The unpopular president’s reforms exposed a deep discontent. The response to the pandemic has made his problems worse
France began lifting what was nearly two months of lockdown on May 11. It had been one of the most stringent and severely policed lockdowns in the world, with some ten million police checks on individuals and half a million fines in the first three weeks. Yet, ironically, for all its severity the lockdown has exposed the growing powerlessness of its citizens, the state and of France in the world. The pandemic has taken a magnifying glass to fractures and changes that have been at work in the country for many years. Before Covid-19, France was in a state of transition with President Emmanuel Macron’s labour and societal reforms. She was firmly on the route to a more liberal economy and internationally open society, albeit to the chagrin of many. But the virus has stopped the reforms in their tracks and thrown into question the very nature, organisation and direction of the nation. This may also be true of other countries, but for France, the historical laboratory of societal experiments, the results could not be more striking. There is a sense that the country is adrift. So where will the currents take her after the pandemic?
On April 16, a leaked confidential French security services report warned that extreme left and anarchist organisations were planning to take radical action at the end of lockdown in conjunction with gilets jaunes movements in a “black and yellow” alliance. Later that month, four nights of rioting in the banlieues of major French cities led to clashes with riot police. While political leaders around the world have seen their popularity ratings soar in a “rally to the flag”, a Europe-wide poll on April 19 put President Macron’s popularity at 34 per cent with Angela Merkel and Boris Johnson on 60 per cent and 64 per cent respectively; 74 per cent of Germans and 69 per cent of Britons believed their government had managed the crisis well, but only 39 per cent of the French.
One knows France is in trouble when there is talk of a national government, as there is now. There have been only three since 1914: the First World War, the end of the Second World War (1944-6) and during the Algerian War in May 1958 when civil war threatened. But national unity governments require great leaders who can actually unite, as with Clemenceau or de Gaulle. Macron’s track record has been one of division since his election in 2017. And national unity governments require a common political programme, which would be out of the question for much of the political class let alone the far Right and Left.
So national division looks set to prevail. Ironically, before the pandemic, President Macron, despite being so ideologically hostile to Brexit, confessed to sharing the belief that France, within Europe, should “take back control” of her shared destiny in a world weakened by the erosion of the rules-based multinational order. But, far from “taking back control”, Macron’s policies are accelerating French loss of control both domestically and internationally.
Though habitually suspicious of the state, the French cultural reflex is to turn to it as the sole solution provider. Yet over the last decade or so, its role has been diminished. For instance, France no longer has a centralised planning authority that can think about the future and its accompanying risks, as it had for the highly successful post-war boom years in the Commissariat général du Plan, finally wound up in 2006.
As the virus hit, Macron was in the process of dismantling that great nursery of talented state servants, the École Nationale d’Administration, decried as the symbol of out-of-touch centralisation, in a bid to tranquilise the gilets jaunes. And yet Macron began his presidency talking up the value of Jupiterian “verticality”, and cutting out the so-called “corps intermédiaires” of parliament, local government and trades unions in his reforming zeal.
Now it is the “humble” and “reformed” Macron who suggests release of the lockdown should be determined at the level of the département and not uniformly across France in the centralised Jacobin tradition. This to-ing and fro-ing is not to the taste of French citizens who expect the state to lead them out of the lockdown it first confined them to weeks ago. French media has conjured up that old battle from the French Revolution between centralisers and regionalisers—Jacobins and Girondins—a battle won hands down by the former and personified by the austere, rigorous and purposeful Robespierre pitted against the eloquent but dissolute Girondin Danton. Whatever the historical precedents, the image is of a France no longer structured and girded by an all-powerful and reassuring state.
At the economic level, Macron’s reforms were designed to liberalise an unresponsive economy by pushing back restrictive practices and rolling back the state as arbiter and bountiful paymaster. His aim was simultaneously to drive down France’s dangerously high national debt to GDP ratio of over 100 per cent and reduce her constant breach of the EU’s 3 per cent budget-deficit-to-GDP rule by privatising large sectors of the economy and reducing state subsidies to ailing semi-nationalised industries such as the railways, as Brussels’ state subsidy rules require. His dogged struggle to truncate the arm of the state in French economic life has been at considerable political cost, provoking widespread strikes and social disturbance.
Macron wanted to cleanse French finances and to rid France of the EU stigma of constantly failing to meet Eurozone criteria but with the pandemic the opposite has come to pass. Not only have finances been trashed but France’s dependence on
Brussels is set to increase exponentially. Age-old reflexes have resurfaced. Air France and Renault have been granted 12 billion euros in state loans and most of Macron’s labour reforms have been suspended. Total debt to GDP is optimistically projected at 115 per cent and the budget deficit at 9 per cent. Of course, increased debt is the fate of many large advanced economies but for France this will be far more difficult to reverse. Already the intellectual basis on which Macron’s liberal reforms were premised has been undermined by the government’s own policy, albeit in an emergency. The president’s numerous critics of Right and Left are praising the return to state intervention in the economy. Macron himself has criticised the French economy’s dependence on overseas suppliers. Yet as much as “take back control” has become the order of the day, in truth economically and financially France is dramatically losing control of her independence, notably to the EU.
At the international level, EU member states’ commitment to an “ever-closer union” by definition erodes French national sovereignty. Macron is the first French president since Mitterrand to make deeper European integration a flagship policy. He has enthusiastically pursued this path, rejecting what he termed “nation state egoism” in favour of collective EU solidarity and multilateralism. But little of the latter has been on display recently. In a poll in April, only 9 per cent of the French were satisfied with EU action. Another poll showed 74 per cent believed “it is for the French State and not the European Union to control frontiers”. The tide is turning in France on this enduring loss of sovereignty. But Macron self-consciously pursues his increasingly risky objective of deeper integration. He told French ambassadors in August 2019: “I only believe in one thing. It is the strategy of audacity and risk-taking.” Now the gambler is desperately betting on a final roll of the dice. Macron is leading the charge of the profligate “southern states” for debt mutualisation. Not only will this bring financial transfers from the frugal “northern states” such as Germany, but it will force EU integration ever closer. For debt mutualisation will hand control of taxation, borrowing and state budgets to the EU. This “big bang” approach to ever-closer union will inevitably mean a monumental loss of French sovereignty. The French may wake up to find the independent role of the French state—for which they have been clamouring to fight the virus—fundamentally eroded by the transfer of the existential levers of power to Brussels and Germany.
A combination of the Macron reforms over the last three years and the pandemic have brought to a head the deep discontent growing in the heart of France. Its source is a sense of powerlessness. Powerlessness in the ordinary lives of citizens; in the secular ability of the State to regulate and decide; and finally the ability of France as an international power to determine its own fate. These things were unthinkable for most of the 5th Republic, certainly from de Gaulle to Mitterrand. The country increasingly has the appearance of the directionless Britain of the late 1960s that saw its only salvation in hitching its wagon to the European Economic Community. The endgame may be approaching when the French state will finally abdicate its diminishing independence to a truly federal European Union.
This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.