All Hail Macron!
The new French President is the latest international political darling, man of the hour and flavour of—well at least a month.
He is young, multilingual, charismatic, exceptionally well-educated and bright. When he speaks common sense pours forth as from an intellectually gifted Parisian fountain.
His election has saved—at least for now—the European experiment which was reeling from the body blow of Brexit. And when it comes to the politically important field of economics, Emmanuel Macron is one of the world’s top whizz kids.
BUT, just as every cloud has a silver lining, every blue sky has a thunder cloud over the horizon. In the case of France there are potential thunderstorms—foreign and domestic— which could wash away the new French optimism.
There is no doubt of President Macron’s Europhile credentials. At his first speech as president-elect, he ran onto the stage to the strains not of the French, but the EU’s national anthem – Ode to Joy. He is, in fact, more of a Europhiliac than his more experienced German counterpart Angela Merkel. And that is the reason for the first cloud.
As a group, the Germans are pro-Europe. But they have started to baulk at the cost of propping up the poorly run Southern European Eurozone economies. This is despite the fact that the same cost has contributed mightily to Germany’s enviable trade surplus with the rest of the world.
Angela Merkel—and her main domestic political opponents—want a broad expansionist economic and political union that retains for individual countries a large degree of sovereignty over national economic policies. That is more or less a continuation of the existing set-up.
Not so Emmanuel Macron. His plan is for a deeper and wider economic integration between Eurozone countries. On top of that he wants EU reforms to reduce Germany’s trade surplus. To press the case, on Monday (22 May) he is dispatching his new Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire to Berlin for talks with German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble.
The Macronian European vision may also fail to find many adherents elsewhere in Europe. The hard-pressed Southern Europeans and the newly-joined East Europeans resent the German trade surplus. But they also want German subsidies and they jealously guard their sovereignty. On top of that, if Merkel is opposed then the rest of Europe is unlikely to bite the hand that feeds.
Macron’s Europhile credentials also make him unpopular with the Trump Administration. It was an open secret that the US president was rooting for anti-EU populist Marine Le Pen. Deeper European integration is a threat to Trump’s America First policy as a stronger trading bloc means a stronger and more difficult negotiator on the opposite side of the table.
The two men also have a problem over the issues of climate change and globalisation. On the latter issue especially, Macron is one of the world’s top proponents while Trump is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
However, Trump and Macron, will find common ground when they meet for the first time next week (Thursday) at the NATO summit in Brussels. Macron supports increasing French defence spending from 1.77 percent to two percent by 2020. He also plans to fight terrorism by boosting the police force by 10,000 and is committed to continuing French participation in the US-led coalition in Syria.
Foreign policies need a strong domestic base to succeed. Macron’s personal popularity and the inevitable honeymoon he is currently enjoying are—for the moment—providing him with that base. But the base is run through with hairline cracks that could easily—and disastrously—widen into fissures.
For a start, there is the fact that the election has exposed strong opposition on both the far left and far-right of French politics. The National Front’s Marine Le Pen and the communist-supported Jean-luc Melenchon polled the second and third largest votes respectively in the first round of the elections. And they have no intention of riding quietly into the political sunset. From day one they and their supporters will be busily chipping away at Macron’s domestic base.
And the new French president is vulnerable. Years of economic mismanagement have left France a financial basket case. Public spending is 56 percent of GDP compared to 44 percent in Germany,39 percent in the UK and 37 percent in the US. Even more staggering is the 10 percent unemployment level which rises to one in four of the population for those under the age of 25. On top of that there is the French mindset that failing industries, companies, unions—just about everyone in any trouble of any kind—should be propped up with public money.
Macron is determined to change that mindset and create a more pro-business and pro-entrepreneurial French economy. He plans to axe 120,000 civil service jobs—hopefully through natural wastage. Then he wants to relax the rules around France’s controversial 35-hour working week, reduce corporation tax from 33 percent to 25 percent and shift government money away from propping up failing businesses to paying for retraining programmes. Unemployment he wants to reduce to 7.7 percent by 2022.
All of this is a tall order given the French penchant for opposing any social change with strikes, riots, demonstrations, marches and walk-outs, all of which explains why successive French governments have started down the road of good intentions only to end up executing more U-turns than a Parisian taxi driver.
So, President Macron, enjoy your blue skies for now. You will need the memory.
Tom Arms is editor Lookaheadnews.com