Emmanuel Macron’s Third Way politics and pro-Europeanism has won over many progressive admirers in Britain. But he increasingly looks like a more right-wing kind of statesman who wants to deliver overdue and much needed pro-market reform. A few months on from his historic victory, disenchantment with Macron has already set in among some on the British Left.
Emulating the quasi-monarchical and non-partisan approach of Charles de Gaulle, which Macron’s aides have labelled as the “Jupiter idea”, has failed to stop Macron’s approval rating from falling to just 36% after his first 100 days in office. The row over his attempt to make his wife “first lady” and cuts to defence spending have not helped either.
But the biggest controversy has been over Macron's decision to choose labour reform as the first big battle of his presidency. Unemployment currently stands at a staggering 9.6%, France’s lowest level since 2012 during the Eurozone Crisis. Job creation has been held back for too long by a restrictive labour code which runs over 3,500 pages. Last month, Macron unveiled five executive decrees which will radically liberalise employment law. They would make it easier for employers to hire and fire, reduce redundancy pay for unfair dismissals, and cut red tape for businesses with less than 50 employees.
Opposition to the plan has come not from the National Assembly, where Macron has a solid majority, but from the labour movement with support from both the hard-left and the far-right. The CGT union, France’s second largest trade union, will be causing major disruption today across France with 4,000 different strike actions and 180 protests affecting public transport and the energy sector. Similar strike action was taken to protest against Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to raise the retirement age in 2010, which was also intended to be the start of a Thatcherite economic programme.
Macron recently stoked outrage in an already fractious debate during his landmark Athens speech by saying he would not “yield anything – neither to the lazy, the cynics nor the extremists”. Opponents of his reforms have seized on these comments, claiming he is calling French workers lazy. As a former investment banker who is widely seen as an elitist who prefers the company of the rich and the famous, this is damaging for Macron’s already diminished popularity.
While Conservatives in Britain will mostly feel indifferent to Macron’s passionate pro-Europeanism, they should watch the progress of his economic reforms carefully. Macron is promising to bring a Thatcherite programme of economic renewal to France. This will not stop with employment law, but also extend to the budget deficit, pensions, benefits, and the railways if Macron’s reformism continues. The coming battles between trade unionism and the presidency will be reminiscent of Britain during the 1980s.
But there are also reasons why Conservatives should be cautious of imitating Macron’s reformism. Most importantly, France in 2017 is very different from Britain in 1979. Globalisation is facing populist revolts from left and right across the West today, whereas the Thatcher years were a vindication of globalisation. The victory of Macron at the polls was also more of a rejection of Marine Le Pen than a wave of enthusiasm for globalisation. According to a recent poll, just 58% of people voted for Macron out of personal belief. The second round of the presidential election saw the highest abstention rate since 1969.
The economic liberalism of Macron also has little to offer for people who feel left behind by globalisation. En Marche! is a movement of, by, and for metropolitan and liberal professionals. This opens an opportunity for the hard-left and far-right to exploit the anger and frustration of workers and farmers who are unhappy with the political system. Failure to address this economic divide could very well sweep Macron from office and help an extreme candidate win the presidency in 2022.
Although Macron emphasises his progressive and modernising credentials, his mission is an essentially conservative one. Macron has to conserve the Fifth Republic built by de Gaulle and protect it from the destructive forces of extreme populism. This will require courage to stick to his reforms, but also the humility to recognise that he needs solutions to address people left behind by globalisation. It remains to be seen what the fate of Macron’s presidency will be, but Conservatives should watch closely and hope he succeeds.