The Great Malaise

by Ulrike Guérot

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)


It's astonishing how quickly a country’s mood can change: Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election in May 2017 and immediately a mood of optimism beset the country. “On attend Macron et puis on démarre,” a young Frenchman said before the elections, “We wait for Macron and then it starts.”  Particularly in Germany there was an almost naive joy at Macron’s election victory. Here was someone who seemed almost German in the way he was ready to do his economic homework (i.e. implement reforms). There was no great fear that something might still go wrong politically in France to cloud the picture. And that, although it is far from clear what Macron can actually do, this man who was only actually backed by 20 percent of the electorate in the second round of voting – in which there was a historically low turnout of 48 percent. The voters may have denied Marine Le Pen the Elysée, but that certainly doesn’t mean they chose Macron. In France, a "right-wing counterrevolution" has been stopped, but no more than that.

The enthusiasm that the French presidential election and Macron inspired in May 2017 can only be explained in light of France’s recent past. Here was a country that seemed utterly defeated and worn out. Yet, it was already clear last summer, despite getting off to a good start, that governing would prove difficult for Macron. Measures like cutting housing subsidies by 5 euros, freezing public officials’ wages and further deregulating labour laws have caused Macron’s popularity to plummet. The president, who in his memoirs likes to compare himself to the former French prime minister of the 1950s, Pierre Mendès France, as well as General de Gaulle, has not been able to benefit from successes like the tough handshake with Donald Trump, a brittle meeting with Vladimir Putin and pretty successful Syria talks.  The contradictions between his promise of the renewal of French civil society and modernisation of democracy and his "Napoleonic" behaviour are already emerging. But that is almost the least of his problems. The worst thing that can happen to Macron is a kind of Obama effect: We loved to see him win, but then we all saw him fail. Macron may not be able to avoid the same fate.

Many people feel that in recent years France has become a “police state in the making” and certainly the police presence in public spaces across the land has done little to change their minds. And it’s also not clear what exactly will become of Macron in light of an agenda that is far from easy: he has to fight unemployment, dismantle segregation in the suburbs and give some hope back to young people. For now the trade unions are keeping quiet, while industry is firing ahead and creating jobs like never before.  But will that be enough? The many who fret that Macron won’t manage to put right the deep ruptures in French society in just five years are joined by the many who don’t want him to achieve this at all. We must not forget that Macron has many opponents, despite his 65 percent electoral victory. France has its real rendezvous with history in 2022, at the next presidential elections.

The malaise that has blighted the country has been tangible to anyone who travelled through France. As early as 2010, the French sociologist Alain Ehrenberg was already talking in detail about French society’s “discontent.” European austerity policies had left their mark everywhere. Every public building, whether in Paris, Marseille, Grenoble or Nîmes, was literally lacking paint: universities, railway stations or hospitals. There has been great social unrest and there were many reasons for it. It was the 2,000 small theatre, jazz or music festivals, in Arles or Pau or Aix-en-Provence, which fell victim to cuts in the cultural budget at the height of the European crisis years. Or the approximately 500,000 industrial jobs, including at Renault's famous plant, which fell victim to deindustrialization between 2012 and 2013. Then in 2014 it was the closure of the slaughterhouses in Brittany. The protest movement "Bonnets Rouges" - alluding to the Jacobin cap of the French Revolution - raged in Brittany and sprayed red pointed caps on walls and roads. It didn't help. "L'implosion" or the falling apart of society, was a word that has often been muttered in France in recent years.

Macron's branding of France as a "start-up nation" can be traced back to this mood. Compared to the despair of the previous years, Macron's memoir seems both genuine and fresh: "Revolution. We fight for France." With much verve and a capital W for "We," this was about another France: technology and digital society, modernization and reform of the social security systems, renewal of cities, municipalities and public institutions through municipal territorial reform, investments in infrastructure, open eyes when it comes to globalization and finally standing up to terror, but without fear.

After all, the French sense of loss, the impression of losing its central place in European history, has been all the more painful in recent years, as Germany, its traditional tandem partner, has gained in stature since the 2009 euro crisis at the latest. This has dealt a fatal blow to the former symmetry of the "European engine": Germany turned out to be more successful while a flagging France ended up in the German passenger seat. The long-practiced mantras of Franco-German relations prohibited an open discussion of how unequal the old friends had become. Germany's economic boom, coupled with its growing political significance, is the real prism through which France's political process of decomposition is reflected.

In light of the issue of Macron's ability to reform, a book that explains the collapse of the French party system is causing a stir. According to the book, by economist Bruno Amable, this can be blamed on the so-called "bloc bourgeois." The French party system is no longer configured by a simple right-left system, but by a double matrix of "pro-EU" versus "sovereignist," which overlaps the right-left system. The reform-oriented, liberal forces of both camps - right and left - would find themselves in the pro-EU camp; the anti-liberal forces - right and left - in the so-called sovereignist camp. As a result the political struggle in France is no longer structured according left or right but is based on the parties’ position towards Europe - more precisely: the position towards a competition-oriented, liberal euro reform policy.

The key part of this analysis is the allocation of social voter strata: The upper, i.e. better earning, strata from both the right and left are assigned to the liberal pro-EU camp. The socially worse-off strata - from the right the farmers, craftsmen and small businessmen in the countryside, from the left the blue-collar workers - belong to the sovereignist bloc. Each of the two classic political camps had, as it were, abandoned their own lower strata in order to be able to pursue a liberal European policy. The balanced mediation of the interests of various social groups and the institutionalization of conflicts has not been successful in France for decades. The presidential system in France forces polarization, while Germany's parliamentary system has been able to cushion similar effects via the left-right “grand” coalitions.

The pro-European right in France, Nicolas Sarkozy's party, had structurally implemented a policy that favoured business owners and senior executives, "les cadres," who were quite happy with labour market reforms and pro-competition elements, while the grassroots supporters of the former Gaullist party, the small craftsmen and "petits commerçants," had been struggling since 2004 with European deregulation, such as the Bolkestein Directive on the regulation of services in the domestic market or the free movement of Eastern European migrant workers. François Fillon's ultra-liberal electoral programme for the 2017 presidential elections is exemplary of a French right that has bid farewell to all the dirigisme and state budgetism à la De Gaulle that had long characterised the traditional Gaullist party, at the expense of its own less well-off voters. It was the delayed but gradual shift from national-social to national-neo-liberal that saw the Gaullists rush to meet the demands of the 40 top listed companies on the CAC French stock exchange.

But the moderate French left, "la deuxième gauche," as it is called in France, also turned its back on its own voter base, the French working class, just as the right had abandoned its grassroots supporters. The centre-left now sought supporters from among the civil servants and the cultural classes - and favoured a milieu that was marked by progressive values. With biting cynicism, Amable describes how the Parti socialiste under Hollande officially distanced itself from the French working class as a core clientele from about 2012.

The party strategists diagnosed that their traditional voters had either fled into abstentionism or to the Front National, and justified this ex cathedra by saying that the Parti socialiste could unfortunately no longer take care of a working class that was nationally narrow-minded and had authoritarian values, since they no longer accepted the party’s liberal-European canon of values. The social division of the party was redefined as a cultural one. According to this analysis, Macron stands for the bloc bourgeois, but can only fail without a social basis. His electoral victory is based on the fragile support of 20 percent of the better-off French voters.

Against this backdrop, his European projects are gaining in importance, particularly as France is in a race against time. Macron must win over part of the French left, succeed in a reform agenda, and he needs a European framework to do so. He has already shared his ideas in various papers and speeches, either his own or via the French EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, who has presented plans for the reform of the Eurozone. None of this is new or heretical: they are the core elements for a real economic and monetary union, i.e. steps towards a budgetary, fiscal and political union, as proposed by the five presidents of the EU as early as 2012 - and then again in diluted form in 2015 – steps that have been postponed for years.

Today, the plans circulate under the headings of Eurozone Finance Minister, Budget Capacity for the Eurozone (i.e. a common budget for the euro countries) and its parliamentarisation in order to be able to vote on projects such as a European Unemployment Insurance Scheme, which has been on the table since 2014, on a different basis of legitimacy. A French team of authors led by economist Thomas Piketty and sociologist Antoine Vauchez has developed concrete proposals that take into account the German Constitutional Court’s criticism of the European Parliament's legitimation structures. Their "Draft Treaty on a Democratization of Europe" has now also been published in German. The authors propose a redesigned prorata chamber of national parliamentarians that could decide on a euro budget on the basis of this new input legitimacy. This would mean that as elected members of parliament they would have a mandate to pass a budget. The Eurozone would be deprived of its technocratic structure. It would be a first and probably the best step to give Macron a social basis for his domestic reform path, which would then be visibly embedded in Europe. 

Wenn Macron den deutschen Handschlag dafür indes nicht bekommt, dann wird Frankreich 2022 möglicherweise von sechzig Prozent national-neoliberalen Faschisten regiert, die dann, wie Bertolt Brecht sagen würde, im Anzug und nicht mit Marine Le Pen durch die Tür kommen und deren autoritäre Versuchung schon jetzt messbar ist. Die »vierte Rechte« in Frankreich, eine Bündelung des rechts-liberalen Lagers der Republikaner um François Fillon (die Macron nicht in seine Regierung eingebunden hat), der orthodoxen Katholiken um Christine Boutin und ihrer »sens commun«-Bewegung sowie eines reformierten und umgetauften Front National mit all seinen verschiedenen Einspeisungen, ist in Frankreich längst im Entstehen und die Eroberung des Kleinbürgertums wird nicht ihr Problem sein. Anders formuliert: Europa wird sozial oder Frankreich wird national. Und Deutschland hat die Wahl

But if Macron doesn't get the German go ahead for this, then from 2022 France will possibly be ruled by the 60 percent of national-neoliberal fascists. Their authoritarian tendencies are already measurable. The "fourth right" in France, a bundling of the right-liberal camp of the Republicans around François Fillon (whom Macron did not include in his government), the orthodox Catholics around Christine Boutin and her "sens commun" movement as well as a reformed and renamed Front National with all its different sub-groups, has long been in the making in France and they will have little problem winning over the petty bourgeoisie. In other words: Europe will become social or France will become national. The choice is Germany’s.



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