For Britain, the Macron presidency will create fresh challenges over Brexit

Macron may sense that Brexit offers the opportunity for France to position itself economically at Britain’s expense

Monday 08 May 2017 16:10
Outgoing French President François Hollande and President-elect Emmanuel Macron
Outgoing French President François Hollande and President-elect Emmanuel Macron

Notwithstanding any short-term tactical advantage that a Le Pen victory might have had for the Brexit talks – Madame President Marine Le Pen would have ensured that there would have been no EU to Brexit from before long – a triumph of the neo-fascists in the French elections would have been a disaster for Britain, as well as for France. That she did so well as she did is still a standing indictment of the parlous state of European democracy, and the failure of the French and European establishments to answer the real concerns of the people they purport to represent. For now, though, the moment of danger has passed, as it also did in recent months in Austria and the Netherlands. This time round the good sense and republican values of the French people won over protectionism, fear and the mindless victimisation of Muslim people.

For Britain, though, the Macron presidency will create fresh paradoxes and challenges. This is a man brought up on the Somme, one of the churned up blood-stained battlefields of Europe that persuaded the early pioneers of the European Community that they must make some radical changes to end Europe’s century-old civil war. No wonder, then, that President Macron will make an early and determined effort to re-establish the vitality of the France-German alliance which has formed the motor of European integration for 60 years and more. This axis has driven the project forward since inception, and most recently saw the creation and the survival of the eurozone as an economic entity. There may have been challenges to it along the way – and London’s politicians and officials were sometimes a distraction, an intrusion or, more rarely, welcome interlopers in the traditionally cosy relationship between Paris and Berlin – but as Britain leaves, that Franco-German partnership seems stronger and more important than for decades. That will not necessarily be good news for the second-division powers such as Spain, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy, and still less for the smaller states, many in the Nordic lands and Eastern Europe who do not share in the appetite for more rapid political integration. With Germany as paymaster, and France bound once again strongly to her, few others will see much influence, whatever the QMV arithmetic might suggest.

Much depends on whether Emmanuel Macron delivers what his supporters hope, and his critics fear, even detest. Should his new En Marche! movement secure substantial backing in next month’s parliamentary elections, and if he is able to form a strong partnership with elements of the conservative Les Républicains and perhaps even the socialists, his former party, then the chances are he will able to force through the kind of painful reforms that many in France feel are necessary. In particular, Mr Macron will need to extend the liberalisation of labour markets that he embarked upon during his brief service as President Hollande’s economics minister. But he will need to do much more if he is to turn France from its current dual labour market into a job-generating powerhouse. For many in the public sector, the large corporates and various quangos, high salaries, generous pensions, perks and job security are still the norm. The professional, middle and upper classes in French society are in an enviable position to make the most of the famous French way of life.

For those excluded, perhaps grubbing some kind of living in the informal economy, relying on social security payouts, unskilled, often the children or grandchildren of immigrants still living in unglamorous ghetto-style banlieues, there is nothing but exclusion and alienation. For many of all backgrounds caught up in rust belts and stagnant rural economies there is an equal disaffection, though with very different perceived causes and perceived enemies. At the root of that pervasive French pessimism that is such a pronounced characteristic of its politics today, in all parts of French society, lies economic failure and particularly the failure on jobs. It has been true for decades now, and even if France enjoys, as now, an economic recovery, the fruits seems to be unevenly shared.

Mr Macron may sense that Brexit might offer the opportunity for France to position itself economically at Britain’s expense. Now that the Tories seem set to win the British general election, and to repeat their hopeless migration cap of the “tens of thousands”, France can make the case to the rest of the world that students and the high-skilled, from inside and outside the EU, are welcome. Welcome, that is, to help reinvigorate French business life and to provide a supply of young and willing students who will finance the French welfare state far into the future, rather than watch it collapse under the burden of an ageing populace. Few pledges combine the qualities of impracticality and stupidity as does Theresa May’s belief in the virtues of minimal migration. In due course, when she fails once again, few will do more to erode her credibility. If Mr Macron has as an acute eye for the main chance as he has shown so far, he will be seeking to divert those on their way to Heathrow to Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Far from warning off the British about a “race to the bottom”, a reforming Macron government might eagerly seek a head start, liberalising the economy and lowering taxes to build a more competitive, more market-oriented, less statist French economy. In doing so he will be able to tell inward investors in the automotive sector, in aerospace, in finance and much else that France is, as we like to say, “Open for Business” – and remains in the single market, with Paris as an especially pleasant place to live, with cleaner air, cheaper homes, better public transport and superior restaurants to London.

What if the French suddenly decided to take a more relaxed view of non-doms? Or foreign takeovers of great French companies? What if a French administration decided that Danone, a yoghurt maker, was no longer a “strategic asset” to be protected? Of privatising moribund state concerns? Of weakening the unions and the 35-hour week? That really would be a French revolution. Yet the track record of Mr Macron’s immediate predecessors, suggests that he will find it difficult to build a consensus on radical reform, let alone deliver painful action. Some say, in that fashionably pessimistic way of some French circles, that France simply cannot be reformed. Perhaps it will take a more radical change than a Macron presidency, or perhaps the French people will be content to enjoy a leisurely managed decline.

The fear is that that one day there may be another resurgence of the Front National and some or other branch of the Le Pen dynasty coming forward to make the most of the “failure” of the establishment. Of course protectionism and banning the burka are not going to fix the French economy, but sooner or later the French people may well run out of time and patience. The failure of the Macron experiment would then amount to a failure of French democracy itself. For President Macron, the stakes are high.

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