As France returns from the summer vacation, having passed new president Emmanuel Macron’s landmark hundredth day in office, keen observers will be looking forward to the autumn reviewing the actions of the new administration and reflecting on President Macron’s approach to power.
Divide and Conquer
Macron’s first 100 days have been marked by a significant transformation of the political landscape in France. After his victory in the presidential election, the apparent decline of the traditional governing parties, the centre-left Parti Socialiste (PS) and the centre-right Les Republicains (LR), was confirmed in the parliamentary election in June. A landslide victory for Macron’s new party La Republique en Marche (LRM) and its allies, who won an absolute majority of 350 seats, has pushed traditional parties to the fringes of the political arena.
The former governing party, the PS, saw its 331 seats slashed to just 45, while the official opposition, LR, is split between those who support Macron’s reforms and those remain who opposed. Only, La France Insoumise (LFI), Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s new leftwing party has come out stronger from this reorganisation of French politics, coming in fourth place in April’s presidential election and establishing itself as the most vocal opposition to Macron’s project.
The new political landscape is also reflected in the government itself, which is composed of personalities from both sides of the political spectrum. Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, was affiliated with LR until his nomination. Bruno Le Maire, the economy minister, was a contender in LR’s primaries for the presidential election. Jean-Yves Le Drian, the new foreign minister, was President Hollande’s longest serving minister, holding the defence portfolio for five years, and Florence Parly, the new minister of the armed forces, is also a longtime member of the PS.
Since taking office, Macron has launched a number of reforms. Within a week of his inauguration, he began his controversial transformation of French labour law. Making good use of the summer break to avoid social unrest, the government held long consultations with labour and business leaders, and plans to publish the executive decrees by early September. Opposed to the changes, the communist-rooted CGT, the second largest union in France, has already called for strikes on 12 September to protest against what they see as an assault on hard-won workers’ rights.
Since its election in June, parliament has been particularly active, already voting through six new laws. Among them is an extension of the state of emergency to the end of November and a ‘moralisation law’ to prevent elected officials from hiring their family members, which was promised during the campaign in the wake of the scandal that dogged Les Républicains’ presidential candidate, François Fillon, who was charged with misappropriating public funds to pay his wife for a fictitious role as his assistant.
This apparent efficiency, however, conceals the lack of political experience in Macron’s party. Opposition groups in parliament have accused the new majority of amateurism over several recent incidents in the legislative process. Mostly notably, MPs from LRM inadvertently voted down an article of the moralisation law during the final vote, mistaking it for an amendment, while the LRM vice-chair of the law commission failed to keep an accurate tally during votes on amendments to the law during the committee stage, subjecting MPs to several recounts.
‘En même temps’
Macron’s signature campaign phrase, ‘en même temps’ (‘at the same time’), denoted a certain balance in his approach to France’s economic and social issues. This was reflected in his manifesto, which acknowledged the need for both important structural economic reforms and for social change and welfare expansion. But, confronted with the reality of power this balanced approach has been hard to maintain.
One particular area has proved difficult for Macron’s government to manage – the budget. Macron defines the return of the French budget deficit to below the 3% allowed by the EU Stability Pact as the marker of his credibility to then enact EU reforms. The task of cutting spending while keeping campaign promises like tax cuts and an increased defence budget has been made even harder given the under-budgeting in the last months of Hollande’s government that has recently come to light, which will likely need to be countered with further spending cuts in departments like education, transport and justice to keep the deficit below 3%.
Macron’s cuts so far have riled key groups within the population. Housing benefit cuts angered students, as the largest beneficiaries of this aid, while disputes over military funding led to a bitter and very public row between the president and the then head of the armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, concluding with the general’s resignation and Macron ringfencing the defence budget and promising to increase resources in 2018.
The limits of Macron’s style
The difficulties the president has experienced in trying to implement his budget cuts perfectly exemplifies the limitations of his style of power. The mixed messages, the lack of clarity in the government’s communication and actions are perceived by most French as signifying a certain lack of leadership. Recent polls have seen Macron’s approval rating dip: only 36% of French people are satisfied with his presidency so far.
Favouring grand communication stunts, such as inviting Donald Trump to Bastille Day or meeting Vladimir Putin in Versailles, since taking office, Macron has not given any interviews or major speeches on specific reforms. As a ‘Jupiterian’ president, his words are rare but his presence is felt everywhere.
However, if he hopes to achieve the structural reforms he promised while cutting spending, President Macron and his government will need to communicate with the people and explain the what, why and how of their actions while managing expectations. This relationship is notably lacking at the moment and, if the president wants to survive the next five years, he will have to renew the connection he established with the French people on the campaign trail.