Macron a Year After: French Doubt Domestic Reforms, Back Foreign Policy

Macron a Year After: French Doubt Domestic Reforms, Back Foreign Policy

A year after Emmanuel Macron was sworn in as French president after a triumph over his right-wing rival Marine Le Pen in May, more than half of the French disapprove of his work so far.

Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll released earlier in May showed that only 45 percent of the French were satisfied with Macron’s work so far. According to the survey, 53 percent of the country’s citizens believed that the president did not have a “good understanding” of their problems.

Macron did not hesitate to implement his ambitious election program, launching a range of major reforms, aimed at changing French taxation, education and labor system. Some of his reforms, including the changes to work-related legislation and the proposed changes to the state-owned railway sector, sparked large-scale protests around the country.

However, experts believe that Macron is just where he planned to be and that the reforms he launched will start bearing fruit two years from now. In 2019, two years after Macron’s victory, he and La Republique en marche (REM) party he founded will face the 2019 European Parliament election.

Macron’s foreign policy is more appreciated by the French than his domestic reforms. His bid to give France back its role of a mediator, a diplomatic power intervening in all major international conflicts, has gained him significant support.

Too Early to Judge

One of the largest reforms spearheaded by Macron is the change to the labor laws, simplifying the negotiations for salaries and hours. The reform, giving more freedom to an employer and softening the power of industry regulations, is aimed at liberalizing the labor market, increasing employment and attracting investment.

However, it is seen by many trade unions as depriving workers of their rights and making the firing process easier.

The reform has seen a relatively weak protest movement and became a victory for France’s youngest president. However, some time will pass before the results of this reform and several others can be properly assessed, Paul Smith, a professor specializing in French politics at the Nottingham University, told NewsFront.

“His [Macron’s] pension reform, his labor reform have gone through, they are legal, but Macron himself and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe clearly said that we won’t know until two-three years down the line what their impact is,” Smith said.

The recent reviews of the French economy show that unemployment is slightly down, with a predicted further growth in certain industries. But it is unclear yet if that means that Macron’s reforms have paid off.

“Some of the big questions are that the consequence of Macron’s reforms, or is this simply the global economy, or is this even the consequences of late [former French President] Francois Hollande’s reforms. The answer is that it’s probably driven by the world economy and some of the effects of Hollande’s reforms. Even the most enthusiastic Macron supporters … know that it’s the world economy performing better that is helping the French economy,” Smith explained.

Overall, Macron seems to be on schedule with his reform plan, although some changes are taking longer than anticipated to be implemented.

“In terms of his roadmap, if we think about his five-year plan, and not something which is done in 12 months, I think he is probably where he wants to be. He was a little bit ambitious with his initial plan, so I think his labor reform went through a little later than he wanted, and also some of his institutional reforms are taking longer than he had hoped, such as reducing the number of members of parliament, those have run into some problems,” the expert said.

Government Standing Strong Against Protests

Labor laws and railway sector reform are not the only proposed changes that have caused popular resentment. The educational reform, aiming to change the university access regulations, saw several major universities across France blocked for weeks.

The changes in the tax system which, according to Macron, is “an effort” asked from the pensioners in order to lift the burden off the working population, has sparked a range of protests of the retirees, who claim their purchasing power has been significantly decreased.

“Tax reform has been even more difficult [than educational reform]; the French don’t like the state, and they feel that the state intervenes in their lives and it intervenes excessively … That process has been slowed down,” Smith explained.

The railway sector reform has led to a three-months-long protest movement, heavily perturbing the traffic across France.

The railroad workers have been on a rolling strike since the beginning of April and plan to keep protesting till the end of June as they fight for preserving their special status. The government reform allows the current employees of the state-owned SNCF railway operator to maintain their status, but puts an end to future hiring with this status.

The French government stands firm on its desire to open the railway market up to a competition, putting an end to the monopoly of the SNCF, despite the protests.

According to Smith, Macron shows a strong hand, not seeking compromises with trade unions like previous French presidents did.

“It was always a tradition in France: the government would try to introduce a reform, and would see how popular or unpopular it was by the strike movement. And usually, the governments would step back. Now it’s really a stand-off between government and unions,” Smith said.

Weak Opposition

The National Front (FN), the party headed by Macron’s main presidential rival Marine Le Pen, showed a modest result in the parliamentary election last June, while Macron’s REM won an overwhelming majority of seats in the National Assembly.

Besides, the FN went through some internal tensions, as the party’s vice president, Florian Phlippot, left the FN to form his movement, as he disagreed with Le Pen’s stance on abandoning the euro.

None of the other parties manage to provide a strong opposition to Macron, Smith argued.

“The other thing is that politically there is still no meaningful opposition to him. That’s been the real feature of the last 12 months that the defeat of the National Front has left the far-right in a very poor state. The far-left of Melenchon have only begun to get back on their feet. The moderate right, the Republicans, are on one hand trying to criticize Macron, but on the other hand, as a party, they are deeply divided between those who see Macron as a potential ally, and those who are drifting towards more far-right position,” Smith said.

The expert pointed out that Macron successfully wooed left-wing voters during the campaign, but drifted to the right after his inauguration.

“A lot has been said about immigration and asylum law … People argue that it’s much more of the right because of the idea of controlling immigration, the idea of repatriating illegal migrants or refusing to open the door to economic migrants. That’s kind of discourse of the right. So there are people of the left who accepted Macron in 2017 who may be feeling uncomfortable now,” Smith said.

Smith believes that the 2019 “European election would be the first kind of full test of public opinion” for the French president and his REM party.

Even if Macron’s economic policy is veering toward the right-wing end of the spectrum, his stance on immigration is very different from that of a number of far right parties, currently on the rise in Europe.

Stalled EU Reforms

During the campaign, Macron’s pro-EU program was seen as the antithesis of Euroskeptic FN manifesto. The French president proposed several reforms, such as a common Eurozone budget, or an EU banking union that have to be backed by Berlin, which has been rather reluctant so far to support Macron’s initiatives.

“We are still waiting to see quite where he [Macron] takes European reforms. The problem is that so much attention in Europe, at the level of head of states, is focused on Brexit … That’s kind of distracting Europe and I think that Macron and to some extent Merkel are very frustrated that they are not able to push on with their own agenda,” Smith explained.

The expert added that Merkel’s support is “absolutely crucial” for Macron to ensure the credibility of his pro-EU ambitions and to have stronger positions at home.

Prisoner of Own Engagement

The same Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll showed that 63 percent of the French consider the country’s foreign policy to be moving in the right direction.
Macron has been eager to build a relationship with US President Donald Trump, while the rest of Europe, notably, its leading power — Germany showed some restraint.

However, Macron followed the lead of the United States in Syria in April, when he decided to go through with the airstrikes over alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

Didier Billion, research director at IRIS France think tank, stressed that Macron’s mistake was setting a “red line,” which in politics often makes one “a prisoner of their own engagements.

“Macron was in a situation… where he had to go through with it. Unfortunately, France doesn’t really have political weight anymore. It’s Russia and Iran who are decisive actors in the political resolution of the Syrian crisis, and France, UK and US in a bid to be such wanted to get on the scenes, reinsert themselves in this political and diplomatic game, but in the worst possible manner,” Billion told NewsFront.

The expert added that Macron should come up with concrete initiatives and proposals, rather than idle declarations, and talk to all international actors in order to restore France’s role as an important diplomatic power.


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