Friday, 7 April 2017

Macron unplugged

Last night’s political talk show on France Televisions, the French pubic sector TV network, was a long awaited opportunity to find out more about Emmanuel Macron, his personality and his political programme. After Marine le Pen and François Fillon, Macron was taken through his paces and confronted for more than two hours with questions about his views on foreign policy, his economic programme, and above all, how he would deal with two of the most corrosive issues in French society, unemployment and globalisation.

Macron speaks fast and at times impetuously. An irritating little grin occasionally appears on his lips when he knows that he has scored a debating point, hinting at a sense of superiority, often noticed in young, high-flying French officials in whose mould he has been cast. Towards the end of the programme, asked exactly when he had decided to stand for President, both his words and his expression conveyed sincerity. The overall impression was of a clever and ambitious young man with a mission. French voters will now have a clearer idea of whether they wish to entrust him with that mission on May 7.

On the substantive issues, Macron’s foreign policy views, particularly on Syria, were not very different from France’s well-rehearsed positions: military intervention only under a UN mandate, followed by discussions “with all parties” to eject Bashar al-Assad, bring about regime change and fight Islamic State. All this of course has been overshadowed by the events reported this morning, but French presidential elections are not decided on foreign policy issues anyway.  His macro-economic programme, on which he was closely questioned by an economic journalist, quickly became a battle about technicalities and figures that generated far more heat than light. He did not come off well in a short discussion with an articulate history teacher who criticised him for describing, a few weeks ago, the French colonisation of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”. The exchange highlighted the fact, 60 years after the events, that the war in Algeria and its aftermath are still very much a fault line in French society.

However, on unemployment and globalisation, elements of his thinking became clearer and led me to conclude that if he were to be elected President on May 7, official policy on both would shift quite significantly.

Confronted with a militant trade unionist who took him to task for failing to support employees of a Whirlpool plant about to be moved to Poland, Macron retorted that it was pure demagogy for politicians to stand up on the back of a lorry and promise that the plant would be saved. It will not have escaped his listeners that François Hollande and his ministers did just that when Arcelor-Mittal announced the closure of a blast furnace in Lorraine a few years ago.  The plant was subsequently closed and its employees were understandably bitter. Paraphrasing the Schumpeterian maxim of creative destruction, Macron went on to say that while it was legitimate for the French government to demand that Whirlpool pay back state and local authority subsidies, ultimately it was not jobs but individuals who should be protected, particularly through re-training. In a discussion with a cab driver using the Uber app, complaining that he works long hours for low pay, Macron pointed out that there are many others in France, like small farmers, greengrocers and plumbers who also work long hours for low pay but that Uber drivers are better off having a job than having none.

To my knowledge, no politician has made these points so clearly before. The wider issue here of course is the impact on France of what has come to be known as the gig economy, of the “zero hours” contracts in the U.K or “minijobs” in Germany. Those in France who denounce these kinds of jobs fail to mention that they have made a big contribution to lowering unemployment. Conversely, those who are quick to point out that French unemployment is much higher than that of the U.K and Germany fail to mention that it is largely due to a much more flexible labour market than France has been willing to countenance so far. Macron clearly wants to persuade the French to change their attitudes and embrace more flexibility. Of course, France being France, it is unlikely to adopt the free-for-all of its neighbours and will always insist on the need for regulation and protection. But when all is said and done, Macron’s stance is a welcome departure from the fossilised, all or nothing, positions that have dominated this debate in France for too long. The Barcelona v. Uber case currently before the European Court of Justice should help to clarify, later this year, whether Uber can be considered simply as a digital platform, as it claims, or a transport company, subject to labour legislation on employees, as claimed by its detractors. Unsurprisingly, France is in the latter camp.

The other interesting highlight was the final debate between Macron and François Fillon’s right-hand man, Senator Bruno Retailleau. Dressed up as a criticism of Macron’s ministerial role in the fate of two French companies, Alcatel, sold to Finland’s’ Nokia and Alstom, a part of which was absorbed by GE, it was in effect a debate about the impact of globalisation and how far France can and should go in protecting its national champions. Faced with the accusation of selling French industrial interests down the river, Macron defended himself vigorously, rolled out all the reasons for his decisions and in doing so, it seemed to me, won the argument. The end of the debate shifted to the more emotionally charged issue of what it means to be French and descended, unfortunately, into a shouting match in which neither man, let alone the journalists trying to moderate the debate, could make himself heard. But I don’t think I was the only one to feel that, all of a sudden, Fillon’s representative looked tired, flustered and old-fashioned, as if long-held concepts, nurtured by a long-established politician, had suddenly been made to look a little stale by some fresh thinking from a new boy on the block.

I wrote in a previous post (“The meddling Mr. Macron”) that I had my doubts about Mr. Macron’s modernising credentials. His performance last night went some way to dispelling them. If, as polls are now suggesting, he contests the run-off with Marine Le Pen on May 7, I shall vote for him. In that configuration, I always would have done. Now, however, I shall do so a little more willingly.

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