Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Macron through the media spyglass

Having studiously avoided the kind of chumminess with journalists in which his two predecessors indulged with gusto, it could only be a matter of time before President Macron submitted himself to a set piece interview on prime time television as he did on Sunday night. Having watched it from beginning to end, my overriding impression was that neither Macron nor the media have changed much since the election in May.

Although the three journalists who questioned the President are among the most respected in their profession, none escaped the temptation of picking on the trivia of Macron’s first months in power. The tough language that he sometimes uses, we are told by the media and opinion polls, is what French people are most interested in.  His words however are often taken out of context. In a recent speech to the French expatriate community in Athens, for example, the President said:  “I am absolutely determined (to defend democracy and peace in Europe) and I shall yield nothing to cynics, slackers or extremists.” (“Je serai d'une détermination absolue et je ne cèderai rien ni aux fainéants,ni aux cyniques, ni aux extremes”). Although he was not referring directly to the reforms underway in France, the words, quoted out of context, were taken by the media to refer to his opponents, particularly the unions. More directly, in an unguarded moment during a recent visit to a centre for apprentices, Macron said that former employees of a doomed factory who were demonstrating outside, should “go out and look for work rather than stir up trouble” (a milder version of the colourful French expression: “foutre le bordel”) Lumping these two totally different utterances together, the journalists were eager to know whether he was intending to be insulting. Did he understand that many French people apparently did feel insulted or humiliated?  Macron remained calm, countered that he was not afraid of saying what he meant nor of expressing his thoughts forcibly. He made no apologies, apart from saying that he had the greatest respect for the French people.

Was he the President of the rich then, as many in the media and the opposition have tried to make out, after the announced emasculation of the wealth tax, now being debated in parliament? No, Macron said, he was not. The French would do well, he continued, to stop being jealous of success, financial or otherwise, that he preferred to see successful French entrepreneurs remain in the country, invest their wealth and create jobs rather than leave for more temperate tax jurisdictions, as many have already done. The facts would appear to bear him out. And, as some commentators have pointed out, the wealth tax, even in its best years, was largely symbolic anyway. By proposing to exclude financial assets from it, as well as introducing a 30% flat tax on all financial income, France is only returning to a level of taxation that prevailed before the big increases introduced by the previous administration. Macron, it would appear, is willing to invest some of his own political capital in telling the unvarnished truth, in an attempt perhaps to puncture some of the country’s more toxic myths and symbols. For even without a fully-fledged wealth tax, France is still, and will probably remain, one of the countries with the highest overall levels of taxation in the EU, itself an area of high taxation compared to the rest of the world.

On Monday the media were telling us that Macron had not convinced a majority of viewers about his reforms. That being said, five months into his presidency, he said very little that he had not said before: give a larger degree of freedom to successful individuals and businesses that create wealth and jobs, while targeting those who need most support and protecting the weakest and most vulnerable in society.  Against the background of an extremely complex and multifaceted system of social safety nets, many details of course have yet to be worked out. Some of them are only now starting to take shape and Macron briefly sketched them out:  upgrading the status of apprenticeships and increasing the number of apprentices; giving serious vocational training to those most in need of it, the under-qualified and long-term unemployed, very often the same people, rather than sprinkling resources over a variety of largely cosmetic short-term training courses; building more social housing by forcing social housing offices to stop hoarding the comfortable surpluses that some have accumulated and use them instead to build more housing units and lower rents, rather than supporting the upward spiral of rents by continuing to hand out large subsidies to tenants.

In all this, Macron continues to show “both a single mindedness and an inner solemnity” that Sophie Pedder aptly described in her recent special report on France for “The Economist” (September 30th). Macron was solemn, as he always has been, in his view of his mission to bring about a profound transformation of the country and his resolve not be put off by the current dip in his popularity ratings. Single-minded too in his oft-repeated mantra that people rather than jobs should to be protected and that they must be made fit to compete in a global economy that is changing a lot faster than old Europe in general and France in particular.

Questioned about how long it would take for this vision and its associated policies to produce visible results  (and not just a fall in unemployment, the yardstick by which François Hollande chose, unwisely, to be judged) he answered that it would take at least 18 months to two years.  

On the basis of Sunday’s interview therefore, it seems fairly safe to assume that Macron will continue to pursue his single-minded path and that, for the time being at least, the media will continue to see things through the small end of their spyglass.  One can only hope that within two years both will start to see the emergence of a bigger picture.

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