Joseph BahoutVisiting scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program
With his grace period almost over, French President Emmanuel Macron could discover that his prime adversary lies in the high expectations his election created.
Domestically, the structural reforms needed to unclog France will face the challenge of powerful corporations in a country that is aware of the need for change but endlessly delays the moment to implement it. Macron’s election was allowed by the implosion of the traditional political system. Ideally, this should open an avenue for him to remodel the landscape as he likes. Paradoxically, however, doing so requires him to have an organized political force, something he does not yet have. The Republic on the Move!, his nascent political movement, still lacks local rooting and troops, which will be badly needed when the battle for change starts.
Internationally, Macron’s activism is notable and has projected itself mainly on the Middle Eastern scene. Here too, however, desires, ambitions, and expectations will confront means, capacities, and realities. On Libya, the president’s alleged priority, his initiative will have to find ways to involve other concerned European players, such as Italy and the UK. On Syria, finding a role in what seems to be a Russian-U.S. condominium will need strong leverage that France has lately eroded.
If precedents are a guide, France’s leaders have often been tempted to seek a score abroad when checked at home.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
When Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in May, expectations soared across Europe and in his hometown. Young, handsome, bright, and dynamic, he raised high expectations, as Barack Obama did when he was first elected U.S. president in 2008. Like Obama in his first years, Macron enjoys a majority in the national legislature that should help him achieve his agenda. But just as with Obama, the expectations of Macron are somewhat unrealistic, especially because people expect change to take place immediately.
Unlike Obama, Macron suffered a few setbacks right at the beginning of his presidency, when some of his most prestigious ministers had to resign and Macron was forced to abandon his wish to give his wife the official status of first lady.
Despite all this, and given enough time, Macron is likely to succeed domestically. His story is one of persistence. As for his international agenda, no leader today can succeed alone; so Macron’s chances of success are linked to his ability to foster consensus in the EU (something he has only partly done so far), to find agreement in NATO, and, not least, to forge a strong alliance with Germany.
Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Shortly after his election victory on May 7, the Economist, in a clever cover, depicted the new French president walking on water. The question now is whether he will swim or drown. Given the sky-high expectations created by Emmanuel Macron’s miraculous rise, disappointment is inevitable, and as the polls indicate, it is already setting in.
The second challenge is more serious: Macron has to deliver on two fronts that are hardly compatible with each other. On the international level, he has to rebuild French credibility by enacting tough reforms, introducing restrictive budgetary policies, and shrinking the overgrown French public sector. At the same time, Macron needs to heal the deepening divide in French society and bring people who feel left behind back into the political mainstream. This requires public investment, such as restoring services in France’s poorer regions and making sure that there is an effective safety net.
By moving toward one goal, Macron distances himself from the other. His hope may be that delivering rapidly on the first objective will bring back international private investors and convince Germany to agree to important European investment instruments, so that the second goal too becomes attainable. This may well be the only viable strategy, but it remains a big gamble.
Richard MaherResearch fellow in the Europe in the World Program at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute
By the end of October, it will likely be known whether French President Emmanuel Macron has been able to succeed where so many of his predecessors have failed: in overhauling France’s notoriously complex and mystifying labor code, to many the source of France’s stubbornly high unemployment and a major contributor to the country’s economic woes.
Macron has also vowed to bring public spending under control. State spending in France amounts to 56 percent of GDP, the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group of advanced economies. He has pledged to meet the EU’s budget deficit target of 3 percent of GDP in 2017—the first time France would accomplish that feat since 2007.
But with plans to trim the budget and overhaul France’s labor laws, Macron faces the wrath of some of France’s biggest and most powerful constituencies. As a result, Macron has seen a sharp decline in his popularity since his inauguration in May.
Still, the prospects for pushing through major reforms look better today than they have in a long time in France. Polls show the French people are ready for change. And Macron knows that if these reforms are not pushed through now, they are unlikely to happen later.
Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior policy fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC
In short, oui. President Emmanuel Macron was elected on a promise to reform France. Macron is already tackling the big beast in the country, the basic law of the labor market. Reforming the law has been the bane of several previous presidents, from Jacques Chirac to François Hollande, bending to street protests.
Presumably, Macron will face protests after the August vacation month ends, but he is uniquely well equipped to withstand and prevail. His parliamentary base, which many predicted would be harder to establish than winning the presidency, is galvanized around a reform agenda. His personal approach includes increased consultations with labor-market partners to defuse (some) tension along the way.
But this reform is just the beginning. There are other reforms to be completed afterward, including on workforce development and apprenticeships.
If Macron delivers on internal reforms, it seems possible that he can secure German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support for a joint big leap ahead on financial and economic integration in the EU. If France reforms, Merkel can convince the Germans, who endured with the Hartz labor-market reforms. Equally important is that France maintains budgetary discipline.
Macron is the best shot France and Europe have had for new dynamism in a long time. Let’s hope he makes it.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
In terms of foreign policy, the hallmark of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign was his promise to reinvigorate the EU and reconcile the French people with a much-berated union.
Macron met German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his first day in office and held numerous consultations with members of the European Council. He also made extensive use of European symbols: walking the Louvre courtyard to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” during his victory celebration, speaking at the tribute to former German chancellor Helmut Kohl at the European Parliament, and presiding over former European Parliament president and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil’s funeral.
Yet, when dealing with real issues, there has so far been very little European dimension to Macron’s initiatives. He invited the two rival Libyan leaders to the Élysée Palace without a hint of European involvement or any consultation with Italy, the only EU country with an embassy in Tripoli. Similarly, on Syria, Macron changed France’s position without, it seems, using the platform developed at the recent EU conference on Syria held in Brussels.
Despite multiple references to the EU, Macron has fallen back into traditional Quai d’Orsay behavior: the European dimension is useful if it allows France to align its EU partners’ positions with its own. If there is a need for consultation, it will be with Germany. A more genuine European spirit will be necessary if Macron is to deliver on the foreign policy he promised his voters and meet the expectations of other Europeans.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Leadership is pretty volatile in the twenty-first century. Former U.S. president Barack Obama was sanctified with an early Nobel Peace Prize and then saw his charisma gnawed away by cynicism. His successor, Donald Trump, has been trying to fly for seven months now but is still loudly flapping his wings on the ground.
Emmanuel Macron was elected French president with an élan not seen in Paris since François Mitterrand. New face, new party, nouveau président! As of August, Macron’s approval rating looms close to the same mediocre 36 percent affecting Trump. In the fall, Macron will face a stark choice: pursue a liberal policy of reforms and innovation or kowtow to the status quo in good old France. My bet is that Macron will be stopped by the usual suspects—the unions, state employees, and indifferent public opinion.
The last hope for an EU season of reforms could still be ignited by a huge win for Angela Merkel in Germany’s September federal election, with the chancellor promoting a Paris-Berlin growth pact, promptly joined by Italy. My odds of that happening—10:1—are the same chances the bookmakers assign to my team, Inter Milan, in the 2017–2018 Italian football season.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
French President Emmanuel Macron’s approval ratings are now at the same level as those of U.S. President Donald Trump and below those of Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, at the same stage in his presidency. It is still early, and Macron will learn from his mistakes, just as another young president, John F. Kennedy, did.
However, the odds are against Macron. He was elected with a very small base given the implosion of the major parties and the low voter turnout. He has overestimated his support among a public that does not know or trust him, and he demonstrates an arrogance that will further isolate him. He does not have the stable base of an established political party and relies instead on a diverse collection of political ingenues who can’t offer him advice or support among the population. He believes in a neoliberal ideology that is not widely shared by a population likely to go to the streets to block his reforms.
What Macron does have is an effective deep state in the French civil service and the power only a presidential system can provide. Will he recover, learn, and use these advantages? It will become clear soon enough.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at POLITICO
French President Emmanuel Macron has bulldozed France’s political landscape, taking the wrecking ball to the mainstream conservative and Socialist parties and creating his own centrist majority from scratch. Although he made a strong international debut, his first one hundred days in office were marred by inconsistency on tax and spending policies, some vacuous speeches, a show of petulance in forcing out a respected military chief of staff, and a relapse into old statist economic policy at the first sign of trouble.
Macron still has the strength to deliver substantial economic and fiscal reform, making himself a serious partner for a grand bargain with Germany to strengthen the eurozone and build European defense. He understands his credibility depends on that. But he needs to focus on a few key objectives: loosening labor laws, imposing fiscal discipline, creating incentives to invest in the real economy and scale up start-ups, and shaking up education and training.
He’s bound to face strikes and protests this fall over labor laws and perhaps school reform. He should face them down. The French understand things need to change to make the country more economically competitive. They need firm leadership, but not unnecessary fights just to show who’s boss.