Macron’s ‘Revolution’

by Emmanuel Macron
French and European Publications Inc, 2016, 270 pages, about $50

The newly elected President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, has accomplished an amazing success in winning the highest prize in French politics with a newly established movement, En Marche!, which wasn’t around before 2016.

Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen was welcomed with a sense of relief all over Europe and the world. Besides being the scion of a dynasty of the European extreme Right, Le Pen threatened savers and investors with a venomous mix of fiscal irresponsibility and economic nationalism. She eventually renounced her proposal of leaving the euro, which probably appeared a reckless leap in the dark to many voters. But she was considered too big a gamble by markets and by a wide majority of voters too.

On the other hand, Macron appeared the candidate of sober moderation: a candidate who, instead of screaming from the rooftops that “another world is possible”, aimed at warding off the collapse of the existing one. In a country where over 40 per cent of the voters at the first round were swayed by the promises of closing the borders and redistributing wealth—either in the “brown” version of Marine Le Pen or in the “red” one of Jean-Luc Mélenchon—Macron carefully cultivated the persona of a safe pair of hands on the tiller.

The youngest French President ever (he is thirty-nine), Macron has an impeccable resume that ranges from his own studies at the École Nationale d’Administration, the factory of French high bureaucrats; to his work as a valued aide to François Hollande; to a short experience in private banking with Rothschild; and, eventually, to his appointment as a Treasury Minister. In this latter capacity, Macron was known for a few “low carb” liberalisation attempts, in areas such as public transport and the professions, that nonetheless aroused strong opposition among French interest groups.

Macron has been labelled a “liberal” (in the European sense) and has been strongly endorsed by François Bayrou, a former conservative who moved to the centre when Jacques Chirac was re-elected President. At the same time, Manuel Valls, the socialist Prime Minister under whom Macron served as Treasury Minister, joined En Marche! right after Macron’s election.

Macron, who should be capable of marshalling a parliamentary majority after elections due this month, has so far eschewed self-labelling. But what does he really think?

Mr Macron has published a book, Révolution, that I have read in a timely Italian translation.

The very first words cannot be said to portend a page-turner: “Facing the real world will enable us to find hope again.” And yet they are an excellent summary of the hopes and expectations of Macron’s fans.

The first chapter is an autobiographical sketch. Born in Amiens into a family of hospital doctors, Macron likes to point out that his family entered “only recently in the ranks of the bourgeoisie”. The admission ticket to the middle class was education: his grandmother was a teacher, his parents and brother medical doctors. In contrast, the young Emmanuel was a black sheep of sorts, albeit a rather tame one: instead of medical school, he enrolled in the ENA. The future founder of En Marche! was a proud nerd, something that today—when the loudest mouths usually prevail—has a welcome taste of wholesome goodness in politics.

Macron’s revolution thus aims to be the revolution of normalcy and pragmatism, of competent and decent people who on the basis of their own merits reach the ranks which should properly be filled by competent and decent people. His sobriety, however, is reflected in a studied disdain for any “strong” vision, an attitude which clearly appears the most persuasive rejoinder to the temptations of political adventurism. Révolution is thus a symphony of “yes, buts”. It displays all the tenets of our governing classes, painstakingly paraded without bothering to check whether they are consistent with each other.

“If by liberalism we mean to trust individuals”—writes Macron—“then I am a liberal.” But if “being on the Left means believing that money does not grant all rights, that hoarding capital cannot be considered the exclusive aim of our lives, that the liberty of our citizens should not be sacrificed to the unattainable goal of absolute security, that the poorest and frailest among us should be helped, and not be discriminated against”, then he declares himself “to be, with no less conviction, on the Left”. Macron is against egalitarianism, if this means flattening all social differences, but cries against the “new inequalities”. He wishes to cut corporate taxes and ease administrative burdens, but also “have Europe act against the American or Asiatic ‘giants’ which wage unfair competition”—an oxymoron, if ever was one—“against us.” He thinks cutting the budget deficit was needed “to face the emergency, when the euro was threatened”, but also that “austerity is not a program”. He conjures up a revolution in education, to be implemented by “placing the role of the teacher back at the centre of the life of the Republic”. He concedes that the thirty-five-hour working week is too rigid, but suggests that “for some businesses, the ‘thirty-five-hour week’ is perfectly suitable”. His allegiance to the European Union is certainly sincere, even though it is hard to understand if he would be fine with German-driven fiscal responsibility (as he seems to promise he will be), or would attempt to contrive a powerful Keynesian machinery in Brussels.

Macron boldly recommends a cut to public spending, in the face of the inherently conservative nature of the bureaucracy, and dreads the moment when the country ends up “living for the civil service, instead of the civil service living for the nation”. But he still advocates big public investments with a planning horizon of at least five years, starting with “green” energy projects.

Granted, politics means to synthesise. But we might legitimately ask: synthesise what?

Macron equates “doctrinaire” Colbertists (the disciples of the mercantilist minister of Louis XIV) and free-marketers, with the aim of prudently placing the truth in the middle. The tiny flaw in this exercise is that, if free-marketers exist in France, they exert a negligible influence, whereas Colbert’s scions are mushrooming on the Left and the Right and he is still the guiding light of French public policy. A declared equidistance from the free market and industrial policy betrays an inherent preference for the latter.

For the “enarque” Macron, “innovation for innovation’s sake is like marching without a destination”. Innovation is to be directed, steered, channelled into a particular course. All very fit and proper, in a “nice” sort of manifesto, but at the price of neglecting another consequential detail, namely the stubborn way innovation refuses to be planned.

It would be wrong to insist that a would-be French president should be informed by models that are not French. Macron does not claim to have intellectual reference points, but he knows that “our history made us children of the state, as opposed to children of the law, as in the United States, or of commerce, as in Britain”. He grasps the threats of that tradition, the risk of making the state the be-all and end-all, and the individual nothing.

If a reconsideration is in order, this hard-fought election was perhaps not the most propitious time. Macron played relatively safe. In his book, he respectfully mentions Charles de Gaulle, and strikes all the right patriotic notes, but his manifesto becomes really reassuring for us only when it states his belief that it is possible to be French, and remain French, without renouncing the wide world.

As he strives to mix efficiency and good feelings, Macron lets slip an apparently commonplace remark: “to state that exiting the global model would entail a better life, is a lie”. If globalisation yielded a number of losers, he maintains, barricading behind a protectionist wall would cause a much greater number of them.

This is a truly sobering statement, and building on it would have made for a better book. Understanding the notion of opportunity cost is not the politicians’ forte, but Macron grasps the concept. This is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for sound public policies. Expanding it into an electoral manifesto would have made Macron’s book a more insightful work: but perhaps this was too risky a move, in a country where economic nationalism is so popular and widespread.

Dr Alberto Mingardi is Director General of Istituto Bruno Leoni, a Milan-based free-market think-tank.

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