Emmanuel Macron has captured the imaginations of many outside of France over the last few months. His second round Presidential run-off with Marine le Pen in May was seen by many as an existential crisis for the European Union. There was a collective sigh of relief across Europe when it was announced that he had won quite comfortably (the final vote was 66% v 34%). During the campaign, his policies and manifesto were given a bit of a free pass as many people simply wanted Le Pen as far away from the presidency as possible. He then won a comfortable majority in the Parliament a month later to consolidate his power.
His campaign slogan “En Marche!” (Onwards!) sounded very upbeat and dynamic but gave little indication of his views on the current state of France and his aims to change it. That’s why in the weeks after his election in mid-May I wrote a piece here where I was quite critical of Macron. The criticism was more to do with the lack of substance in his campaign, I compared it to Leo Varadkar’s in Ireland.
He did publish a manifesto, which I was able to find an English version of, which to me seemed quite similar to many of the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party in 2012. Sarkozy, who lost out to Francois Hollande that year, did run again for the Republican party nomination for 2017 but was defeated in the first round.
The goals mentioned in the manifesto included cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corporate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. He also intended to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all which includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
After just over 100 days, Macron has now announced his plan for transforming French labour laws, which are captured in the Code du Travail, a broad piece of legislation which encompasses nearly all aspects of French working life. This comes on the back of suffering the largest drop in popularity for a French President in a single month in July (from 64% to 54%) since Jacques Chirac in 1995. It does seem as if the French public have gotten a little bit sick of hearing “Onwards!” without seeing any actual progress.
Macron issued five decrees on Thursday which will dramatically overhaul elements of the Code du Travail. They have reported across media outlets and I won’t go into detail on them here.
This is going to be his first major test. Former presidents have crashed against the great cliffs of French labour and have been broken. Even Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor and a member of the Socialist party, experienced major civil unrest last summer when he tried to initiate reforms. Macron has the benefit of a fresh start and a clear, if shrinking, mandate. He has shrewdly issued these as presidential decrees , which should expedite the process. So far most of the Unions’ reactions have been measured. Only the CGT has called for a day of action. In hindsight, Macron’s plan of a ‘100 meetings’ looks to have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the more combative Union elements.
I think the ramifications of whether Macron can succeed will reverberate across the European Union. If he is able to successfully implement an overhaul of the domestic labour system without sending tens of thousands to the streets , he will emerge with a renewed vigour and confidence.
If he can further consolidate his position at home, he will be able to focus more on internationally. If the polls are accurate (for once) and Angela Merkel also has a comfortable victory in the German Federal elections, Europe will see an emboldened and aggressive Franco-German axis leading the conversations and policy direction of the European Union. Macron has been involved in both Brexit negotiations and talks for a more integrated European financial system (for the Irish out there this means one corporate tax rate). While Brexit negotiations have been well covered by the press, the talks over the latter have been progressing discreetly behind the scenes. While the world watches the escalation of the North Korean crisis (I still believe an agreement will ultimately be brokered by China), real impact in European’s daily lives could be a lot more impacted by whether the French finally accept some changes to the long lasting Code du Travail.