Macron, Act II
After Gilets Jaunes Act XXIII, yesterday the curtain rose on Macron Act II. There were innovations in both form and substance. Let me begin with the form, where the change was more noticeable. This was the first press conference of this presidential term. The setting, the newly renovated Salle des Fêtes in the Elysée, was spectacular and made to seem so by the occasional cutaway shots showing the impressive gilt ceiling, the forest of chandeliers, the throng of journalists, and, seated at the head table, covered in white, alone, the president.
The table deserves comment. De Gaulle sometimes gave press conferences seated behind a table, but not a plain table like Macron’s, rather an ornate Louis XV antique–Macron used a similar prop, but behind him, in presenting his Christmas wishes to the nation. And de Gaulle would never have permitted himself to use his table as Macron did, occasionally, during thee question session, stretching his arm forward across the surface and bending his entire upper torso toward his questioner, as if to make physical contact, in lieu of which he firmly locked eyes with each interlocutor. He was the opposite of presidential aloofness, an actor seeking to infuse his performance with a soulfulness he has been accused of lacking, as in his Hamlet-like introspection in answer to a question about Benalla, saying in effect: “I trusted him, Horatio, and he betrayed me. Was it nevertheless wrong to trust? When I defended him, I knew not what he had done, and his lies betrayed me yet again. And yet I would not want one man’s betrayal to mark the end of all trust.” Und so weiter. You can fill in the rest. Was it genuine? I don’t know, but the performance, the facial gestures, the control of body language, the studied silences–not easy to maintain in the face of an expectant audience–all marked a rebirth of the Macron of the campaign, who had disappeared behind an expressionless mask in a series of wooden exercises before a teleprompter in badly lit locations.
Macron needs an audience to come to life, and even more he needs provocations to which he can react. He was good in the Grand Débat, less good yesterday in his introductory remarks, which went on far too long, and excellent in the Q&A. So much for the form. Substance was not lacking either, although Macron’s enemies, who are by now legion, will seize on his statement that, upon due deliberation, he is more convinced than ever that the reforms he initiated at the beginning of his term were the right ones and are beginning to yield results (and he is right that some economic indicators are positive). Nevertheless, he admitted to certain errors of both judgment and style and offered a few correctives, most notably a re-indexation of pensions, which will cost another 5 billion on top of the 10 billion in tax concessions he pledged in December. Details about financing were sparse, but one can read this as a quid-pro-quo for Kramp-Karrenbauer’s refusal to play ball on European reform: You threw EU reform back in my face, Macron is telling AKK, so don’t expect me to keep my deficit promises.
But if the news was good for retirees, it was less good for prospective retirees, who were told that while the legal age of retirement will remain at 62 (“because I committed myself to keeping it there during the campaign”), benefits would be shaved for those who availed themselves of it, because “people are living longer and staying in school longer so they need to work longer to pay the bill.”
On immigration the president proposed a revision of the Schengen agreement. Countries that refuse to take refugees could be excluded from freedom of movement if Macron has his way. This change was clearly aimed at countries of the East, most notably Hungary and Poland. Beyond this, Macron emphasized the need to reduce the total number of immigrants. Details were vague.
His comments on the need to work more were somewhat misleading, since he suggested that “the French work less” than their European neighbors. This is true in the narrow sense that the total hours worked per capita is below the European average, but mainly because the labor force participation rate is low owing to high unemployment and early retirement. In hours worked per employed worker, France is above average, and French productivity is also high, as the president noted. This slipperiness of language leads to a corresponding slipperiness of remedy. At one point Macron mentioned “structural unemployment,” only to pirouette away from explaining its causes by saying that he didn’t “want to get too technical.” But therein lies the crux of the debate.
There will be certain institutional reforms, Macron said, reiterating campaign promises about reducing the size of the legislature and introducing a dose of proportionality (“20 percent”) in its election. But these measures are more symbolic than effective unless more actual power is devolved to the legislature.
As for striking at the heart of power, the executive-administrative complex, Macron, after professing faith in “republican elitism” in his prepared remarks, answered a question about the abolition of the ENA in the affirmative. So the ENA will go but the elite will remain. There is nothing surprising about this, since the ENA, while becoming the target of so many critiques (including mine), has actually become less attractive to ambitious young men and women, many of whom see the school has too set in its ways, ill-adapted to the realities of the globalized economy, and saddled with a curriculum and teaching methods that do not provide the best preparation for careers that straddle both public and private sectors. The Grands Corps d’État will also go, another concession to the realities of the 21st century. In a sense, these changes reflect Macron’s own impatience with the elitist system that produced him: despite winning the grand prize of l’Inspection des Finances, advancement after leaving ENA was too slow for his taste, and his sojourn in the private sector taught him that there were other routes to the top for ambitious young men than playing the inside game. Precisely because he is a pure product of the system, he is well-placed to become its destroyer. But plus ça change …
Will the Gilets Jaunes be satisfied? Certainly some of them will not be, but the gestures toward retirees will probably be sufficient to further thin their ranks. Macron in any case was not really appealing to the GJ but rather to a broader audience, which had begun to doubt his leadership and even his enthusiasm for the job in the face of rumors that he was “fatigued” and “depressed.” Yesterday he did not seem either fatigued or depressed. His old confidence was back, though tempered by the recent ordeal. The French will never love him. The difference is that now he knows that and, in true Machiavellian fashion, does not seek to be loved. “Je m’en fiche de 2022,” he said, “je veux réussir.” And that, I think, marks his true return to the spirit that buoyed his campaign in 2017. Then he knew he was taking a huge gamble and didn’t care if he lost, because he wasn’t a career politician and could easily do well in other lines of work. Yesterday he said, in essence, that he would continue doing what he thought he had to do, knowing full well that it might make him still more unpopular, but continuing as president was not his only or prime consideration. I am prepared to believe that he means it. So the question remains what it has always been: Is what Macron thinks must be done to reform France actually likely to bring about the desired results? Of that no one can be sure. My doubts are greater than his, and I’m also less of a gambler than he is. Inveterate gambler that he is, he has rolled the dice yet again, hoping that his old luck, once indefatigable, will have returned. We shall see.