If a week is a long time in politics, what about a few months?
Back in March, the European Union was bracing itself for drama: would the powerful wave of discontent that had swept over the United Kingdom and the United States in 2016 engulf the Netherlands and France?
With the staunchly anti-EU Marine Le Pen riding high in the polls for the presidential election, the bet was on France plunging the EU in turmoil. And then came Emmanuel Macron ‒ the man with no party to his name, the youngest candidate who nobody had bet on, pipping everyone to the post in the first round and going on to win handsomely in the second round.
And now, here he stands, with an absolute majority following his convincing victory in the June 2017 parliamentary election, a feat very few people thought possible only a few weeks ago. Far from being the lame-duck President with no majority that many had predicted, he has emerged as a strong leader with a majority that owes him everything. So, what now for Macron and France?
Three main areas are likely to make or break Macron’s presidency.
“President Macron holds all the cards in his hands”
On top of the list is the labour reform Macron promised during his campaign. Reforming the labour market is, without a shadow of a doubt, an explosive issue in France. Millions of people took to the streets in 2016 to oppose the reforms of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, known as the El Khomri law. The precedence it gave to potentially less favourable local agreements over collective sectorial agreements on working time was deemed an intolerable attack on workers’ rights.
And yet Macron wants to go much, much further, by promoting local agreements over their sectorial counterparts in all areas, including wages and working conditions. He argues that France needs to make its labour market less rigid by giving more flexibility to individual companies, to encourage job creation. Critics say that workers will be left to face far worse conditions. The parties on the Left, along with some workers’ unions, have already warned about a summer of industrial action. Considering the long pattern of mass demonstrations defying and defeating countless French governments, Macron has a huge battle on his hands. It is too early to tell its outcome, but his presidency will be defined by his ability ‒ or inability ‒ to implement the most contentious plank of his programme.
With France under a state of emergency since November 2015, terrorism will also be high on Macron’s agenda. But he is caught between a rock and a hard place: keep a regime that is supposed to be for exceptional times only and be accused of illiberal practices; end it and be accused of gross negligence if another attack occurs. That’s why the state of emergency has been called a political trap.
Macron is planning to put an end to it by incorporating its main measures, criticised by many for curtailing civil liberties, into law. By effectively making the state of emergency permanent, Macron risks turning the criticisms into widespread anger, as already witnessed in the call from French jurists and human rights organisations to withdraw his proposals. He might find solace in being supported by a large majority of French citizens, who yearn for security, but does he really want to be dubbed illiberal and tarnish his reputation of being at the vanguard of liberal progressive values? Finding a way out of this trap certainly won’t be easy.
And then there’s the EU. Leaving Brexit aside ‒ after all, no one really knows what Britain wants ‒ Macron’s priority is a strong France in a strong EU. His ambitions are bold and wide-ranging, from deepening EU integration and re-igniting the Franco-German engine to strengthening the Eurozone with its own parliament, budget and finance minister. The question remains how feasible all of this will be. Many states fear Franco-German hegemony, in a re-enactment of the ‘Merkozy’ couple of (still) German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. But this time it will be without the counter-balancing act traditionally provided by Britain. Many countries in the eurozone are also wary of losing sovereignty to a more integrated zone, however tempting the possibility of Eurobonds might be. And the idea of Eurobonds is not popular in Germany.
“The road to reforming France will be long and winding, with pitfalls at every corner”
And yet, following the Brexit referendum, the mood has changed in the EU. Pro-European sentiments are on the rise and the EU has more confidence to push its integration forward, as seen in the pledge to enhance EU defence cooperation.
At this point, it is too early to tell whether Macron can reshape the EU. Nothing substantial will happen anyway until the German election in September, and the Brexit talks might well consume all of EU’s energy for the foreseeable future. But Macron is certainly the most pro-European French president since François Mitterrand, and his future role in the EU deserves to be closely monitored.
President Macron holds all the cards in his hands. He has an absolute majority and he has radically redefined the whole political landscape. Out the two traditional juggernauts of French politics, the Socialist party is facing extinction and the Republican Right is licking its wounds. Marine Le Pen’s National Front is in full in-fighting mode over its future direction and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard Left only has 17 MPs.
But before anyone jumps to the conclusion that Macron is now set to radically change France, let’s not forget that despite his outstanding electoral successes, he can’t take popular support for granted. He might have won very handsomely indeed but with a record high abstention rate in June, at 52% in the first round and 57% in the second, France was clearly not swept by a wave of Macronmania, and its deep divisions have not suddenly disappeared.
Concentration of power can easily lead to a sense of complacency, but the French ‘street’ has a knack of biting back. Macron is all set, but the road to reforming France will be long and winding, with pitfalls at every corner.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – Lorie Shaull