Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France last May, beating Marine Le Pen in the second round of a hard-fought election cycle. Outside of France, that’s what most media outlets reported: the loss of the populist, anti-immigration Le Pen to the young, innovative, and forward-looking Macron. But in France, this wasn’t the bombshell announcement.
The real upset happened two weeks prior, when both major party candidates were eliminated in the very first round. What we were left with was, an economically liberal, pro-business, centrist, and seemingly logical candidate for president on one side, and a candidate who appealed to the victims of the market liberalization and internationalization and to nationalists who believe in a single French heritage and culture on the other. Sound familiar?
Though the starting points and outcomes were completely different (to start with, France has a much higher level of social protection than the United States), our election was extremely similar to the 2016 U.S. presidential race. From a surprisingly popular far-left radically progressive Bernie Sanders (some could argue a comparison to Jean-Luc Mélenchon) to a surprisingly unpopular extremely conservative Ted Cruz (not unlike scandal-ridden François Fillon) losing in the first rounds, to the high abstention rates (which, unlike the United States, is not the norm in France), and even Russian meddling.
It’s no wonder that, after major upsets like Brexit and Trump, the world media was seeking some type of redemption and comfort in our French election, which seemed like a (questionably) successful remodel of previous scenarios. Thus, when Macron did win, it was seen as the year’s biggest victory, as it secured the idea that traditional politics and politicians could still be accepted today.
After his victory, especially on major American news outlets, Macron was depicted as the best possible outcome, almost as some Messiah. He WILL save the European Union, he WILL reduce France’s debt, he WILL modernize the country. This is what I call the “Macron myth.” His definition of modernization means “better efficiency through reinforced competition,” which, as we have seen in Germany and the United States, reduces unemployment at the price of higher precarity. Tackling the budget deficit will be done through tax breaks to the rich funded by less government support of lower income-households (not an opinionated projection, this is what we were told and shown). Finally, saving Europe doesn’t mean fixing the E.U. with major reforms, but reinforcing the present economic, political and social systems and institutions.
Macron gave a speech on Tuesday, Sept 26, calling to “unfreeze” the E.U. and “give it back to the people.” He proceeded by explaining how he wishes to reform Europe. Sadly, most of his economic, social, and fiscal proposals are a step in the same direction, demanding almost no change. He knows that the threat of terrorism is a primary concern for many Europeans, so he focused the bulk of his reform ideas on security (demanding the creation of a European army) and migration (nothing concrete, just asking for more humanity towards the migrants). His strong will to work hand in hand with Merkel isn’t a great sign either, as the present EU works best for Germany and she should have no direct interest in reforming it.
However, before he could “save” Europe and “modernize” the country, everyone knew he would first have to reform the labor code, France’s most prized creation nearly 100 years in the making. Further, he would have to allow businesses to operate more easily and efficiently even if that meant reducing workers’ protections and rights.
He finally revealed his plan at the end of last month in a logical follow-up to the El-Khomri labor reforms of Spring 2016. The latter prompted violent strikes and protests all across France and eventually led to the demise of the previous president, François Hollande, whose ratings were so low he couldn’t even try to run for reelection. Macron’s labor reforms follow the same ideas of constant liberalization, reducing unions’ influence on corporations, and of course, encouraging the hiring of new employees. Doing so makes it easier—in other words, less expensive for the employer—to fire them. Following Macron’s announcement, his approval ratings quickly dropped by over 20 points, an event that the media was quick to pick up on.
In fact, the easiest way to spot the world’s disillusion of the Macron myth is by observing the evolution of New York Times Macron-related articles between the end of April and September 2017. On April 27, the Times explained: “How Macron Would Fix the French Economy.” On Aug. 2, we get “From President Macron, a Lesson in Style.” On Aug. 31, he “unveils [a] contentious labor overhaul” but the Times acknowledged that it was a “big test for Macron.” On Sept. 7, they published an opinion piece explaining that “Emmanuel Macron will be yet another failed French president”.
The Macron myth didn’t last very long, but its strength since last spring was enough to enable his rise to power. The façade Macron held as being a “down to earth guy” dissipated when we learned he had spent $31,000 on makeup in the four months he held office. Eventually, even his supporters from the international media have been forced to desert him.
In the end, we could say Macron’s win was a strong statement celebrating establishment politics, although the way he managed this victory was through portraying himself as an outsider. He blew up both major French parties (The Socialist Party and The Republicans) by creating a centrist super-party, which is today comprised of many ex-members of these two parties. Moreover, many of the ministers in his cabinet were members of those parties and part of previous governments’ cabinets. He didn’t change the game, he simply shuffled the deck.
Kruger is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.