn.

Continuing deindustrialization has shut millions of older employees out of the job market. And unemployment among the young is beating all records: at the end of April 2017, the number of officially registered jobseekers hit 5,836,000—the same number as in the United States, a country with five times France’s population! For the past forty years, whether governed by the right or the left—or even during short periods of “cohabitation”—neither side has been able to curb unemployment.

In recent years, corruption scandals have proliferated under the somewhat hysterical presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–2012), and his successor, the sluggish François Hollande (2012–2017), who was unable to stamp them out. Against that background, Macron surged to victory by promising to stimulate employment and “restore morality” to political life—including through a new anticorruption law aimed at elected officials, known as the “law for confidence in democratic life,” which is to be an early priority. And while he has as yet unveiled few specific policies, he has offered some clues that again suggest his affinity for the California approach.

To start with, he’s achieved something remarkable, although it’s been little noted: he managed to avoid talk about “French identity” in both the presidential and legislative election campaigns. For the past ten years, beginning with Sarkozy’s victory, France has been mired in an identity debate that was in fact aimed at its Muslim minority (4.4 million people, out of a total population of 66.8 million). Spurred by the far-right National Front under Marine Le Pen, it has suggested a still more ominous rejection of ethnic and racial diversity in general. On the mainstream right, “identity” issues have appealed to many conservatives; while on the left, Socialists too, under their prime minister, Manuel Valls, have embraced the notion that Muslims (and other groups, such as the Roma) are unable to integrate into French society. Some of Valls’s supporters even explained that, at this juncture, it was no longer economic issues but “a larger project of civilization, identity, and culture” that was drawing them to the left. 


By contrast, in his campaign Macron avoided the identity debate entirely, as if it simply had no meaning. At the risk of alienating voters on the right and the “identitaires” on the left, he even went to Algiers, the capital of France’s largest ex-colony, and publicly declared that colonialism had been “a crime against humanity.” On many other occasions he showed how much more open he is than the traditional political establishment to welcoming immigrants—provided they are college graduates. Macron’s instincts proved right: the so-called lepénisation des esprits—the “Le Pen-ization of the French mind,” or support for far-right ideas—seems to have abated.

By campaigning on a modern image, open to the sweeping changes taking place in French society, Macron has appealed especially to younger, more highly-educated voters, who are better integrated into the new economic fabric of society. The classic Macron voter is a city dweller, often a member of the “creative class”—for example in the tech industry—who enjoys a comfortable income, and is in favor of the European Union. As described by the financial weekly La Tribune, this kind of voter is a “poster child for happy globalization,” someone who has benefited from the opportunities for social advancement and a satisfactory standard of living made possible by a changing economy, in sharp contrast to those in the outlying areas or in more traditional industries who are experiencing such dire distress.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Trogneux and Macron leaving their home in Le Touquet, France June 17, 2017

In the aftermath of the legislative elections, the online publication Médiapart sketched a portrait of Macron’s new parliamentarians from Paris, where Macron’s party took thirteen of the nineteen districts. The winning candidates are younger than the average parliamentarian, and nearly all are entrepreneurs, managers, consultants, and commercial lawyers. Three of them are of minority descent: one Asian, one African, and one Arab. Without openly stating it, Macron sent a message: globalization demands that the future of France be one of diversity, not of identity-driven backsliding. (It comes as no surprise also that Macron and his movement have won over great numbers of young college graduates of minority descent.)

These new macroniste politicians closely follow their leader’s core socioeconomic philosophy: that in today’s world, the people who rise to the top, or at least stay afloat, are those who’ve succeeded in adapting to the relentless process of globalization and its technological disruptions. There will be less and less room for job security and more and more for people who have a capacity for innovation and adaptation. Gone are lifelong professional careers. Likewise gone are rigid job descriptions and fixed work schedules. In this, Macron once again embodies a very American way of thinking. And he believes that France has to catch up to the current reality of the labor force.

There’s nothing especially new in this. All these ideas have been fashionable for more than thirty years among French management experts. But Macron’s real force lies in his ability to marshal a political majority—though it still remains something of a grab bag—around the idea that deregulating the labor market as well as public education will better prepare the younger generations for success in the new economy.

When it comes to immigration, Macron has started running up against expectations—and disappointing them. He has left unanswered two petitions from intellectuals and directors of NGOs, one calling for France to come to the aid of Syrian refugees stranded at the Algerian/Moroccan border, the other for an end to the “inhumane living conditions”—to use the words of Jacques Toubon, the Defender of Rights—to which illegal immigrants are subjected in the encampment at Calais. And though he has said he wants to lift the state of emergency, Macron has also supported making many of the current state of emergency measures permanent in a new terrorism law. This has aroused extreme unease among civil rights and minority rights advocates.

But the first real test of the new president’s mandate will be the new labor law that he intends to issue as an executive order, before asking France’s parliament to vote on it. Macron wants to move fast. He wants to take advantage of the “big bang” of his election and his opponents’ stunned paralysis to abolish much of the existing French labor code, which, because of powerful labor unions, was designed to cater to the best-protected employees—especially those in heavy industry—and has long been skewed toward the interests of workers in general at the expense of greater flexibility and efficiency for private enterprise. Just how far does he mean to take this? Clearly, as far as he can.


The real question is whether Macron is ready to take on the unions or will seek to compromise with them. His approach to economic reform has been well known since his tenure as economics minister (2014–2016): a major deregulation of existing laws to allow employers to practice less “rigid” employment and hiring policies, including fewer restrictions on salaries and working conditions. These measures, he argues, are essential if there is to be a revival of the French job market. Employers, who are also asking for a freer hand in firing workers, claim these measures will bring a reduction in labor costs. The corollary to these ambitions, and the condition for their success, is a significant reduction of what remains of the unions’ power, already enormously diminished. (Fifty years ago, 22 percent of all employees were union members, while that number is currently 7.7 percent, according to the OECD).

When Macron tried to put these reforms into effect as economics minister under François Hollande, he encountered very strong resistance from the unions and from the public itself. After a series of protest marches and demonstrations, the law had to be issued by Prime Minister Valls, through a procedure designed to avoid a parliamentary vote, which it seemed quite unlikely to pass. Today the basic problem is much the same. The unions are so hostile to reforming the labor market because, behind the apparent “change,” it is possible to glimpse a policy that’s been at work for a long time already. Ever since 1984, all governments, right and left, have worked tirelessly to shatter administrative and legal “rigidity” with respect to hiring and firing. And yet, France’s steadily worsening joblessness has never been brought under control. Even worse, in France as in nearly all the rest of the Western world, inequality has become ever more deeply entrenched, in lockstep with the deterioration of middle-class purchasing power. It’s not hard to imagine, therefore, that the unions might once again be the front line of resistance to still more radical measures to deregulate the labor market.

Unquestionably, Macron is going to enjoy the benefits of a strong majority in parliament. Nevertheless, victory over the unions is far from assured. According to a poll taken in late May, a majority of French voters—52 percent—oppose a new labor law that is introduced by presidential decree, as Macron intends to do. France is not California just yet.

—translated by Antony Shugaar

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