A Response from Hugo Drochon

Arthur Goldhammer
20 December 2018

My post yesterday outlining my disappointment with Emmanuel Macron was prompted by a question from Hugo Drochon, the author of Nietzsche’s Great Politics, with whom I have discussed French politics at intervals over the past several years. I didn’t identify him yesterday because I hadn’t asked his permission, but I did invite a response, which he has now kindly sent, and which I post below.

Hugo Drochon:

Yesterday I asked Art (yes it was me, and I was chuffed to be called his ‘good friend’) the reasons for his disappointment with Macron. We had both started out quite enthusiastic about him – I still am – but I had noticed that in Art that enthusiasm had gradually shifted to disappointment, as I was keen to know why, especially coming from one of the foremost commentators of French politics in English. I suspected that the Gilets Jaunes had only been the straw that broke the camel’s back, so I wanted to know about the deeper causes.

 

Art very kindly immediately responded – illustrating the immense generosity that characterises him – and I thought I would take this opportunity to respond in kind. Perhaps this might open the opportunity to have a broader debate about Macron.

 

As I read him Art identifies 4 areas of disappointment, which I thought I could take in turn: economic reform, political reform, Europe and openness to the Socialists.

 

Art is disappointed Macron failed his ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to transform France into a ‘start-up nation’. That might always have been a political slogan, but within France it always seemed clear to me what that was meant to be: make the labour-market more flexible, which Macron has been successful in doing. I don’t think that should be underestimated, given how many of his predecessors stretching back up to Chirac/Juppé, have failed. Moreover, and although I don’t fully support it, that was also the idea behind the reform of the ISF. It’s often forgotten that what was exonerated from taxation was investment and not property, the aim being twofold: encourage investment into the French economy (‘start-up nation’), and attempt to change the mind-set of the French from rentiers to investors.

 

On the political front it was very clear from his now almost notorious interview with le 1 that what France was missing was a form of elected Monarch; that somebody, especially after the ‘Presidence normale’ of Hollande, needed to ‘incarnate’ the function (Philippe Raynaud has a good take here). He’s not on shaky ground here: not just from Lefort’s view of democracy as an ‘empty space’, but also Rosanvallon’s latest book Good Government also argues that we’ve moved from a ‘parliamentary-representative’ to a ‘presidential-governing’ model of democracy, and that’s not a bad thing because what people want in democracy is to sanction those in power when they’re not happy (I reviewed Rosanvallon’s book here and happy to share pdf for those who might be interested). I’m of course not saying he read these, but it’s not like the theoretical foundation for such a thought isn’t there.

 

In general I think a number of people, not least his supporters, wanted him to act decisively and get things moving: there was a very interesting sondage not long ago that separated out Macron’s supporters from his opponents; the former saw politics as the opposition between movement and immobility, whereas his opponents saw it in more classic left/right divide. And until the Gilets Jaunes he has been quite successful in doing so. In fact I feared that his giving in to the Gilets Jaunes would alienate his support that voted for him to get things done and precisely not give in to the streets. It’s still quite hard to get a good sense of where we are and different polls have said different things (Macron up or down), but it seems like his main support hasn’t left him. There’s much talk about the fact that that support is only around 20%, but that’s what he got in the first round and that’s around what most successful candidates who have ran for election have gotten (Chirac I think got even less in the first round that ultimately pitted him against Le Pen senior). So his support seems stable enough, and another recent poll asked if last year’s election was re-ran what would happen and again Macron and Le Pen junior came out on top.

 

I’m now glad the Gilets Jaunes has forced him into a bit of a ‘tournant social’ that many have been calling for. It’s interesting to note that many of these ideas were already present but have just been fast-tracked forward, which follows what he had said about starting with the more painful right-wing reforms before moving to the more generous left-wing ones at the end of his mandate. This was meant to be the Scandinavian-inspired ‘flexi-security’ he had advocated through Jean Pisani-Ferry during his election. I regret that some aspects of that have fallen by the way-side, namely the mass investment in technical formation and individualising social welfare: two aspects that strike me as key for reforming the workforce today, in which the main employers will no longer be large industrial firms which made the more ‘social-partner’ model appropriate, but much smaller and more flexible entities.

 

I share not just Art’s applause for Macron on Europe but also his analysis that his deal was that he would bring France’s deficit under 3% in exchange for Europe/Germany allowing for more investment at the European level. That hasn’t worked, but I’m not sure Macron should carry the can for it: it seems rather to stem from Merkel’s weakness and general immobility, alongside intransigence at the German level. You can’t blame Macron for trying. I’m presuming that that’s why he’s had no qualms going over budget now to appease the Gilets Jaunes: he didn’t get anything from Europe for having done so previously, so why bother to keep doing so now?

 

I also share sympathies with Art concerning the socialists (I voted Hollande), but I really can’t see the point of bringing Hamon on-board, who – although again I have sympathy for his quality of life platform – is really quite a weak politician. And Macron did reach out, just to the centre-right, which politically was where the election was to be won. Of the Socialists in any case Macron was always closer to the reformist-wing, i.e. closer to Valls.

 

So no I’m not disappointed with Macron. He’s achieved a lot more than many of his predecessors, and I think actually his reaction to the Gilets Jaunes has been overall a positive one, and I say that without overlooking the quacks concerning its announcement and implementation. I take the point about this top-down and technocratic type of rule, and I understand he’s alienated certain high-ranking civil servants he could have done without, but I can’t see how otherwise you get France moving again. Yes that’s come to the detriment of les ‘corps intermédiaires’, but many of them were part of the problem. And I think Brexit and Trump have now shown us we are in a new political configuration which the old left/right no longer captures.

 

I agree that one of Macron’s challenges is to build new intermediary institutions – not least transforming LREM – and we’ll see how he gets along with that. I don’t know what exactly is expected of the ‘consultations’ – it’s hardly a new Constituent Assembly, but if people get a chance to express themselves then that is generally a good thing (btw the idea of getting the Mairies involved is a long-standing idea, there’s another good interview with Le 1 here which also explains his view vis-à-vis intermediary bodies). There’s been a lot of ‘citizen assemblies’ in Ireland in the run-up to the gay marriage and abortion referenda, and they’ve been quite successful. But it would also be a mistake to think that it’s them who determined the vote: ultimately you have to deliver politically.

 

As Art says, the next big test is the European elections in May. We’ll see where we are then.

 

 

 

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1 Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    Hugo Drochon’s reading of Macron so far jibes with much of what I hear from my French confreres, here in “la France Profonde” (I am in Languedoc-Roussillon.) The “Gilets Jaunes” have alienated many who began by supporting them. Aside from the recognition on the part of many local French that the safety net is actually generous, the “Gilets Jaunes” have alienated former supporters by their violence and destructiveness. In Narbonne, one toll administration center was burned to the ground, and the associated toll booth stop rendered unusable on account of the “casseurs” Drochon is correct in observing that the divide is less between right and left than between those who want to get France moving, and those who do not want to see it change “movement versus immobility”, as Drochon phrases it.
    The speed with which commentators have come to feast at Macron’s supposed funeral reflects short-term thinking. If Macron is as tough as I think he is he will not fold, but bend, to the long-term benefit of “la belle France”, even as brickbats are thrown by his opponents and their supporters in the febrile media.

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