Reforming France Emmanuel Macron's Impossible Mission

Thirty-six year old Economics Minister Emmanuel Macron has been tasked by French President Hollande with reforming the country. But it won't be easy. Socialists view him with suspicion and the party's left wing is already preparing for battle.
French Economics Minister Emmanuel Macron: "If being a politician means wanting to be re-elected at any price, then I'm not one."

French Economics Minister Emmanuel Macron: "If being a politician means wanting to be re-elected at any price, then I'm not one."


Recently, he gave voice to the question himself. It was last Thursday at 8:30 a.m. and Emmanuel Macron, dressed in a teal suit coat and navy blue tie, found himself at a podium in the Grand Palais in Paris. "Why am I actually a Socialist?" he asked his audience.

For a former investment banker who was recently assigned with the unenviable task of reforming his country as economics minister, it is an excellent question.

Macron's audience last Thursday morning was made up of perhaps 70 business leaders in an event organized by an economics magazine. Most of them were just as elegantly dressed as Macron himself, and they chuckled with amusement at his question.

But instead of answering his own question, the minister for economics, industry and information technology unfurled his far-reaching vision for a reinvigorated France. He spoke of the common welfare, which needed to once again take precedence over individual interests. And he underscored his exposition with a quote from the Socialist reformer Jean Jaurès from the year 1887.

It is the French way, a method of situating one's self in the grand arch of history. And it suits Macron well.

France must change, he said last Thursday from the podium in the vast palace on the Champs-Élysées, and it wasn't the first time he had uttered the sentiment. The country isn't doing well, he continued. "Those who say we can continue on like this for another 10 years are lying." Macron's tone was far from shrill. Rather, he spoke calmly, almost quietly.

Emmanuel Macron has been France's economics minister for three-and-a-half months now and, at 36 years, he is the youngest member of Hollande's cabinet. Since he was appointed to renew the country, he has been called everything from a "high-flyer," to a "beacon of hope" to a "careerist." The magazine Marianne recently even referred to him as a "wolf in sheep's clothing." There are some within François Hollande's inner circle who say he is the president's "last wildcard."

Symbolic Break

Back in March, Hollande heralded a political about-face by naming the conservative Social Democrat Manuel Valls as prime minister. Macron's appointment was a further symbolic break from the president's disappointing first two years in office.

Macron's predecessor at the Economics Ministry, Arnaud Montebourg, was a convinced Colbertist, an approach which calls for significant state control over the economy. Many in France still see it as the only valid model.

But Macron intends to push through far-reaching economic reforms of the kind that have thus far been largely shunned. There is much riding on his success and on whether Hollande and his party give him a free hand. The central question is whether France can find the strength to free itself of its current plight.

This week will go a long way toward determining whether it can. On Wednesday, Macron will be presenting his first significant draft law to the cabinet in Paris, the so-called "Loi Macron," including 107 different measures. The party's left wing has already said it will oppose the package.

The law, says Socialist lawmaker Jean-Jacques Urvoas, contains 107 "fragmentation bombs," while former Environment Minister Delphine Batho would not exclude the possibility of what she termed a "parliamentary accident." Many Socialists do not completely trust Macron because of the four years he worked as an investment banker with Rothschild. They see him as a handmaiden for high finance and as a careerist. "He probably doesn't even know how to get to party headquarters," one Socialist party member spat when President Hollande announced his appointment at the end of August.

Indeed, the criticism of Macron and his signature draft law makes it look for the moment as though the government may not get the support it needs when the package comes up for a vote in parliament, currently scheduled for January. Its failure would be the final proof that significant change is not compatible with the Hollande era.

'Responsibility Pact'

Macron is hoping to open up his country's overregulated, static labor market. One element of his plan, for example, calls for the elimination of legal protections which grant monopoly-like powers to dozens of professions. Notaries, pharmacists and bus and taxi drivers would all be affected. Furthermore, he would like to allow shops to open on 12 Sundays per year instead of the current five and introduce €40 billion worth of tax and withholding relief to French companies over the next three years to help them on the road to increased competitiveness. A reduction of high non-wage labor costs, which play a role in the country's high rate of unemployment, is also part of the plan, at least for the low-wage sector.

All of these measures are part of the so-called "responsibility pact" introduced by Hollande at the beginning of the year, part of the president's attempt to make France more business friendly. The reforms are to be accompanied by spending cuts worth €50 billion by 2017. But in France, special interest groups remain powerful, meaning that negotiations over several elements of the pact have made little progress.

A Friday morning in November found Emmanuel Macron on his leather couch in his office, a basket of fruit from the supermarket Regis on the table in front of him. A bouquet of tulips adorned the shelf behind him. His office is in a glass and steel building on the banks of the Seine, one of the many ministries in the Paris quarter of Bercy. Together, they clearly convey the French view of the state's role in the economy.

Macron -- dapper and handsome with his perfectly parted hair and boyish face -- is relaxed as he lounges on his sofa. He possesses a perfect resume, of the kind that could lead one to suspect arrogance were he not so polite. Indeed, his CV explains much of the envy and resentment people have for him -- but also the immense hopes that have been placed on his shoulders.

"If being a politician means wanting to be re-elected at any price, then I'm not one," he says. The fact that he has never been elected to political office, he says, gives him the necessary freedom to fight for his convictions. On his desk stands a model of the Ariane 5 rocket next to stacks of colored file folders. If there is a picture of his family, it is well hidden.

Since 2007, Macron has been married to his former French teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 20 years his senior. He was just 17 when they met at the Catholic school he went to in Amiens, north of Paris. The gossip magazine Closer, which has preferred in the past to focus on Hollande's liaison with the actress Julie Gayet, recently published a photo series of Macron and Trogneux. It showed the two taking a weekend stroll through Montmartre, he in jeans and white shirt and she, a peroxide blonde wearing dark sunglasses. They make for an unconventional couple, and not just in France.

'You Can't Pick the Moment'

On this November morning, Macron speaks openly about the failures of recent French governments, including his own, and their preference for blaming others for not introducing badly needed reforms. He is particularly critical of what he calls "misguided Marxism," a clear reference to the majority of his own party.

He is fully aware of the resistance he is facing. Though he often demands rhetorical clarity, the frequency with which he escapes into vocal contortions has increased. When asked, for example, about the 35-hour work week -- sacred to many Socialists -- he says: "I defend it, but I don't place it on a pedestal." He would like to see "more flexibility," he says. It makes it sound like he would like to do away with it, but doesn't have the power at present -- a realistic assessment.

When asked if he is bothered by the fact that his first ministerial post has come under a struggling President Hollande, he responds coolly: "You can't pick the moment in which you take on responsibility." It is sentences such as these that lay bare his elite school education and the rhetorical aloofness that comes along with it. He is adept at finding an appropriate reply to any query within just a few seconds.

In France's political class, Macron's elite education -- he graduated from Sciences Po and Ena -- is hardly an exception, of course. Prior to moving on to the Ècole Nationale d'Administration, attended by many top French politicians, including Hollande, Macron obtained a master's degree in philosophy, writing his thesis on Machiavelli. For two years, he also worked as the assistant to well-known philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Together, the two wrote essays on history and memory for the philosophy periodical Esprit, where Macron is still listed as a contributing author, though his last article for the publication appeared in 2011, after he had already begun working as an investment banker. His business career also included a stint as an advisor for customers such as Nestlé.

Hollande and Macron met several years ago at a dinner hosted by Jacques Attali, a former advisor to François Mitterrand, who has great respect for Macron. It is possible the two hit it off so well because Macron, like Hollande himself, is the consummate technocrat.

Before Macron became minister, he was Hollande's economic advisor, first during the campaign and then in the Elysée. His views were sought out and valued, but very few of them actually found their way into governmental policy. Macron, for example, was particularly critical of Holland's 75 percent tax on incomes over €1 million, saying it made France a "Cuba without sun." The tax was implemented anyway.

'Time Is Too Short'

In the Elysée, he was called Mozart because of his piano-playing abilities, which are advanced enough that he likely could have become a professional pianist. But he always wanted to go into politics, say long-time acquaintances. He got plenty of help along the way from well-known political personalities, most of them older men and not all of them from the leftist camp.

Alain Minc, a former advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy, is one of them. He has known Macron for more than 10 years, calls him "my chick," and says Macron is an "extremely able minister.

Nevertheless, he doubts whether he will achieve much. "In the two-and-a-half years remaining in Hollande's presidency, it won't be possible to push through large reforms. The time is too short," he says, adding that Macron won't get the support he needs from the Socialist-controlled parliament. Minc says that Macron and Valls are alone with their desire for an economic renewal and that when the economy minister presents his plans to lawmakers in January, the battle against them will begin in earnest. Macron, Minc believes, is a "great talent" damned to be forced to wait for better times.

The wait might be long. The French economy has shown no growth in the last three years with unemployment, currently at almost 11 percent, rising during the same period. Hollande's inconsistency is partially to blame. He has taken steps forward, but they have often been followed by steps backward, a back-and-forth that has consumed much of his five-year term in a presidency that is the least popular France has seen in some time. What does he really want? Despite the appointments of Valls and Macron, it is a question that still can't be answered.

The prime minister, the economics minister and the president agree on one thing, though: They are opposed to biting austerity measures, fearing they might plunge France even deeper into recession. Indeed, Paris only plans to bring France's budget deficit in line with the EU maximum -- of 3 percent of gross domestic product -- in 2017. The European Commission has admonished the Hollande administration while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has desperately tried to get her flagging neighbor to change course. But to no avail.

A Meaningless Gesture

Indeed, France has recently found powerful allies for its dawdling in Berlin. In late November, a report called "Reform, Investment and Growth: An Agenda for France, Germany and Europe," was released by the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. The study had been jointly commissioned by Macron and his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, but the two immediately rejected its core demands, a move which essentially degraded the report to a meaningless gesture.

Back in his office, Macron furrows his brow and says he is well aware that his country has a credibility problem following all of the empty promises. "Instead of talking, we have to finally act," he says.

The problem is, though, that the French government hasn't just lost credibility abroad. Many in France have lost their faith in the state and in the political classes. Indeed, the crisis of confidence may even be more damaging to the country than its economic problems, and it is the reason that right-wing populist Marine Le Pen's Front National has found such success of late. Current surveys indicate that she would beat Hollande in the first round of presidential elections were they held now, yet another indication that traditional political parties have fallen into disrepute.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Macron is confronted by skepticism from all sides. His approval rating of 35 percent may make him one of the most popular members of Hollande's current cabinet. But he is also one of its most unusual: a young man who is more Social Democrat than Socialist.

Still, as the product of elite schools, he also embodies a type of politician that has long dominated French politics. Many such technocrats walk the halls of French ministries and of the Elysée -- and they are part of the increasing estrangement between the French and their politicians. Indeed, one of Macron's most telling missteps came when speaking in a radio interview about female workers at a factory that was threatened with closure. He said that these women "could neither write nor read."

It was a blunder that confirmed the image many had of him as someone with no understanding of grassroots Socialist voters. One newspaper called him an "elite sweetie," a moniker clearly intended as an insult. But in France, a country which has a long tradition of developing its elite, such insults are sanctimonious at best. Macron is but one of many functionaries in the upper echelons of business or politics who can easily move from one important position to another.

When he took office, Macron said that he would resign from his post as economy minister were he unable to push through policies he was convinced of. Either way, his future is secure.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.