Also sprach Macron

Arthur Goldhammer
13 April 2018

The president, champion of la parole rare, emerged from his palace yesterday, just as le président bavard, as his successor has labeled him, published a book accusing the former of betrayal of both himself and the left (one has to be careful not to translate la trahison in this case as “treason,” a high crime of state–Hollande does not go quite that far in his denunciation of Macron, at least not yet, but he seems well on his way).

The Financial Times actually characterized Hollande’s attack as a “stroke of luck” for Macron. By portraying him as “an arrogant, treacherous protégé” whom Hollande boasted he could have beaten if only he had chosen to run, he reminded the French why they were glad to be rid of him.

By contrast, Macron’s performance reminded the French why they breathed a sigh of relief when he was elected, even if they hadn’t voted for him. “As he does so often,” the FT opined in the same article, “gave an articulate, convincing performance.” Articulate it certainly was. Convincing, perhaps less so, as we shall see in a moment. But above all it was forceful, and the French like nothing better than forcefulness in their president. If Jupiter did not actually unleash thunderbolts, he did deliver any number of confident pronunciamentos backed by intimate familiarity with each of the salient issues of the moment. He slashed the air with the sharp forearm strikes of a master of the political saber. But there was none of Sarkozy’s surliness. The president smiled from time to time and showed flashes of humor, even self-deprecating humor, especially when corrected by his interlocutor on a factual point or vice versa. He left no doubt that he is a very intelligent man, as even his scowling adversary, Eric Woerth, one of the few Republicans associated with the old regime still sufficiently erect to make regular appearances on the nightly news.

In substance, however, Macron was convincing only to those who are prepared to admit that no counterarguments are admissible. He is excellent at articulating his own point of view but rarely condescends to refute the contrary views of others, or even deign to notice them. He claimed, for example, that slashing the wealth tax was not a gift to the rich but rather an incentive to investment in France. But the removal of taxes on financial assets, even if it encourages fleeing millionaires to return to the Hexagon, won’t require them to divest their foreign holdings. Macron articulated well the need to defend, in view of increasing life expectancy, the pay-as-you-go pension system by either raising revenues or cutting benefits, but he pretended that the CSG hike imposed on retirees above a certain level of income was not in fact a disguised benefit cut but rather an “effort” of solidarity for which he thanked his fellow citizens, as if he might not have imposed a similar “effort” on the beneficiaries of the wealth tax decrease.

On the reform of the SNCF he did better. He pointed out that the post office remained a public service even after abolishing the statut of its employees, so it was simply untrue to claim that modification of le statut des cheminots was tantamount to destroying this important public service. This is correct, but it also allowed him to avoid any discussion of just what the employment conditions and wages of future cheminots might be.

On the forceful evacuation of the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, he seemed more intent on demonstrating firm resolve than on explaining why, after retreating on the planned airport, it was necessary now to resort to police action rather than negotiation with the Zadistes, whose pastoral dreams may not coincide with Macron’s vision of France as un pays de startups, despite the evident demonstration of entrepreneurial spirit.

With the presidency entering its crucial phase, Macron seems to have decided that any sign of hesitation or doubt on his part will be taken as a sign of weakness and exploited to the hilt. He may be right. After the limpness of the Hollande presidency, there is relief that there is again a captain on the bridge of the ship of state (rather than on his pédalo). But if firmness hardens into rigidity, all could be lost. Macron survived his first test, the labor law reform, by demonstrating flexibility, but this time he seems to have united the unions against him. Perhaps this was necessary, but it may prove to have been an error.

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10 Comments

  • Geof says:

    Excellent, thoughtful commentary (as usual.) So far, Macron has been wonderfully successful at operating in tight quarters, nipping at the edges of the problems without giving the opposition enough to rally around. But, as Prof. Goldhammer himself has alluded to, the May 10th semicentennial is approaching, perhaps just time enough away for the strikes to start becoming tiresome. That Air France made the first overture (though small) may have some significance and not a welcomed sign for the President. Macron has been brilliantly skillful so far, but now he will have to answer the famous quote “But is he lucky?”

  • Tim Smyth says:

    As a matter of EU law it would be very difficult for Macron to exempt “French” assets from the old wealth tax but keep “foreign” assets i.e. those in other EU member states within the tax base. France in particular under the previous government has already got in trouble for this type of thing and has cost the government quite a bit of money. Most Macron’s first year budget plans were totally wrecked by forcing the government to pay big refunds for tax policy changes under Hollande that were in violation of EU law.

  • Tim Smyth says:

    Of course there is also the just breaking news of Macron striking Syria another difference between him and his predecessor. But this will be a whole different blog post.

  • Keith Roberts says:

    So Macron enacts a tax cut for French top executives and stockholders, and then an effective tax increase on their retirement benefits. Can’t help comparing that to the GOP tax reform in the US.

  • Frédéric says:

    I never read the full list of automated spam messages! (above — until suppressed). It’s fun!

    BTW “He pointed out that the post office remained a public service even after abolishing the statut of its employees, so it was simply untrue to claim that modification of le statut des cheminots was tantamount to destroying this important public service. This is correct” … BUT that forgets what specific in running a densely meshed railway network. A high degree of mutual confidence between servants, beyond written processes, helps, as well as long-term experience keeping and sharing. I would prefer to have it run by the Army than by dozens of competing companies.

    Sure, technology changes (basically the smartphone) are transforming the business environment of the railway even more than its technical environment. SNCF will have to change drastically. But I just don’t see in what way the present “réforme” will help in any way. It seem to me just off the point.

    (and — what a nice site!)

  • bert says:

    Frédéric, your means off telling all in this paragraph is genuinely fastidious.

    At the risk of repeating myself, the key to everything:
    https://www.ft.com/content/b5358702-3d7d-11e8-b7e0-52972418fec4
    (”The mystery of the eurozone slowdown”)

  • Frédéric says:

    Thanks bert for this reply! I have to apologize three times — if I was fastidious, and because the ft paper is behind the paywall, and because I did not get the full meaning of your (idiomatic, I guess), first sentence, translate.google may be off the point too. Oops!

  • bert says:

    Frédéric, I was quoting directly from the illiterate attempts at pandering and flattery in that absurd spam post you were rightly marveling at. It’s absolutely not idiomatic, not in any Earth language anyway. My apologies for being cryptic.
    And further apologies for posting a paywalled article. Usually the ft lets you see an article, particularly if you come to their site from an external link. But different rules apply to Gavyn Davies pieces I now discover. He’s a former Goldman Sachs guy. The extra revenue is transferred directly to his bank account presumably.
    Basically he was pointing out some worrying recent numbers suggesting the eurozone upturn may be running out of steam somewhat.

    All the best to you.
    🙂

  • Jacob Hamburger says:

    Sorry about the spam. Whatever filter we used to have seems not be working. We’ll fix this!

  • Frédéric says:

    @Jacob Hamburger : yes but this specific spam WAS funny and teaching something: the full list of ready-to-use spam comments!

    @bert: ok thanks!

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