Gazing out from the window of a Parisian dining club, perched in a gilded Louis XV fauteuil chair, its colors now faded, the disconnected and antediluvian status of France’s political elite is all too clear. Sealed off in cocoons of ancien régime splendor, the French political establishment has missed a beat. The golden age of French post-war economic prosperity “Les trentes glorieuses” is now a distant memory as an old system creaks with modern-day challenges. The extremist left and right have grown to fill the chasm left by failing centrist governments. As France prepares for a historic presidential election in May, a certain Monsieur Macron stands out as a man with a plan to mend a broken system.
My moment of reflection is cut short by the arrival of the energetic figure of Cyril Julien. One of dozens of campaigners known as adherents who have enthusiastically joined Macron’s “En Marche” political movement, his passion for the campaign is striking. Cyril, like countless French professionals, is taking time from his work and family life to support the new movement. “France needs to push the reset button,” he tells me. Emmanuel Macron has inspired many such citizens. The former minister and financier has approached the elections with a rigor unseen in French politics for some time. In an effort to understand his cause, it is useful to understand his approach toward the sacred three tenets of the French Republic: “Liberty, Fraternity and Equality.” Macron contends that “Equity” should replace the latter, giving citizens a stake in a society that has failed in its duty to provide equality.
This week Macron’s campaign has been buoyed by the announcement of an alliance with centrist politician Francois Bayrou. This has enabled him to move ahead of conservative candidate Francois Fillon. Pollsters have since reviewed their projections for his campaign, putting En Marche in the spotlight. Macron has effectively trumped France’s two-party system, running as an independent. Greeted by excited crowds, he has brought an element of excitement into the dull contest between the same old political faces that had been expected. As he tells his movement, which has attracted 200,000 members in less than a year, he wishes to “make France daring again.” His message is gaining ground.
Cyril whips out campaign posters to tell me how the contender hopes to cut regulation and “make France an important business hub, a hive of entrepreneurial activity.” Such announcements could not be more timely. French entrepreneurs struggle to sustain their business activities, swamped continually negotiating the 4,000-page Employment Law. Cyril protests, “it’s too much; it’s like a New York Fund Book, you can spend up to 50 percent of your time worrying about it if you are a small business owner.”
France needs economic overhaul. In recent years, government tax revenue has declined and consumer purchasing power has dwindled. Though policy-makers have attempted to modernize the economy, this has been a difficult process. The former Sarkozy government became deeply unpopular, largely due to its reform agenda. With a government budget deficit that is higher than the European average and low growth forecasts, the current Hollande government has failed both in restoring France’s public finances and in encouraging economic growth.
His campaign has been buoyed by the announcement of an alliance with centrist politician Francois Bayrou. This has enabled him to move ahead of conservative candidate Francois Fillon.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Cyril tells me this is where Macron’s pragmatism comes to the fore: “We are chocked by the unions.” Macron plans to circumvent France’s famously belligerent unions through plans to dilute them and focus on building company-specific organizations to secure workers’ rights. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and the Worker’s Force (FO) have greatly harmed economic productivity. Though they only represent 3-4 percent of the French workforce, their entrenched networks have caused great political agitation. Recently the subject of numerous judicial scandals concerning the misappropriation of funds, they have been singled out by Macron. Formerly an investment banker at Rothschild & Cie Banque and minister of economy, Macron has sought a more progressive attitude toward France’s finances. Co-founders of the En Marche include executives from Unibail-Rodamco, BNP Paribas and Safran and they share Macron’s vision to couple social liberalism with a dynamic fiscal plan for France. As Cyril ardently communicates to me, “This is not about causing disturbances; it’s about wages as well as creating employment and importantly giving back hope to the forgotten many who would otherwise succumb to populism.”
And France’s forgotten are numerous. According to the French National Institute for Statistics (INSEE), an estimated 5.3 million French citizens are foreign-born immigrants and 6.5 million are direct descendants of immigrants. Poorly integrated and sectioned off in ghetto-like social housing communities, they are considerably disillusioned. There is no doubt that France’s serious social issues account for it having the largest number of Daesh recruits in Europe. The presence of such a sizable minority has led to the growth of Le Pen’s National Front, seeking to “Make France for the French.”
Cyril’s enthusiasm is replaced with a look of profound concern as he tells me, “France is in the middle of a perfect storm; this is our last chance to put a divided nation back together.” He is right. The National Front has had unprecedented success in the first round of the presidential elections and they will continue to attract supporters should a viable alternative to France’s decaying political establishment not be offered. Macron has seized this opportunity to demand that discrimination is combated and that French citizens from all walks of life are represented in professional life. He attracted much attention in implicitly referring to France’s bitter war in Algeria (1954-62) as a “crime against humanity.” Such statements orientate him to France’s forgotten many, though the imperative for En Marche is to ensure the movement is inclusive and should Macron come to power that such outpourings are not merely campaign sound bites.
France is an old country and has a special character as a bastion of democracy and republicanism. It is incumbent upon the likes of Macron to provide a third way to rejig the economy, refresh the political establishment and repair a divided nation. As an ominous tide of populism sweeps over Europe, I ask Cyril whether Macron can compete with his progressive agenda, he assures me, “Macron’s movement stands for popular inclusion; he is not populist.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.