La rentrée politique

Arthur Goldhammer
5 September 2018

Emmanuel Macron’s second rentrée resembles the first. The president is trying to get the ship of state back on an even keel after a rough summer in heavy seas. The Benalla Affair has finally begun to recede from the headlines, but the damage to Macron’s image has been even more severe than the damage done last year by the Ferrand affair and the resignation of Bayrou and other MoDem allies in the first summer of discontent.

The Hulot resignation, like the Benalla Affair, looms larger than it should, because the media have reveled in the spectacle of Hulot, himself a creature of the media, resigning in tears and spite. As much as they enjoyed Macron’s rise, the media know that his downfall would make his improbable saga an even more compelling narrative than it already is. But history’s rhythms are slower.

Macron has nevertheless been fairly adroit, with a considerable assist from Édouard Philippe and Gérard Darmanin. After letting it be known that he had doubts about the reform of the income tax, which will henceforth be collected at the source (as in all other modern economies), he allowed himself to be persuaded that all would go smoothly, or smoothly  enough, to overcome any “psychological” effect on the beleaguered taxpayer. Allegedly, the poor contribuable is such a fragile soul that she cannot be expected to calculate that a sum deducted monthly from her paycheck and multiplied by 12 is greater than, less than, or equal to the sum previously paid at the end of the year. And, horrors, their might be bugs in the software computing the monthly deductions.

Worse still, businessmen otherwise capable of managing their books protested that it would be an unreasonable burden on them to be required to serve as “tax collectors for the state.” By pretending to take all this whining seriously, Macron showed that he was attentive to his subjects’ remonstrances (the Ancien Régime terminology is deliberate, and I am almost tempted to refer to the protesting small businessmen as prospective tax farmers). But by giving in ultimately to Darmanin, Philippe, and … Hollande, who initiated this reform, he puts himself back in the driver’s seat yet again as the Master Reformer. Grade: Assez bien.

Meanwhile, to replace Hulot, Macron moved swiftly, choosing François de Rugy, whose green credentials cannot be denied but who is also a reliable politician, which Hulot was not. Now this department can be backburnered yet again until the next crisis erupts.

On Europe, Salvini and Orban have played into Macron’s hands by casting him as the leader of the pro-immigration forces they despise. This alleviates the domestic charge that he has been unconscionably harsh on immigrants. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon moves toward a more open anti-immigrant stance–alleging that migrant workers are a tool of the bosses to keep wages low–Macron can have his cake and eat it too. (Meanwhile, the German far left under Sahra Wagenkneccht has adopted the same anti-immigrant line, suggesting that the extremes are converging.)

With Merkel all but helpless, Macron’s plans for European reform seem dead in the water. He needs to begin mounting a campaign for the 2019 European elections, and if Ferrand takes over at the National Assembly, it will be interesting to see whom Macron chooses to lead the LREM forces. If Europe is to be his “social alibi” for a conventional program of neoliberal reform at home, this choice will be crucial. It must be someone credible as a social reformer but also dependable enough not to turn into an internal critic of Macron or even a potential challenger if his presidency bogs down further. No obvious name presents itself. Suggestions welcome.

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3 Comments

  • bernard godement says:

    The European Parliament, or the Commission for that matter, is an ideal place to get rid of a political thorn. Cohn Bendit almost – except for the dependable enough part – fits the bill. Thinking about it, when was the last time you heard again from someone in Strasbourg? I can’t remember hearing again from anyone, Strasbourg must be some subsidiary of the Bermuda triangle!

  • brent says:

    Having listened to some of Mélenchon’s recent speech at Marseille, I think calling his stance “anti-immigrant” lacks nuance, to say the least. What I heard him advocate was a balancing of immigrant rights with worker protections. His position includes regularizing the status of the currently undocumented–hardly a hard-line nationalist approach–and he is certainly correct to see that medef and other employer organizations are circling hungrily in pursuit of low-wage immigrant apprentices to work around French labor laws. Yes, the purist internationalism of Besancenot would be a hard sell to this electorate, but “build the wall” or “let them drown” –or Macron’s discreet silence–isn’t such a useful position either. JLM at least expresses compassion, which Macron’s realpolitik avoids.

    Wagenknecht and Aufstehen are also seeking balance, as opposed to assuming a right-wing nationalism. She vehemently supports the right of asylum–hardly the CSU position–and calls for tariffs and other market interventions to support potential economic migrants in their place of origin. Wagenknecht furthermore draws support from Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn for her position.

    In short, France soumise, Aufstehen, and a certain Left are looking for a responsible middle ground, taking heat from left-wing purists and right-wing nationalists alike–but isn’t that where the high ground lies on this troublesome issue?

  • brent says:

    To call Mélenchon’s policy “anti-immigrant” overlooks a lot. Listening to his address in Marseille it seems clear he is looking to balance immigrant rights against workers’ protections. His support for regularizing undocumented immigrants hardly matches the right-wing nationalists, and he shows a lot more compassion for the perils of migration than does tough-guy Macron (who may look reasonable alongside Salvini and Orban but that isn’t saying much).

    On the other hand it seems clear that MEDEF and other employer groups are circling the migrants looking for low-wage deals, so yes, the “bosses” as you say are busy instrumentalizing the vulnerable.

    Wagenknecht’s Aufstehen is looking for the same middle ground, taking heat from both sides as she questions unlimited migration while strongly defending the right to asylum. Even more than JLM she understands that proxy wars and globalized trade are fueling migration at the source, and the tariffs and protections–and arms reduction– she proposes are perhaps more useful than a simplistic borderless internationalism.

    It might be appropriate to acknowledge that these Lefts are trying to address the complexities and paradoxes of immigration, rather than settling for slogans, even if they thus help Macron and others score points. Is that really all it’s about?

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