Emmanuel Macron was inaugurated President this Sunday in a typically French affair; France may have abandoned monarchism 146 years ago, but pomp and circumstance are still wedded to the French state and its understanding of itself. The comparisons with Napoleon I have come quickly, if subtly, ranging from his age, to his grand vision for France. And like Napoleon I, President Macron has lost no time in making his opening moves. On Monday, he appointed a Prime Minister to lead his cabinet – the Republican parliamentarian, Édouard Philippe – and crossed the Rhine to visit the Chancellery in Berlin, and its illustrious occupant, Angela Merkel; wielder of ultimate power in Europe, and his perhaps reluctant ally in keeping the European ship together. Ultimate, because none of Macron’s proposed reforms will be implemented without her say so (and behind her, that of her Finance Ministry and the Bundesbank), and reluctant because Macron’s proposals are everything Merkel has been rejecting since 2010.
Nevertheless, it looks as if these potential obstacles have been bypassed as Macron has, it seems, demonstrated his willingness to accept tacit German demands that his predecessors had been unable or unwilling to fulfil. Already, the press is hailing the restoration of the Franco-German Axis, which has led the European Project through its most triumphant moments and struck its most crucial bargains. Monnet said that Europe would be forged in crises, and the solutions to them; these solutions have been provided by Paris and Berlin since 1951. On this occasion, the bargain in particular is being sensed by many as further eurozone integration and joint-liability, in return for reforms in France, hailing her formal commitment to Germany’s neoliberal, austerian vision for the European economy, and the end of French dirigiste intransigence. Kerneuropa will finally have rallied behind teutonic economic management, for the small price of formalising the political oversight of these principles. What some seem to be painting as the next ‘Grand Bargain’ will in fact be the final capitulation to Berlin and Frankfurt’s brand of neoliberalism, and the end of any hope for Southern Europe escaping the economic crisis with its dignity.
Whatever it takes
On first glance then, it appears that the gulf between the programme of Macron and his party, La République En Marche, and the objectives of DiEM25, the radical democratic movement founded in February last year, is irreconcilably wide, to the point that considering any alliance between the two would be foolish. In fact, Macron looks set to make the same mistake made by the French when it comes to the integration project, limiting their sights only to the institutional aspect, and ignoring the deeper structural issues in the European economy and society. The French elite have long hoped to do to Europe what they did in France – concentrate enough power in institutions at the top, so as to counter any social or economic forces emerging from other quarters to challenge political power in the metropolis. In this way, the French have always been one step behind other powers in the Union, and at the same time have harboured more sinister aims for the Union than any of the others; the last thing anyone in Europe wants is a concentrated, all-powerful bureaucracy in Brussels, issuing its directives to the continent and serving the post-imperialist interests of the likes of France and formerly Britain. Worse still is that, until now, the French strategy has proved time and again a failure in curbing German economic power and the influence of the ideology behind it, the euro being the best example of this. So why even consider Macron as a potential asset?
There are a couple of reasons. Firstly, looking deeper, the objectives of President Macron and DiEM25 are to a great extent aligned with one another: DiEM25 wants a democratisation of the EU to act as the core of its rejuvenation. Such democratisation would be required to legitimise the reforms Macron wants for the eurozone to make it work functionally; a common fiscal policy, a joint finance minister, a eurozone debt instrument, and completion of the banking union. Meanwhile, before such a major project can be undertaken, Macron wants to reinvigorate the French economy – DiEM meanwhile is targeting the European economy as a whole. Looking at the equation like this, all seems well. As Wolfgang Münchau notes, domestic growth in France and the state of the wider eurozone economy are intertwined. “Without change in the way the eurozone works, the impact of domestic reforms will be limited. And without reforms, he will lack the credibility to push for change at eurozone level. So he must do both.”
The dissonance returns however, when it comes to the ways that such an economic reinvigoration could come about. DiEM and Macron agree on the need for larger investment and spending – which will come up against German austerian opposition likely – however they disagree on some of the more structural aspects of Europe’s economy. Macron and his centrist, neoliberal allies believe sweeping deregulation of product and labour markets is required to allow businesses in France to be dynamic again – DiEM believes this is the cause of much of the current crisis. The precariousness it forces workers into, coupled with the enormous risks it encourages in the financial sector, lead to the kind of economic devastation we saw in the wake of the 2008 Crisis. This in turn forces voters towards the extremes once they get the sense that their political leaders are not concerned with the security of their livelihoods and general well-being. So how to square this circle?
We in DiEM25 know that, despite all the noises coming from Europe’s metropolises, Europe and certainly not the eurozone can be saved by the ‘Grand Bargain’ as previously outlined. The reforms Macron is proposing, whilst winning him favour in Berlin, will do nothing for him at home and will only perpetuate the broken and unsustainable growth model the German government has tried to impose since 2010. Therefore, if Macron is serious in seeing France’s destiny permanently bound up with Europe’s, he will require a radically different plan to proceed – one which does not only involve institutional changes, that currently would be cosmetic at best and detrimental to the cause of unseating neoliberal hegemony at worst, but also include a genuine change of economic direction, away from the deregulation, privatisation and Sparpolitik enforced until now, and towards one where the growth and investment are placed at the centre of the programme and Europe begins countering some of the negative effects of Globalisation.
It strikes me that Macron may just be more than a standard stooge of neoliberalism. There is no evidence which categorically proves this, but there are some useful circumstantial pieces. Firstly, his relative unorthodoxy in his politics, from his youth, to the way he invokes sovereignty and democracy in the European context, to the way he broke many of the rules of French politics to claim the Élysée and pulled it off all the same. So he is no standard politician. He claims he wants more pragmatism; now, we may have heard this before, but it’s just possible he interprets this differently to the neoliberals he has surrounded himself with. For example, Yanis Varoufakis has a few times now made the point that of all the Ministers in Europe he met during the Athens Spring in 2015, Macron was the only one to show support for his cause. On Monday, Varoufakis noted that Macron would not just aim to deregulate the French labour market but strengthen social welfare and security, so that moving between jobs is easier and less precarious, in an attempt copy the modern Nordic model. Even if this would not work, this demonstrates a more nuanced view of economics than most politicians in recent years – perhaps even a more pragmatic view. The view of someone willing to do whatever it takes to restore France, and with it, Europe.
And this brings me to my central thesis, or perhaps simply hope, for Macron. Gideon Rachman recently used a quote in his article in the Financial Times on Macron’s victory which stuck out for me. “You have made yourself the Trustee for those in every country who seek to mend the evils of our condition by reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system. If you fail, rational change will be gravely prejudiced throughout the world, leaving orthodoxy and revolution to fight it out.” This was a line written in a letter in 1933, from John Maynard Keynes, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had just won election in the US, then in the depths of the Great Depression. Roosevelt did not come to the White House planning to enact the programme he did; he planned to do whatever it took to salvage American society before it fell into the abyss, like Germany did that same year. He too was of the establishment, but turned on them for the greater vision he had for his country.
A Time for Courage
Perhaps Macron has it in him to do whatever it takes to pull France and then Europe out of the gutter – according to Varoufakis, he knows the structural problems which afflict the eurozone. However, he also notes, as Münchau did a couple of weeks ago, that Macron seemingly has no strategy of how to persuade the power in Europe – Berlin – that his reforms are both necessary and in Germany’s own interest. Certainly, to do this, Macron will need allies in Europe – in Germany and elsewhere – of the kind DiEM25 is in the process of rallying. He’ll certainly need the left behind him to challenge teutonic Sparpolitik. I can’t see any better programme than the one DiEM25 has proposed, killing the political and economic birds with the same stone. Varoufakis has always liked Keynes – perhaps he could provide the intellectual muscle to Macron’s political skill, the former’s Keynes to the latter’s Roosevelt, motivating Macron to take the steps he needs to. At the heart of this then, is that he has to be as pragmatic and daring as Roosevelt was almost 90 years ago. Or he will fail, and “rational change will be gravely prejudiced throughout the world”.
I recently wrote an essay on whether Keynes was a radical or a conservative – it is hard to tell, and from his quote there it doesn’t help much. Ultimately, he is wedded neither orthodoxy nor revolution, in his own words. What he wants, is whatever it takes to maintain social peace and prosperity; rational change at a pace that makes sense. Roosevelt had the same objective – it just so happens that in his era, the only thing rational to do was to bring about radical change at a quick pace. If this is Macron’s aim as a well, with the radicalism of a pragmatist, he might just succeed. Münchau, similarly inclined, wrote last week “France faced the starkest political choice of any large European country in many decades: between staying in the single currency and reforming, or quitting. The usual choice of muddling through was not on offer. The French were asked a clear question about the future of their country in Europe, and that of the continent itself. And they gave a clear answer.” I hope Münchau is right, unlike his hopes for Italy’s Matteo Renzi, and I don’t end up reading his column in a couple of years lamenting the failure of Macron to act.
Naturally, contrary to all the hype of the mainstream media, Merkel could prove to be a major obstacle in realising a truly radical and pro-European agenda in the coming years. While she is not the domineering hegemon that some believe she is, Merkel and her party have nevertheless ruled out every single proposal Macron has made, and I can’t see any reason why they would change their minds now, unless Macron were to capitulate on every other front. The positive sounds coming from the Chancellery on Monday neither confirm nor prove anything. Martin Schulz could help to push Macron in the direction of DiEM’s programme, both due to his (nominal) leftism, and the fact he is a new face on the scene. However, with the recent election result in Nord-Rhein Westfalen, this outcome seems ever less likely in September, and Merkel’s recent willingness to cooperate with Macron will fade with Schulz’s diminishing hopes. If September produces a Black-Yellow Coalition in the Bundestag, Macron may well lose his ally in the Chancellor.
As I said, there have been many comparisons between Napoleon I and Macron. However, if a 4th Merkel Chancellery gives the Young Prince the cold shoulder, then the comparisons will have been using the wrong Napoleon. Instead, Macron will be Napoleon III, projecting the illusion of strength, while walking straight into his own Sedan – and perhaps more ominously for Europe, the following Paris Commune of an indignant France voting in the National Front in 2022. By that point, all hopes at reconciliation and transnationalism will be crushed into the dirt.
People believe the populist wave is over. This is false, and the Volkstümler are still here. The Dutch Parliament is more fragmented than ever and Macron was an exceptional able candidate from the centre. This cannot be taken as a sign for the future. We’ve gained a reprieve, but that means we have time to address the causes of our situation, not slip back into our old ways. If Macron and the European establishment take the latter option, our reprieve will not last long.
Photo Credits: DPA