On the Eve of the Election
In politics, they say, a week is a long time. Had I written this post a week or two ago, I would likely have entitled it “On the Brink” rather than “On the Eve.” The recent improvement in Macron’s poll numbers has put me in a less agitated mood. The campaign has not been un long fleuve tranquille, far from it, but it seems in the end to be meandering toward a quiet dénouement in a calmed sea rather than a torrential plunge over a fatal precipice. I hope that tomorrow’s results do not prove that I’ve once again been lulled by polls into a fool’s paradise.
In this moment of relative calm, I’ve been trying to figure out why so many in France, including many people I know and respect, detest Macron as they do.
I understand the more superficial reasons for this antipathy, because to a large extent I share them. Yes, he has little empathy for l’homme moyen sensuel; his petites phrases reveal an irrepressible inner contempt; his impeccably tailored suits and precisely measured cuffs symbolize the disciplined young man-on-the-make he has always been, even at an age when most of his cohort were sowing their wild oats, questioning authority, and enjoying la dolce vita. Macron is an énarque to his fingernails, and the French detest their énarques, at least until they see in debate that le premier de la classe actually does know his stuff a lot better than the smiling cat lady.
More seriously, he has been accused of being the “president of the rich.” This epithet rests on the same few oft-repeated charges: he abolished the wealth tax and the aides au logement, his labor market reforms made it easier to fire workers, and he wants to raise the retirement age from 62 to 65. I grant that the abolition of the wealth tax was politically tone-deaf, but the broad middle class benefited from the overall tax reform package, so the charge is at best overblown. The labor-market reform package was standard neoliberal fare: critics want to present Macron as a Gallic Thatcher, but the truth is that he’s closer to a French Blair or Clinton.
Neoliberal, yes: he has brought France into alignment with its neighbors and partners, and his retirement reform will continue on the same trajectory. What other European country has a retirement age of 62? Belarus. Economies more comparable to France are closer today to where Macron wants to end up in ten years’ time: Italy 67, Germany 65 and 7 months, for example. And of course all these comparisons of “legal age of retirement” are meaningless without considering the number of years on the job required to collect full benefits. Add to that Macron’s promise that if the legal age is increased, the minimum retirement benefit will also be raised so that no retiree is forced to live below the poverty line. With all this in mind, it’s still possible to argue that Macron’s reforms, taken together, won’t achieve the results he promises, but in fairness one has to grant that unemployment has come down and France is more friendly to startups than when Macron took office.
Yes, one can certainly maintain that this program could have been enacted by the center-right–by an Alain Juppé, say. It was enacted by Édouard Philippe and Bruno Le Maire, politicians cut from the same cloth as Juppé. But surely this moderate rightish tinge can’t account for the hatred of the actual incumbent. Some of the same friends whose stomachs are turned by Macron today were telling me back in 2016, before Macron’s meteoric rise, that they were prepared to vote for Juppé because surely he couldn’t do any worse than Hollande.
Indeed, in the years following Chirac’s election in 1995, center-right and center-left had converged on much of what needed to be done to make France more competitive again, to keep French industry from fleeing French soil, and to bring down the stubbornly persistent unemployment rate. Both sides have taken stabs at retirement reform, both have claimed “advances” toward ultimate stabilization of the system, and yet here we are 27 years after the month-long mass demo of 1995 still awaiting a resolution.
Perhaps it was another act of political stupidity, on a par with abolishing the wealth tax, for Macron to make raising the legal age a central plank in his 2022 platform; or perhaps it was a maneuver by a president still confident of re-election seeking a mandate to carry through a reform that three predecessors, all daunted by the memory of the revolt against the Juppé reform of 1995, proved unable to bring about. Macron first came to prominence as secretary of the Attali commission, whose reform program he has largely carried out. And remember: Jacques Attali was a protégé of the Socialist Mitterrand, even if his commission was sponsored by the right-wing Sarkozy. Macron not only supplanted the parties of the center-left and center-right: he was literally the creature and embodiment of their convergence, which began when he was still in diapers.
Yes, he hasn’t done enough for les banlieues, having summarily dismissed the Borloo report. He hasn’t done enough to keep the police under better control. He has aped the far right by taking steps to suppress “Islamism,” taking refuge behind the suffix “-ism” (whose exact meaning is never specified) to defend himself against the charge of hostility to Muslims as such, even if he never specifies where exactly the line is crossed between acceptable faith and intolerable separatism. In fairness, however, one has to note that 70-80 percent of his compatriots, haunted by the image of a beheaded school teacher, think he hasn’t gone far enough in this direction. And yet he has tried to encourage more citizen participation with “proximity-enhancing” devices (or are they gimmicks?) such as marathon town meetings and a climate commission of 150 citizens chosen by lot to make recommendations on environmental policy.
So I’m still baffled. I understand disliking Macron but not hating him. His arguments are often far too glib, more like sales brochures than social or economic analysis, but he doesn’t tell the Big Lie like a Trump or a Le Pen, who promise to restore a greatness that never existed. He has stars in his eyes about the potential of high technology to transform the economy and doesn’t take sufficient note of the damage done to whole categories of workers. His lyrical effusions about the virtues of European unity haven’t yielded much in the way of concrete achievements. He is wholly a creature of the urban elite and has no feel for the way many of his countrymen live in rural areas or forgotten towns bypassed by the TGV and the currents of global growth. Contest him if you must, but don’t hate him: hatred only plays into the hands of the real enemies of the people.