Given the critical situation of the country, the motto of Pierre Mendès France – “To govern is to choose” – has never been more apt.
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendez-vous with destiny,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Today, in France, it is Emmanuel Macron and the new generation he incarnates that have a rendez-vous with destiny. It is up to them to raise France up again after having been ruined by a succession of irresponsible leaders since the 1980s. It is up to them to drive forward the re-founding of Europe.
Macron’s victory does not do away with “France’s risks”, just as the clear defeat of Marine Le Pen does not signal an end to populism. It is not to enough to beat the extremists at the polls; they and their demagogy feed and prosper on economic, social, cultural and political ills that must be eliminated.
Nothing would be more dangerous than – as in the past – to rely on the improvement of the economic situation. The eurozone is looking better, with a 1.8% growth rate, lower unemployment – down to 8% of the working population, a large external surplus and a public deficit at 1.5% of GDP. This is a solid recovery that is off to a good start, bringing benefits to southern Europe – including Greece which is coming out of recession. The rise in the growth rate and profits, together with a diminished political risk, is thereby creating an ideal environment for the return of international capital to the continent.
However, France is lagging behind. Industry is springing back, but growth is hitting less than 1.5.% per year. Unemployment is not decreasing and affects 6.6 million French people. The external deficit has sunk to 56 billion euros annually, as opposed to 48 billion in 2016. The deficit is not managing to go below 3% of GDP. Public debt, totalling 2,160 billion euros, is the reason for massive selling by Asian investors and it is only because of buying by the European Central Bank that France’s risk level has not soared. It is also a vain hope to depend on fluctuations of the economic situation in order to solve structural problems. No recovery, no matter how strong or durable, can ensure the sustainability of the Franch model, which juxtaposes 1% of the world’s population, 3.5% of the world’s production, and 15% of its social transfers.
No one should underestimate the extent of the economic and financial catastrophe that would have resulted from France’s leaving the eurozone, whch was at the heart of Marine Le Pen’s program. Her defeat is all the more salutory as it underlines the incoherence of her proposals as well as her inability to assume the presidency – also illustrated by the chaotic Trump presidency.
Coming after the failures of Norbert Hofer in Austria and Geert Wilders in The Netherlands, Europe’s resistance to the rise of populism is reassuring. But it is fragile. Hostility toward the market economy and toward Europe was expressed in 55% of the votes cast in the first round of the presidential elections; in the second round, 60% of the working classes, 51% of the unemployed and 40% of private sector employees voted for Marine Le Pen and 57% of those who voted for Macron did so not as a positive vote, but to oppose the FN. In Europe, even if the autumn elections in Germany are dominated by the governing parties, Beppe Grillo will remain a major threat in Italy when the February 2018 general election takes place.
Macron cannot take his time. His first hundred days in office will be decisive. The motto of Pierre Mendès France – “To govern is to choose” – has never been more apt. Choose to act or choose to be loved. Choose to reform or to prolong decline. Choose civil society which has brought about the success of En marche! (the initial name of Macron’s political movement) or give in the the corporatism of the public sector. Given the country’s critical situation and the legacy left by François Hollande, the president’s credibility will depend on his ability to undertake the transformation of the French model before the end of 2017. This transformation has five priorities: the flexi-security of the labour market; the reduction of taxation on companies and savings – indispensable for recreating a production base; control of public expenditure; giving a new direction to national education policy, which has gone adrift; and redefining security strategy. Emmanuel Macron has shown an exceptional talent for choosing the right moment for his bid for power and making the most of that moment. He must now show the same talent in the exercise of power.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 14th May 2017)