LONDON - Four months after Emmanuel Macron became president of France, the French and the rest of Europe still don’t know what they are getting.
Bookstore shelves in France are filling with instant books on him, but they are cursory looks at the surface, and there’s not much to go on compared with previous presidents of France like de Gaulle or Mitterrand, let alone Sarkozy or Hollande.
Regis Debray, now at age 80 the grand old man of French political intellectualism, has a new book out arguing that Macron represents the triumph of “neo-Protestant globalization” over “Catholic laicism” — whatever that means.
The best comparison is probably to Tony Blair upon taking office as Britain’s prime minister in 1997. Blair offered up a reformist fusion of social and Christian democracy. Think of Davosman with some regard for reducing unfairness and inequality.
Macron does appear to understand that France needs to break free from its current economic model, which suits a majority, especially those products of French elite higher education, the ENArques. They are the ones who run so much of public and private France.
Macron has looked at Britain and Germany and noted how both countries got going following a difficult labor market reform — Margaret Thatcher’s attack on syndicalist trade union privileges in the 1980s and Gerhard Schroeder’s liberalization moves after 2000.
Macron has to move fast, but it is not clear where he can find partners. French trade unions represent only about 7 percent of all French employees and, for reasons of protecting their own identity, they remain bitterly divided on grounds of history and ideology.
France has a tri-cameral system — the Elysee, the National Assembly and the Street. Macron has the first two sewn up. His opponents on the hard left and hard right hope to mobilize the street against him.
This is unlikely and the first mobilizations against his reform have been poorly attended, a damp squib. To hit the ground running, Macron has used the mechanism of “ordonnances” — decrees — which put forward legal changes at the president’s initiative rather than the parliamentary route of first-second-third readings.
Statist trade union tradition
Trade unions in France have always been low in membership and high in political pressure. In contrast to European social democratic traditions, where single industrial unions — one workplace, one union — have insisted on an autonomous social partnership with capital/employers to determine wages, the French are different.
The country’s very statist trade union tradition has sought intervention by the state to legislate pay and conditions. What across the Rhine in Germany or further north in the Netherlands and Nordic EU states is agreed on through collective bargaining has, in France, been a matter of state legislation.
Macron is determined to take the high wire and get his reforms in early, so they can have the hoped-for impact and bring the kind of kinetic energy and reputation as a global performer that Britain enjoyed after the Thatcher years or which Germany benefited from thanks to Schroeder’s reforms.
Macron faces a deep tradition of corporatism and sectional protectionism in France. On the state-owned and -managed SNCF railways, for example, jobs go to members of families and those with union connections.
Hence, unlike public rail transport in many other EU countries, in France this sector employs few nonwhite immigrant faces. French airline pilots have blocked any chance of low-cost airlines in France — Easyjet from England and Ryanair from Ireland have the market to themselves.
Meanwhile, French taxi drivers fight against Uber and hotel owners fight against Airbnb. You also cannot buy an aspirin at a highway service station. Instead, you are told to go and find an open pharmacy in a nearby town.
Buying a house means paying extra to a “notaire” — a corporate group of legal officials who have never been challenged by competition.
The bureaucracy and networks of local notables — regional and town hall politicians, prefects and professionals who are as big a block to startup entrepreneurialism as unions.
Macron the simplifier
Macron acts as a simplifier rather than a union-basher. He wants to simplify decision-making in France — to make it faster and more transparent so as to create openings for French economic energy.
Hence the excitement at Brexit. In the French world view, Brexit is a golden opportunity to repatriate from the United Kingdom thousands of small firms, especially in the financial sector, and loads of talent to sharpen up French performance. When Britain does finally quit the single market and customs union, France could be in position to host business activity that is currently done in the U.K.
Macron is simplifying the French state. Ministers have been ordered to severely halve the number of “fonctionnaires” in their offices. Le Monde ran a two-page article of complaints about 15-hour days as officials had to do twice the amount of work as a result. If Macron can down-size the French state at all levels, and he is cutting the money for local make-work activity by French municipalities, that will also simplify and transform.
The supreme prize is to make France as economically energetic and productive as Germany. Macron remains convinced that the nation-state in the de Gaulle tradition has seen its best days and if France needs to grow it must do in the context of the European Union.
That is why Macron wants not so much a European France or a French Europe, but a European EU. Hence his playing the Ode to Joy, the EU anthem, at his inauguration and incessant rounds of visits to EU capitals or inviting selected EU prime ministers to Paris.
But none of this will matter unless he gets the French economy going again. Macron appears to have written Britain out of his script. Germany, Spain and Italy form the new EU quartet.
He has also strongly attacked Poland’s turn to illiberal nationalist populism and for the first time in two centuries the old Franco-Polish axis of culture, emotion and patriotic national identity appears to be broken.
Endless papers and arguments appear calling for France-German unity, a finance minister for the eurozone, joint fiscal policy and for other harmonization or integrationist measures.
Angela Merkel does not dismiss them — far from it — she sees Macron as the son she never had. Sustaining the EU’s single market and its existence as a Rechtsgemeinde (Community of Laws) is central to Berlin’s 21st century need to stabilize the countries that neighbor Germany.
United Germany cannot help its size and dominant role. As Britain is now writing herself out of European history (unless there is a major rethink and change in public-political opinion) and continental Europe can only take so much German hegemony unbalanced by the U.K., France needs to ramp up to guard against trouble starting again.
So there is a massive opening for France which no president since Francois Mitterrand 25 years ago has been able to seize. But for Germany to take France and Macron seriously, France has to show itself capable of serious reform such as Germany undertook at the beginning of this century. That is why, for the first time in three decades, there is a sense of urgency and purpose in France.
Denis MacShane was the U.K. minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005. He is the author of “Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe” and “Brexit No Exit. Why (in the end) Britain Won’t Leave Europe.”