Sunday, 16 July 2017

Hail to the Chief!

Wikipedia tells us that Hail to the Chief is the official Presidential anthem of the United States “ that accompanies his appearance at many public events”. I did not watch enough of the traditional July 14 military parade this morning to know whether it was played to herald the arrival of Donald Trump as President Macron's guest of honour. Judging by the events of the last few days however, the anthem could be considered equally appropriate for Macron, who has chosen to put particular emphasis on acting like a Chief.

I wrote in my last post (The times they are a’changing - July 6) that the French Prime Minister’s first policy speech to parliament contained little detail and that its main thrust appeared to signal the postponement or watering down of most of the commitments in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential programme. Whether the President has had second thoughts since or whether he and the Prime Minister agreed beforehand on this particular strategy, Macron has now made it abundantly clear that he intends to implement all of his programme within more or less the original timetable, a change of tack that, if nothing else, makes him look decisive and not about to take the slippery slope that his predecessor, François Hollande slid down at an alarming rate after coming to power in 2012 and that largely handicapped his subsequent years in office.

The immediate effect of this show of decisiveness is to put public spending cuts back on the agenda for 2017 so that France can hit the fiscal deficit target of 3% by the end of the year and start cutting taxes next year. The theme of France’s economic and financial credibility is therefore once again in the front line, underscored by an interview given by the President to a French regional newspaper but also, significantly, to a number of German papers, on the eve of a Franco-German cabinet meeting and another discussion with Chancellor Merkl about the future of Europe.

Among the spending cuts decided is a reduction of €850 million in this year's  defence budget. This had not gone down well with the Chief of the General Staff, who complained bitterly about it to a parliamentary committee, drawing an immediate and very public rebuke from the President in a speech to top brass on the eve of the July 14 parade. “I am your Chief “, he said “and I have made a number of commitments to the French people that I intend to keep.” He went on to sugar the pill by promising an increase in the overall military budget next year and thereafter a steady increase, but the immediate impression, once again, was that the President was making a point of stamping his authority on the military just as he has on the Prime Minister and his government.

Many years ago, a British General whose name I no longer remember, offered the view in a TV programme that the French are a rebellious people who need a strong guiding hand to get things done. “And it usually ends up being a soldier”, he added. He was probably thinking of General de Gaulle, or further back, of Napoleon Bonaparte, both of whom had a decisive influence on the country and its history.  Emmanuel Macron has never been a soldier and was born too late for compulsory military service. But he too seems to have concluded that the French need their Chief to show the kind of authority that neither of his two predecessors displayed. Hollande never had much in the first place and Sarkozy wasted what little he had.

One commentator said this morning that there is a military theme running through many of Macron’s acts and policies so far, from naming his political party En Marche, usually translated as “On the Move” but could also be  “On the March”, to riding up the Champs Elysées in a military vehicle on his inauguration day, to taking a brief trip beneath the waves on a nuclear armed submarine, not to speak of his latest statements.  

If this is indeed the case, then we are likely to witness more, metaphorical, firework displays than were on offer on the evening of July 14, as protests and demonstrations in the autumn come up against Macron’s iron will to push through his reforms with the aid of his large parliamentary majority. This time next year we may be hailing the Chief once again, but I predict a bumpy ride between now and then!

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