A new book equates the French president’s rise to a revolution. For much of France’s working and middle classes, it has been nothing short of a disaster.
Last September, French President Emmanuel Macron met an unassuming gardener on the grounds of the Élysée Palace. Introducing himself, the 25-year-old timidly explained that he was having trouble finding work. “I send résumés and cover letters… they don’t lead to anything,” he told the president. Many people in France can relate: The country’s unemployment rate hovers just below 9 percent, more than two points above the European Union average. The joblessness rate, meanwhile, is more than twice that for young people age 15 to 24.
Macron’s reaction, however, was less than sympathetic—almost as if he were hearing this problem for the very first time and wasn’t all that convinced of its seriousness. “If you’re willing and motivated, in hotels, cafés, and restaurants, construction, there’s not a single place I go where they don’t say they’re looking for people!” he exclaimed. Then he added, “If I crossed the street, I’d find you one.”
The exchange only added to Macron’s long list of comically arrogant and out-of-touch utterances, both before and after he took office in May 2017. Along with his policies, which include tax cuts for the ultrarich, a decrease in low-income housing aid, and labor “reforms” that make it easier to lay off workers, these Macronisms have fueled the former investment banker’s image as “president of the rich.” Among the growing list: In 2016, while still serving as minister of the economy under François Hollande, Macron informed a young demonstrator that he wasn’t scared by his T-shirt and told him that he should get to work so he could “afford a suit”; in 2017, Macron described train stations as spaces filled with “people who succeed and people who are nothing”; and, later that same year, he dismissed tens of thousands of union-backed protesters as “lazy.”
Only the most fervent of the president’s supporters would deny that Macron has come to be viewed by many as an avatar for the country’s elites. A recent poll found that he had an approval rating of just 30 percent—down more than 30 points since his election two years ago. The Yellow Vest protests, which erupted late last year and continue today with broad support, have come to embody the intensity of public resentment against Macron. While a chorus of prominent fans continues to cheer him on from abroad, true believers are increasingly hard to find in France itself.
Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief of The Economist, is one of them. Her new book, Revolution Française, is for this reason not very helpful for understanding Macron’s presidency and its limits. But it is useful for understanding his own self-perceptions, as well as the reasons why an ever-diminishing share of European and American liberals still support and admire him.
Pedder is perhaps best known in France for her previous book, French Denial: The Last Spoiled Children of Europe, which was published in France in the aftermath of Hollande’s 2012 election victory. It’s a nasty polemic against the country’s welfare state and relatively pro-worker labor laws, both of which Pedder sees as outmoded and irresponsible in an increasingly globalized world. With the ascension of Macron, Pedder found someone she could finally cheer: a politician willing to loosen workforce regulations and transform France into a “start-up nation.”
Pedder divides her book into two sections. The first traces Macron’s spectacular rise and the circumstances that made it possible; the second turns toward his political project and his brief time in office. Journalists can often be enthusiastic about their subjects, but in the book’s second section, Pedder takes her enthusiasm to a new level. For her, Macron’s presidency is, as the book’s title suggests, nothing short of a revolution. For much of France’s working and middle classes, however, Macron’s tenure thus far has been a source of frustration, disappointment, and anger—and his remaining three years in office promise more of the same.
Macron was born in Amiens, a small city in northern France that was once a hub for textile production and has struggled since the 1970s with industrial job loss. The city’s history, however, seems to have had little effect on Macron’s upbringing. The son of well-off doctors, he was raised in an upper-middle-class home and attended a private Catholic school. At 17, Macron set out on what Pedder calls a “quest for total liberty”—a quest that led him to enroll in an elite prep school; then Sciences Po, the elite Parisian university focused on politics; then the Université Paris Nanterre, where he studied philosophy; and finally the École Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for the country’s political elite.
After graduating from the ENA in 2004, Macron took a job with the Inspection Générale des Finances, a key state auditing corps based in the finance ministry. After four years, he left that position for the private sector, taking a lucrative gig at the Rothschild & Cie investment bank. Leveraging his impressive list of contacts, the man whom Pedder describes as being guided by “liberty, the sense of possibility, and the freedom to be different” ultimately pocketed over €1 million (post-taxes) for four years of work.
In 2012, Macron transitioned back into the public sector, becoming deputy secretary-general for Hollande, the newly elected Socialist president. But Hollande clashed repeatedly with his minister of the economy, Arnaud Montebourg—a protectionist-leaning Socialist and a well-established critic of austerity—and eventually replaced him with the then largely unknown Macron.
From his new seat of power, the former banker oversaw a modest but hotly contested labor-law reform that allowed more work on Sundays. But he also left little clue as to his broader political vision. When Macron finally announced his presidential campaign in November 2016, he was still seen as something of a long shot—and, for French journalists and voters, mostly a political mystery. Touting a mix of social liberalism and pro-business economic reform, the candidate didn’t even release a detailed platform until less than eight weeks before the first round of voting. [ . . . ]
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