Macron: A President of paradox

, by Madelaine Pitt

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

Macron: A President of paradox
Emmanuel Macron meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. Photograph: Kremlin.ru (CC BY 4.0)

There is a world of difference between the image of the glossy poster boy beaming at us from every other international newspaper, and that of the hard-line neoliberal ex-banker bitterly criticised over many a croissant. It is a fascinating paradox, even in a country crammed with them.

Ask someone from outside the “Hexagone”, as the French nickname their country, what they think of Emmanuel Macron, and they would most likely refer to his ambitious plans for Europe. Ask someone who lives between Lille and Marseille and between the Rhine and the Atlantic, however, and they would undoubtedly have an opinion (or several) on the reform of the rail system which has triggered three months of strikes, and the university reform which has led to higher education institutions up and down the country being barricaded by students. Europeans elsewhere may swoon over the youthfully immaculate monsieur, but in France, his popularity ratings have dipped, with 57% holding a negative opinion of their president at the end of March, according to a BVA poll.

France’s archaic administrative processes may be the frustration of many, but Macron is doing more than updating French society. He is bending principles which have stood for decades, often with one common thread; competition.

In France, the Baccalauréat gained at 18 years of age used to be a guarantee for a place at university; the reform currently being hastily implemented is a step away from this. For the first time, students are writing cover letters and being ranked by universities to which they apply. The fuss which has ensued might cause Anglo Saxon eyebrows to rise, but in a country where tuition fees per annum are 184 euros for undergraduate degrees, and university education is seen as a right and not a privilege, some find the development truly shocking. Megaphones and banners in front of universities denounce social selection (students from less privileged backgrounds are less able and get less help to write quality cover letters, claim the demonstrators as they chain wheelie bins across all possible access points to university buildings). I couldn’t access my office for three weeks.

Next, the sheltered market enjoyed by the national rail operator, the SNCF, one of the last protected, state-owned bastions, is due to be opened up to competition. In both cases, the consequences of the reforms he is enacting, which were promised during his campaign, are perhaps less meaningful than their symbolic value. The SNCF will remain state-owned, but the changes to its environment represent for some an attack on France’s brand image of superb high-speed trains. The fact that rail workers entering the industry will no longer collect the generous benefits allotted to current SNCF employees is a change above all to their status. As for the university reform, few students who hold the Baccalauréat will in reality be prevented from attending university, yet many feel very strongly that obtaining a spot should in no way resemble applying for a job. In both cases, it is the symbolic direction of change which is causing worry.

Macron, the ambitious Europhile

What of Macron and Europe? His recent address to the European Parliament was a captivating mirror of the paradox he has created. Enthralling to listen to, his voice and presence filled the Strasbourg hemicycle, his commitment to the European project ringing true. French MEPs may have made the most of the opportunity to attack his domestic policies, but the thunderous applause and standing ovation at the end were testimony to an audience globally approving his ambitions.

These ambitions include improving management of the Eurozone, which would involve creating a budget for this purpose as well as hiring an EU finance minister and creating an administrative body that would oversee economic policy in the zone. In his speech, Macron also called for more compassionate and more co-ordinated integration of refugees, and affirmed that France is prepared to increase its contribution to the EU budget, a welcome contrast to others seeking to shrink their own share. Time will tell whether he will be successful in his plans, but ideologically, his ideas for Europe are far more welcome in Europe than his ideas for France are in France.

However, Macron’s mandate of course comes from the French people. I live in France and don’t know a single young person who voted Macron out of conviction, yet many who did with a grimace and/or stereotypical shrug to be sure of fending off far-right leader of the Front National Marine Le Pen. At an election night gathering I attended on the tense, soaking night Macron was elected, there was resignation, not elation. Rain poured all night, not champagne.

Europe needs a strong France, but Europe also needs Macron, and if Macron is to be in with a shot of making headway on his European agenda, the French électeurs will need to vote him in for a second term in office. Despite the fact that his opposition is currently looking weak, he should not take his eye off the ball in terms of the real and symbolic impact of his planned reforms within France. Ironically, the French president’s current lack of domestic popularity is not due to abandoning his campaign promises, but to keeping them.

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