by andrew l. yarrow
May Not Be Loved,
But the Center
andrew yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of the new book Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-20th-Century America.E>
Published February 24, 2022
Months after Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France in 2017 at age 39, a cover story in The Economist showed him walking on water under the headline, “Europe’s Savior.” In the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election the prior year, liberals throughout the West fawned over an avowedly post-partisan politician as a man with ideas who could break the political and economic sclerosis that had long gripped France and strengthen the European Union. On election night, edgy pop music and the “Marseillaise” blaring outside the Louvre gave way to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU’s official anthem.
The State of Play
Macron is up for re-election in April and is expected to win, but the honeymoon ended in 2018 when a flurry of his reforms hit the shoals of mass protest. Of course, street protests are about as French as steak frites and 30-day paid vacations. But more about that in a moment.
Going into this spring’s election, Macron’s many opponents have been quick to excoriate him. There’s perennial populist right-winger Marine Le Pen, who blames his government for too much immigration and for ceding too much power to EU bureaucrats in Brussels. But this time around, Le Pen has been outdone by a challenger to her right, Éric Zemmour, a TV personality with the sort of elitist credentials the French seem to love, who screams that French civilization is threatened with “replacement” by Muslims and Africans. (Zemmour, a Jew, also claims that the Nazis’ Vichy puppet regime actually tried to save Jews.)
The challenger with the most plausible chance of beating Macron is Valérie Pécresse, a more familiar sort of conservative; she’s calling for instituting “order” in immigrant neighborhoods and criticizes Macron for not achieving his promised public-sector cuts. Yes, France still has a numerically strong left, but the vote seems destined to be split by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftwing firebrand who campaigned in 2017 using holograms of himself, Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, Yannick Jadot, the leader of the Greens, and Christine Taubira, a former justice minister from French Guiana. All are focusing on climate change and appealing for a rollback of Macron’s business-friendly regulatory reforms.
Yet, aside from a brief spike for Pécresse in early December, the polls have held relatively steady for months. And if no candidate wins a majority in the first round of the presidential election on April 10 — something that simply never happens — the top two vote-getters will meet in a second round on April 24.
Even if only a quarter of the French electorate is solidly behind him, and his popularity hovers around 40 percent, France can legitimately claim it has a viable center — a treasure that the United States (and maybe much of Europe) now lacks.
Macron’s first term rates a pretty good grade — but with an asterisk. For one thing, following in the wake of the little-loved Socialist Francois Hollande and Hollande’s center-right predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, who both faced corruption scandals, has lowered the bar. But Macron did deliver on his much of his platform in spite of stiff headwinds from both Covid-19 and street protests.
Indeed, in a country long known for being worker-friendly and business-unfriendly to a fault, Macron’s government has pushed through labor-law changes that have made it easier to hire and fire workers — as well as easier to start businesses. But he’s never lost sight of the ideals of the welfare state.
A wage-replacement scheme instituted during the early days of Covid-19 may have cost less labor-market disruption than in the United States. Unemployment, already falling before the pandemic, is at its lowest level in more than 40 years. And while 7.4 percent joblessness (in December) may not look so great from the western shore of the Atlantic, it’s worth noting that the prime-age labor force participation rate is now actually higher than in the United States. Consider, too, that France, unlike the United States, is doing something about the decline of decent-paying blue-collar jobs: a record 720,000 apprenticeship contracts were signed in 2021.
Despite two rounds of the aforementioned street mass protests and all-too-French strikes, a host of other reforms (mostly popular) were enacted before the pandemic. Social security and property taxes were cut. The minimum wage and minimum retirement benefit were increased. Elementary-school class sizes were reduced, and preschool for three-year-olds became mandatory. France’s vaunted universal health-care system was strengthened, with coverage extended to include dental care, eyeglasses, hearing aids and prostheses. Paternity leave was expanded to 28 days and, more controversially, a “bioethics” law was passed to provide medically assisted reproductive technology to lesbian couples and single women.
Although the Greens, who won 2020 municipal elections in Marseille, Lyons and Bordeaux, have attacked the government’s environmental record as timid, laws to finance the “transition ecologique” have been passed. France, which is more reliant on nuclear power than other wealthy nations, also plans to build smaller, inherently safer reactors — quite a contrast with Germany, which gave into Green pressure to shut down all nuclear plants, leaving it more dependent on Russian gas and Putin’s geopolitical power plays.
The government’s 2018 initiative to reduce carbon emissions by raising taxes on already heavily taxed gasoline and diesel fuel sparked the most massive protests since the May 1968 uprising. The “gilets jaunes” movement (named for the populist protesters’ yellow vests) rocked the country every Saturday for months. A year later, when Macron tried to fulfill his promise to reform France’s generous public pension system and — holy of holies — raise the retirement age, mostly leftwing protesters took to the streets.
In these cases, the government decided that discretion was the better part of valor. But Macron has said he would try again during a second term. A July 2021 mandate requiring a Covid vaccine pass for entry to restaurants, shops and public buildings initially ignited more protests, but this time most of France stood behind Macron and the anti-vax movement has been put in its place, allowing the French economy to recover fairly rapidly.
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Although Macron is the odds-on favorite to win in April, polls show that many French don’t really like any of the candidates. But this is a water-glass-half-full situation: it still appears that Macron’s core supporters — the urban middle class — will stick with him. Even if only a quarter of the French electorate is solidly behind him, and his popularity hovers around 40 percent, France can legitimately claim it has a viable center — a treasure that the United States (and maybe much of Europe) now lacks.