Macron’s pathetic pension reform shows why Europe cannot be fixed

Pity poor Emmanuel Macron. It is the French president’s tragedy to be a supremely rational man in a supremely irrational world. This able leader, surely one of the best and the brightest of his generation, is ineffectually stuck yet again in the mire of his stalled domestic program. But this is not a specific French hiccup. Rather, it says far more about Europe’s signal inability to reform itself. And without reform, internal decay is an inevitability.

Macron’s controversial French pension reform proposal highlights nothing less than why the continent is in decided decline. Policy efforts are invariably too slow, too little, and too unpopular for a decadent society that simply doesn’t want to change, whatever the math or the consequences.

The math is simple enough. According to the World Bank, in 1967 (the year I was born) the average life expectancy in France was 71. In 2020 it had climbed to 82. While it is certainly fantastic that people live a full decade longer in such a short period of time, the extra burden on the state must be paid for, or the pension system will quickly collapse. The obvious way to do so is for everyone to work a bit longer in order to keep the pension system solvent. But, in terms of economics, the rational way has never been the French way.

Let’s start with the unpopularity the French public reserves for any reform that involves either math or reality. An early January poll found a decisive 68 percent opposed to Macron’s plan to nudge the retirement age from a laughable 62 to a still not-fit-for-purpose 64. Even more Kafkaesque, another poll found about 55percent desiring the pension age to stay as it is, or even be disastrously lowered to 60, in defiance of all understandings of economics.

True to form, French populists of the left and right cynically feed their constitiencies’ flight from reality. Both Jean-Luc Melenchon and Marine Le Pen, eager to further politically wound the unpopular French president, are rallying against his frankly timid reform. At least Macron has the courage to forthrightly say: “The truth is that we have to work more and produce more in our country … if we are to keep the French social model.”His problem is that his people are allergic to the truth, as it would involve them working harder and longer. This bedrock problem of decadence explains both the slowness of European reform efforts, and their timidity.

Like the Greek tragic hero Sisyphus — who was punished by Hades, the god of the Underworld, by being forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill, only for it to eternally roll back to the bottom —Macron has tried to enact pension reforms before, during his first term. As ever, the hysterical and economically illiterate French street, far more than the relatively weak parliament of the Fifth Republic, shrieked with alarm. Saving face, Macron blamed the pandemic, and shelved the reform.

This time his heroic effort is even more fraught with peril. In addition to the restive street, for the first time since 1988 France finds itself with a hung parliament. Macron’s party has only 245 seats, 44 short of a majority in the National Assembly, the country’s lower house. With the next biggest groupings being Melenchon’s far-left and Le Pen’s far-right, the French president will be dependent on the much-diminished center-right Gaullists to get his reform program over the line.

Even assuming this happens, which is surely only a 50-50 chance, Macron’s reforms will not change much. Public debt stands at an astronomical 112 percent of GDP; as is true for most Western corporatist states, France is effectively broke. Raising the retirement age by a few paltry years will not alter this basic and damning fact.

The luxurious European pension model flowered in the 1960s, when the continent’s productivity was the envy of the world. A state that is rich and booming has the largesse to set up and maintain a generous safety net. But what happens when this same continent is economically sclerotic, with growth rates regularly below a meager 2 percent of GDP, productivity rates flatlining, and no new major world-beating companies being created on the horizon? It is not an accident that Big Tech (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Meta et al) originated in the more economically free US. Rather, it is the logical outcome of a freer market system triumphing over a statist one.

Without economics on one’s side, who is to tell the people the truth? Given the torpid state of Europe’s economy, its overly generous safety net can no longer be afforded. That is surely not a reality decadent Europeans are remotely ready to accept. The consequences of this holiday from economic reality are as clear as they are damning. Europe’s debt will skyrocket, as it falls ever further behind both great powers such as the US and rising ones such as India. Macron’s frustrated efforts at pension reform are just the canary in the coal mine of this larger, and fundamental, process of European decline.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

Macron and the French establishment are safe… for now

As ever, French President Emmanuel Macron’s hero, Charles de Gaulle, put it perfectly. The imposing founder of the Fifth Republic caustically encapsulated the problem with ruling his perpetually turbulent nation when he said: “How can you govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”

After the French parliamentary elections of June 12 and 19, that poisoned chalice will assuredly fall almost entirely on Macron’s shoulders. For, despite brave talk from the veteran populist mavericks of the right (Marine Le Pen) and left (Jean-Luc Melenchon), it is certain that mainstream, establishment France will do well enough to govern.

The most likely outcome is that Macron and his La Republique En Marche faction will find itself with a diminished, but workable, majority. The worst-case scenario for the newly reelected president is that he would have to go into coalition with the traditional Gaullist party of the center-right, the Republicans, but that would not amount to any real hardship. Since he was first elected to the Elysee Palace in 2017, Macron — following the French political center of gravity — has been drifting rightwards from his initial centrist ideological position anyway.

There are three basic reasons that the populists are whistling past the political graveyard over their brave assertions of a comeback from their presidential election defeats. First, the momentum of winning the presidency historically sweeps the newly anointed president’s party to a parliamentary majority. No president since 2000 has failed to convert their election triumph into a majority in subsequent legislative elections. Given Macron’s handsome 17-point victory over Le Pen in the second, decisive, round of French presidential voting last week, there is absolutely no reason to suspect that this trend will not hold this time as well.

Second, neither of the populist firebrands has a real party behind them, having only personality-driven factions to support them. A curious trend in French politics over the past decade has been the marked decline of the traditional, mainstream center-left Socialists and center-right Republicans at the presidential level at the expense of individuals, be they Macron, Le Pen or Melenchon.

While this has held true at the national level, it has not been the case in terms of parliamentary elections, where the mainstream has held its own. For example, in 2017, despite Le Pen winning 34 percent of the vote for president in the second round, her National Rally party managed to win only eight of 577 National Assembly seats. Likewise, leftist firebrand Melenchon’s faction managed a minuscule 17 seats.

To do well in France in parliamentary elections requires tools that only a true, established party tends to possess (with Macron’s En Marche being the exception): A strong, traditional local footprint and organizational prowess. This is something that the personality-driven populist factions of both the left and the right almost entirely lack, explaining their past dismal parliamentary results. There is no evidence these systemic patterns are likely to change this time.

Finally, the only way the populists might get around these daunting historical and organizational hurdles would be to cement alliances with their ideological fellow travelers, magnifying their voting impact. This is especially pressing on the fragmented left, which has indulged itself in endless, fratricidal schisms literally since the French Revolution. Melenchon’s supporters, to their credit, are grimly aware of this, knowing that if the other splinter, leftist presidential candidates had withdrawn in favor of their man, he would have beaten Le Pen, moving on to the run-off with Macron, a leader they disdain as “the president of the rich.”

Cleverly, immediately after barely losing out in the first round, Melenchon called for a unified leftist alliance in the parliamentary elections as a way to perhaps overturn Macron’s impending presidential victory. However, his plea has so far fallen on deaf ears, as the schismatic French left has reverted to form.

Unlike Melenchon, Le Pen wants nothing to do with populist unity. Aware that her recent 41.5 percent of the second-round vote marks an all-time high-water mark for the French far right vote total, she wishes to continue to detoxify her brand rather than remind the voters of the French center why many still fear her. That is why, when her even more far-right rival, television pundit Eric Zemmour, suggested an electoral pact, Le Pen quickly and decisively ran a mile. With Macron into his second, and last, presidential term and with the far right continuing to make steady national progress, Le Pen is playing for the future, not the present.

So, for the moment, for all these reasons, it is beyond unlikely that the populists of the left or the right will stop Macron from having a governing parliamentary majority of some sort. However, with a decisive presidential win behind him, and with a clear parliamentary mandate set to follow, Macron now “owns” what happens next in France. Given that endemic inflation is taking root, with stubbornly low growth rates also on the horizon and a cost-of-living crisis brewing, it is a bad time to “own” policy outcomes. Macron’s political success is now also his political risk. Whatever comes next will be seen as down to him.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Ghost of Charles de Gaulle is the secret to Macron’s political success

As Stephen King memorably wrote in “The Shining,” ghosts are real; “They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” This is precisely what is happening now in the French presidential election, as — more than anything — the ghost of Charles de Gaulle is propelling Emmanuel Macron to victory.

Reading a copy of the French Fifth Republic’s constitution, so personalized is the document to fit de Gaulle’s personality that I conjure an image of the great man’s military kepi. It is easy now, after 64 years of this Republic, to forget that de Gaulle was brought from political exile in 1958 at a time of crisis, both to save France from the political ructions over Algeria that were tearing the country apart, and to replace the weak, legislatively dominated chaotic failure that had been the Fourth Republic.

Instead, de Gaulle — understanding his people’s historical affinity for a strong, centralized executive, a trait apparent from the time of Louis XIV and the Bourbons through both Bonaparte emperors — gave France what it wanted; a centralized state, with an “elective monarchy” at its head. While prime ministers appointed by the chief executive would deal with the anodyne day-to-day functions of the state, the president, unbound, could focus on foreign policy, geostrategy, and high matters of state affecting what de Gaulle liked to call “French grandeur.”

For all that this can sometimes seem faintly ridiculous to outsiders, de Gaulle understood very well what his countrymen organically longed for. As he put it: “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France.” This notion of French grandeur, of a great (if elected) monarch rising above the din and commonplace of everyday life to rule, jibed with what many of his countrymen yearned for. In squaring the origins of the Fifth Republic’s strong role for the executive with this mystical French yearning, de Gaulle’s creation has in practice been far stronger than the four Republics that preceded it; the Fifth Republic has the political legitimacy that comes only with having a system that squares with a country’s specific political culture.

It is not an accident, then, that the current French president, Emmanuel Macron, has a picture of de Gaulle in his private study. Jeered early on in his presidency when he arrogantly compared himself to Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods, Macron was actually on to something Gaullist and profound. Aware that the French want a strong leader, striding the global stage and reassuring his people that France, somehow, remains a great and respected global power, Macron has played the Jovean role to the hilt. But in doing so, he is only delving into the old successful Gaullist playbook, connecting with France’s longstanding political culture.

With just six weeks until the first round of French presidential voting on April 10, Macron finds himself in a commanding political position, thanks to the ghost of the general. A survey reported in The Times finds Macron comfortably ahead with a projected 25 percent of the vote, with far-right populist Marine Le Pen next at 18 percent, followed by far-right television star Eric Zemmour at 14 percent, center-right candidate Valerie Pecresse at 12 percent, and far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon rising to 11 percent.

Of those, most are too far to the political extremes of left and right to give Macron any reason to fear. Only Pecresse is ideologically moderate enough to give him a potential electoral scare. Indeed, early polling after her emergence as the main center-right candidate put her neck-and-neck with the incumbent. However, following an amateurish start to her campaign — complete with a disastrous speech at her largest rally —Pecresse is quickly fading from view.

Instead, Macron — channeling his inner de Gaulle — has stolen an electoral march on all his rivals, casting himself as a global statesman loftily looming over a field of parochial, angry, and mediocre contenders. While at first glance Macron’s futile efforts at shuttle diplomacy on behalf of Europe as a whole failed to stop the Ukraine crisis lurching into all-out war, this has not hurt him electorally. Rather, the French people seem to have thought it was better he tried and failed, than merely diplomatically receding into the woodwork.

Instead, in line with the ghost of de Gaulle, Macron’s poll numbers have slightly risen, as he has occupied the international stage as the leading voice of Europe, and has conferred diplomatically as the equal of both presidents Putin and Biden, at least on the surface. With the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz just coming into being, Macron has filled the diplomatic vacuum as Europe’s foremost strategic voice, precisely as de Gaulle always strove to.

While symbolism, more than actual substance, is at play here, ghosts remain powerful things. One of the oddest side effects of the Ukraine crisis has been the rise of Macron to grasp the Gaullist mantle. In doing so, and in connecting with the French political culture that the general knew so well, Macron has done nothing less than assured himself of a second term as France’s elected monarch.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

The French presidential race presents Macron with a daunting challenge

On the surface, things are looking up for the endlessly ambitious Emmanuel Macron, president of France. With the recent installation of the fledgling German government of Olaf Scholz, Macron, at last, finds himself the senior partner in the pivotal Franco-German alliance, finally able to try to harness France’s over-sized geostrategic ambitions to the world-class German economic motor.

While the new Green German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has ambitions to remake Berlin’s foreign policy in a more pro-Atlanticist, activist direction, German foreign policy is traditionally made in the chancellery. If this holds true, Scholz — the Finance Minister in the last Merkel government — and his immediate allies can be counted on to continue with Germany’s weak, commercially-driven, neutralist foreign policy. This is all the better for Macron, who yearns to stride the world stage as a major player.

Even the United States, the perpetual foe of France’s self-aggrandizing instincts, seems to have fallen into line. Following the furor over the AUKUS defense treaty between Australia, the UK, and the US, in which Canberra unceremoniously ditched defense ties with Paris of favor of closer links with the Anglosphere, the Biden administration has raced to mollify a furious Macron. The practical result of this American charm offensive was Washington’s new rhetorical support for Macron’s dream of an independent European defense entity. This sea change has left the foreign and strategic policy field open to Paris.

But if things are looking up internationally, domestically mortal threats to Macron’s regime are brewing. With the French presidential contest set to get into full swing in the new year, the most recent polling numbers present Macron with a real challenge to his re-election prospects. The latest Politico poll of polls of December 15th found Macron with 24 percent of the likely first-round votes. Newly anointed Gaullist Party candidate Valerie Pecresse came next at 17 percent, with far-right populists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour just behind at 16 percent and 13 percent respectively. At present, Macron would make it through to the climactic second round of voting, but who his opponent would be is unknown.

What is clear is that, as the French presidential campaign gets underway, there are two scenarios potentially impacting Macron’s re-election, one secondary and one primary. The French president must have been thrilled when television star Zemmour entered the fray, as he is sure to split the far-right vote in the first round, diluting its overall threat to his presidency, as it is inconceivable that Le Pen and Zemmour (drawing on the same pool of voters) can both thrust ahead of Macron in the initial voting round.

This leaves the French President in the comfortable position of taking on a single far-right challenger in the second round, a result whose outcome would not be in doubt. For example, Politico’s estimation of present second-round voting intentions finds that he would defeat Le Pen comfortably, by 56-44 percent.

The only drawback to this highly favorable outcome for the Elysee would be that if in beating back Pecresse — a mainstream candidate if ever there was one — Macron so demonized her that Pecresse’s first-round supporters failed to come out in the second round to see off the far-right challenge to the country as a whole. While Pecresse’s supporters in aggregate are highly unlikely to support either Le Pen or Zemmour in the second round, they might be so turned off by Macron’s attacks that they simply stay at home.

A similar process is presently well advanced on the splintered left, where it seems increasingly likely that voters will not show up for second-round voting to put a mainstream rightist in power in order to keep a far-rightist from the Elysee, as they did in the last French presidential election. If this apathy extends to both the Gaullists and the Socialists, the traditional center-right and center-left parties respectively, and with the far-right bound to coalesce around whichever of its two candidates reaches the second round, Macron could find himself in real peril.

However, the second, more likely, political threat to Macron comes directly from Pecresse and the mainstream Gaullist Party itself. Present polling has Pecresse as the president’s likely challenger in the second round of voting. But Politico finds her only a nose behind Macron, presently trailing him by merely 52-48 percent in terms of voting intentions, almost within the margin of error. It is obvious that Pecresse is far more of a threat to Macron’s re-election than any other candidate.

Reasonable, presentable, experienced, and policy-oriented, Pecresse cannot be demonized by Macron as simply dangerously unsuited for the Elysee in the way he can tar both Le Pen and Zemmour.\

Better still, and unlike the personality-driven candidacies of the two far-rightists and Macron himself, Pecresse has a real party behind her, with organizational capacity, fund-raising abilities, and — best of all — longstanding traditional political loyalties throughout the country. Macron is taking on the Gaullist institution in France, and not just another personality.

This is precisely why, at this time of relative international success, the French president must worry about domestic political dangers which could undo all his grandiose hopes, both for himself and his country. 

This blog post was originally published in Arab News.