Macron: neocapitalist, digital, authoritarian

Outside France, President Emmanuel Macron is probably viewed in a positive light: young, brilliant, a stark contrast to the grievous presidency of the ‘socialist’ François Hollande. After rising to power in France in May 2017, Macron has earned wide appeal beyond his own borders. When on 1 June 2017 Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Macron retorted with a rousing tweet: ‘Make our planet great again.’ The message was retweeted more than 288,000 times, admittedly well below the record set by Barack Obama in 2012 with 900,000 retweets, (1) but enough to provide the newly appointed president with a remarkable entrance onto the international stage.

Macron is not just an excellent communicator; he is also a skilful politician. As a senior civil servant, he rapidly caught the attention of rich, powerful old men to whom he appealed intellectually, as described in the best biography written about him. (2)  His lucrative deals at Banque Rothschild made him a wealthy man before he was invited to join President François Hollande’s cabinet in 2012, and promoted to Minister of the Economy in 2014. Such rapid ascent is a mark of rare talent. (3)

This talent is complemented by his just as assured political savvy and appetite for risk: observing the dwindling credibility of President Hollande and the French Socialist party (PS)—labelled left while implementing a brutal neoliberal policy, Macron made the risky move of quitting the government in 2016 and established his own movement, En Marche. He also shrewdly analysed the weakness of the political right. A series of lucky breaks further benefited the undaunted politician: Hollande did not stand for the presidential elections in 2017, leaving a gaping hole on the left, while second fiddle François Fillon won the conservative leadership but was ejected from the presidential race due to various financial misdeeds. Macron was, therefore, able to position himself in the centre of the playing field, elbowing Fillon and Marine Le Pen, the far right’s candidate, to the right, and Mélenchon (of party La France Insoumise) and a socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, marginalised by his own party, to the left. In the second round, Macron easily defeated Le Pen.

1. Domestic policy in France after Macron’s victory

Macron’s victory has prompted an extensive restructuring of French politics, the main effect of which has been the collapse of social democracy. The Socialist party, which represented this movement, had been one of the two major players in politics since 1981, often the dominant one. But owing to its increasingly precipitous slide towards full-blown neoliberal politics, the Socialist party ultimately left a bad taste in its electorate’s mouths, who took refuge either in abstention, or by voting for La France Insoumise or Macron. At the same time, the conservative party (which has often changed name, and is currently known as ‘The Republicans’), stuck between the Socialist party, applying its de facto economic policy, and the increasingly popular far right, was in gradual decline. To the extent that the two-party system that had dominated the machinery of power in France for the previous 50 years gave way to an unstable triangulation: the much-weakened left (La France Insoumise was unsuccessful in reclaiming all the former socialist voters); a right increasingly attracted to the far-right’s theme of identifying the country’s main problem as immigration; and the centre, occupied by Macron. However, Macron’s government lacks a stable social base and is slipping, as we shall see, towards authoritarian neoliberal politics designed to absorb the conservative electorate.

Two other new factors are worth mentioning. Firstly, the collapse of the French Green party. This is a specific characteristic of France and Germany, where environmentalists are represented by a political party. But unlike Germany, where the electoral system allowed the Grünen into parliament and occasionally into power at a federal level and in some Länder (federal states), in France the majority electoral system prevented the Parti Écologiste (despite winning up to 20% of the vote) from getting into parliament. So it was obliged to join forces. Having chosen to pursue a long-dated alliance with the French Socialist party, it was drawn with it into the debacle.

The other major factor is the strength of the far right, represented by Rassemblement National (the new name adopted in 2018 to replace Front National). Although Le Pen lost against Macron, she was nevertheless his primary adversary and reached the second round of the presidential elections, taking 34% of votes.

2. All power to the president

But the French political system, established in 1958 in a context of great political instability, gives the winning party disproportionate clout in ruling institutions. This means the Front National has just eight deputies out of 577, despite obtaining 6.29% of the vote in the first round of the legislative elections in 2017 (marked by a high abstention rate). Meanwhile, Macron’s movement, En Marche, obtained 306 seats with just 13.44% of votes in the first round! (4)

This handed Macron the presidency (which in France comes with extensive powers), along with a majority in France’s National Assembly, a splintered and unstable opposition, and a favourable press. In France, 10 billionaires whose views closely align with Macron’s—unless Macron closely aligns with them—own 90% of the national dailies and control television channels and radio stations that make up 55% and 40% respectively of the national audience share. (5)

This absolute reign is the reason for Macron’s air of unapologetic self-importance. In 2015, he explained that ‘in French politics, this absence is the figure of a king, a king whom, fundamentally, I don’t think the French people wanted dead.’ (6) The president is careful to cultivate a monarchic image for his role, which he says should be ‘Jupiterian’, (7) in other words distanced from the people and from everyday life. Incidentally, this is reflected in his luxury tastes, such as the dinner service he ordered for the Élysée Palace at a cost of €500,000, (8) or his use of the presidential plane for a 110 km flight. (9)

He also displays, like the class he represents, a barely unconscious contempt of the poor or weak. Macron likens the rich to the leaders of a climbing group whereby ‘if you start throwing stones at the lead climbers, the whole party will plummet.’  (10) In his view, ‘young French people should want to become billionaires.’ (11) He thinks there are people ‘who are nothing’: ‘a train station is a place where you come across people who are successful, and people who are nothing.’ (12) And he thinks poor people are responsible for their situation: ‘we must empower people to get out of poverty.’ (13)

3. Neoliberal, or Thatcherite, politics

In fact, Macron’s government is implementing a policy which, in the name of ‘transforming’ France, is deeply rooted in neoliberalism. In other words, reducing taxation for the wealthiest and businesses, on the one hand, while cutting social services on the other. Among measures taken during the first year of his presidency were the removal of the solidarity tax on wealth (Impôt de solidarité sur la fortune); the end of taxes on dividends and high salaries, and capping capital gains tax. Inversely, individual housing benefit (for the poorest) was reduced; 260,000 state-aided work contracts in the charity and social sector were terminated, and retirement pensions were frozen while contributions were raised. Lucas Chancel, an economist specialising in inequality, noted that ‘capital gains tax is now lower than income tax!’ (14)

A ruling on the reform of employment law has completed the work started by Hollande in 2016. The idea is simple: to ‘flexibilise’ the workforce, according to the doctrine of the OECD or the IMF, by making it easier to lay off employees and reduce the powers of workers’ representatives.

‘There is no other choice,’ Macron told the US magazine, Forbes, (15) just like Margaret Thatcher who, in her day, explained, ‘there is no alternative.’ And as Thatcher fought the powerful miners’ union, so Macron went head to head with the rail workers’ unions through a reform to privatise the national rail company, SNCF. By mid-2018 he had succeeded, weakening all the unions and paving the way for further privatisations.

4. Anti-environment policy

When it comes to the environment, Macron practises doublespeak. Following on from his ‘make the planet great again’ pledge, he is presenting himself as a leader in the fight against climate change. And he made a successful play to bring into his government Nicolas Hulot, a well-known environmentalist in France whose media profile serves as a valuable endorsement. Yet Macron’s apparent stance on the environment belies his actions. He has given the go-ahead for many new motorway projects; accepted free-trade agreements such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA); backed property developments that encroach on agricultural land; loosened environmental standards relating to natural areas; slashed the budget of the environment ministry and environmental protection agencies, and continued to support nuclear energy. These actions have not been sufficiently offset by useful measures such as aligning tax rates on diesel with petrol; abandoning plans to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, or efforts to promote organic food in school canteens and other institutions. In a factual analysis of 36 important measures affecting the environment implemented since May 2017, the green news website, Reporterre, claims that 25 are damaging and 11 are positive. (16)

5. Planning for change: the unequivocal acceptance of the ‘new digital world’

But the environment is of little interest to Macron. For him, the big issue of the century lies elsewhere: ‘we are at the very beginning of a huge transformation globally due to digital change, digital disruption, with now the emergence of artificial intelligence.’ (17) So as the world undergoes a transformation, perceived as inexorable, due to technology, robotics, computers and artificial intelligence, there is no choice but to adapt and position oneself at the forefront of this technological revolution. ‘We will promote a state adapted to the 21st century: digital, innovative and inclusive. […] The state must become digital,’ Macron said during one of his first appearances as president, which was at a technology trade show. (18) Everything must be done to support this change: develop artificial intelligence, bring schools ‘into the digital era,’ and ‘free’ society from its shackles to encourage new business. Macron wants to turn France into a ‘start-up nation’ where the ‘lead climbers’ will invent new technologies to safeguard the nation’s power in the future.

His approach is typical of the current evolution in capitalist ideology. In effect, the combination of the environmental crisis and the resources crisis implies that economic growth has hit a ceiling. The leading classes are trying to avoid this ceiling at all costs because, without growth, there will be no rise, even minimal, in the average standard of living. This will lead to untenable inequality and the risk of social disorder.

In the face of this wall, the strategy has changed. On the one hand, the neoliberal way is being reinforced by continuing to extend free trade to all areas of the economy, not only by reducing tariffs, but above all by standardising technological, health, environmental and legal norms. And, at the same time, by imposing the pursuit of ‘structural reforms’ that aim to level workers’ statuses and protection throughout the world, to promote ‘competitiveness’.

On the other hand, the focus is now fully on technology to solve today’s problems, by fighting climate change through the wide distribution of new energies and geo-engineering. GMOs will provide the solution to farming problems, while innovation will relaunch growth in a great fusion of nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, IT, smart devices, robotics, intelligent networks and more. Factories will function without humans, cars will be self-driving, software will make our decisions for us, and we will go to Mars. The new world is on its way.
For those leading the way—such as Larry Page, co-founder of Google, Elon Musk, president of Tesla, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal—we are moving towards humanity 2.0, where the capacity of the human body will be transformed by technology, and we will reach ‘technological singularity’: the point when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, heralding a new era in civilisation. From this perspective, the ‘poor’, or ‘those who are nothing’, scarcely have a place: inequality is not only permitted, it is seen as stimulating the ‘best’ in their conquest of new technological horizons.´

6. An authoritarian regime

An obstacle to this strategy, defined by the objective of continuously increasing the privileges and interests of the leading classes, is that the inequality on which it is founded will become more untenable as tensions engendered by the environmental crisis increase. The upsurge in global migration is the most visible symptom of this. Which is why, for more than 15 years, capitalism has pursued an authoritarian agenda that is gradually abandoning the democratic mechanisms and public freedoms it claimed as its own when it was up against its Soviet rival.

Here too Macron is a good marker of the general evolution of capitalism. We must ‘put a stop to legislative chatter,’ he wrote in his programme book of 2016. (19) And, although his comfortable majority in parliament is of very little worry to him, he is constantly limiting opportunities for debate among deputies. The government systematically resorts to a fast-track approach to examining bills, practises the package vote (a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ vote on a package of select articles and amendments) and uses ordinances. In brief, it deploys a panoply of instruments that favour the executive in the French constitution in order to restrict parliamentary debate and be ‘efficient’—to employ one of Macron's favourite words. One of the principal measures of constitutional reform he intends to have adopted is to limit the number of possible amendments by deputies.

The restriction of parliamentary control is just one aspect of a repressive policy that notably included the adoption, in October 2017, of a law on ‘domestic security’, extending the powers granted to police following the Paris attacks in 2015. In spring 2018, parliament adopted, without protest, the law on ‘business secrecy’ proposed by the government, which notably gives large companies permission to sue media titles that reveal information judged to be confidential in business terms, which could cover almost every aspect of an enterprise’s activity. The media is already largely in the hands of the powerful, but that is not enough for the oligarchical leadership.

Authoritarianism can also be seen in the licence granted to the increasingly repressive police force. While the number of civil servants is set to decline, the government has promised to hire 10,000 new police officers over the next five years. And it is continuing the trend of police violence, seen among its predecessors, targeting residents of poorer districts, environmental and union militants, and demonstrators themselves as we are witnessing more and more. The newspapers are littered with stories of deaths of young immigrants, or wounded victims—including several journalists—of ‘law enforcement’ officers who liberally use weapons that are outlawed in many other European countries, such as explosive grenades and Flash-Balls. A detailed enquiry ascertained that, over a period of 40 years, 478 people have died in France at the hands of the police. (20) Two extremely violent acts of repression have also taken place against environmental protesters: one on 15 August 2017 during a demonstration against the burying of nuclear waste, the second in April and May 2018 against the long-term occupants of a rural site, who were protesting at plans to build an airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Military resources were deployed in the commune, leaving 272 members of the public wounded, 10 with serious injuries. (21)

At the end of the day, Macron has the smiling facade of a hard and dangerous politician. He is a direct descendent of Margaret Thatcher, a lineage to which he is adding his new capitalist ‘story’ of quasi-autonomous technology that will provide the stepping stone to humanity 2.0. Contempt for the poor, destruction of the biosphere, repression of his opponents.

About the author: Hervé Kempf is editor-in-chief of Reporterre, the environmental news website (www.reporterre.net). He has written several books including How the Rich are Destroying the Earth (Green Books), a best-seller that has been translated into several languages, and which examines social issues and the environmental crisis. (22)

Translation: Marta Scott and Justin Hillier (lingua•trans•fair)

Bibliography

(1) France Info and AFP, ‘“Make our planet great again”: Macron bat le record d’Hanouna sur Twitter’, 2 June 2017, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/environnement/retrait-americain-de-l-accord-de-paris/make-our-planet-great-again-macron-bat-le-record-d-hanouna-sur-twitter_2219229.html.
(2) Marc Enderweld, L’ambigu Monsieur Macron, Flammarion, 2015.
(3) Ministry of the Interior, ‘Résultats des élections législatives 2017’, 11 and 18 June 2017, https://www.interieur.gouv.fr/Elections/Les-resultats/Legislatives/elecresult__legislatives-2017/(path)/legislatives-2017/FE.html.
(4) Agnès Rousseaux, ‘Le pouvoir d’influence délirant des dix milliardaires qui possèdent la presse française’, 5 April 2017, https://www.bastamag.net/Le-pouvoir-d-influence-delirant-des-dix-milliardaires-qui-possedent-la-presse and Jérémie Fabre, Marie Beyer, ‘Médias français: qui possède quoi ?’, 23 January 2018, http://www.acrimed.org/Medias-francais-qui-possede-quoi.
(5) Sébastien Tronche, ‘Pour Emmanuel Macron, il manque un roi à la France’, 8 July 2015, http://lelab.europe1.fr/pour-emmanuel-macron-il-manque-un-roi-a-la-france-1365792.
(6) Challenges.fr, ‘Macron ne croit pas “au président normal, cela déstabilise les Français”’, 16 October 2016, https://www.challenges.fr/election-presidentielle-2017/interview-exclusive-d-emmanuel-macron-je-ne-crois-pas-au-president-normal_432886.
(7) H. B., ‘L’Élysée aurait dépensé 500.000 euros... pour un nouveau service de vaisselle’, 13 June 2018, https://www.20minutes.fr/politique/2289303-20180613-elysee-depense-500000-euros-nouveau-service-vaisselle and Le canard Enchaîné, ‘La une du 13 juin 2018’, 13 June 2018, https://www.lecanardenchaine.fr/la-une-du-13-juin-2018.
(8) Jérémy trottin with A. K., ‘Emmanuel Macron utilise le Falcon présidentiel pour un déplacement de 110 kilomètres’, 14 June 2018, https://www.bfmtv.com/politique/emmanuel-macron-utilise-le-falcon-presidentiel-pour-un-deplacement-de-110-kilometres-1471072.html and Marine Laugénie, Pierre Emparan, ‘Emmanuel Macron utilise le Falcon présidentiel pour un déplacement de 110 kilomètres’, s. d., https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/politique/emmanuel-macron-utilise-le-falcon-presidentiel-pour-un-deplacement-de-110-kilometres-1529039838.
(9) On TF1, 15 October 2017. Europe1, ‘Revivez la première interview télévisée du président Macron’, 15 October 2017, http://www.europe1.fr/politique/en-direct-suivez-la-premiere-interview-televisee-demmanuel-macron-3464882.
(10) LePoint.fr (source: AFP), ‘Emmanuel Macron, la petite phrase qui défraie la chronique’, 7 January 2015, http://www.lepoint.fr/politique/emmanuel-macron-la-petite-phrase-qui-defraye-la-chronique-07-01-2015-1894616_20.php.
(11) Statement made on 29 June 2017, cf. Le Scan Politique, ‘Emmanuel Macron évoque les “gens qui ne sont rien” et suscite les critiques’, 3 July 2017, http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/le-scan/2017/07/02/25001-20170702ARTFIG00098-emmanuel-macron-evoque-les-gens-qui-ne-sont-rien-et-suscite-les-critiques.php.
(12) https://twitter.com/SibNdiaye/status/1006664614619308033.
(13)Michel Soudais, ‘Sur un malentendu… ça ne peut pas marcher’, Politis, 4 May 2018.
(14) Hervé Kempf, ‘Lucas Chancel: “Plus on est riche, plus on pollue”’, 13 June 2018, https://reporterre.net/14988.
(15) ‘French President Macron says he will end France’s notorious “exit tax”’, Forbes, 1 May 2018.
(16) Camille Martin, ‘Nicolas Hulot vu par le HulotScope: un très léger mieux’, 6 July 2018, https://reporterre.net/15000.
(17) ‘French President Macron says he will end France’s notorious “exit tax”’, Forbes, 1 May 2018.
(18) ‘Le petit Macron illustré’, Politis, 4 May 2018.
(19) Emmanuel Macron, Révolution, XO Éditions, 2016, p. 255.
(20) BastaMag database, https://bastamag.net/webdocs/police.
(21) ‘Communiqué de presse de l’équipe médic de la zad et du collectif de soignantes mobilisées par rapport aux expulsions sur le site de NDDL, 19 avril 2018’, 20 April 2018, https://zad.nadir.org/spip.php?article5633.
(22) http://www.greenbooks.co.uk/Book/117/How-the-Rich-are-Destroying-the-Earth.html.

capitalism, Europe, international relations, neoliberalism, Paris