The ‘banker’ who would cure France’s ‘three diseases’
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First they spoke of an imminent decrease in unemployment; then, of a decreasing increase. Now, halfway through their term and with jobs still lagging, France’s Socialists have vowed to “speak the truth” about the economy – and it doesn’t sound good.
The truth is, "France is sick", the new economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, is fond of repeating.
Casting himself as doctor-in-chief during a press briefing on Wednesday, the 36-year-old former investment banker singled out "mistrust", "complexity" and "corporatism" as the "three diseases" he believes are stifling France’s economy.
The remedy, he said, requires “lifting all blockages” that hold back the economy, “shattering glass ceilings” and “changing mentalities”.
Beyond the fiery rhetoric, Macron unveiled a first batch of proposed reforms designed to tackle France’s jobless rate, which has gone over the symbolic 10% mark.
These include plans to lift some restrictions on Sunday trading, open intercity bus transport to competition, and “liberate” highly regulated professions in the health sector and the judiciary.
“By over-protecting, we end up protecting nothing,” Macron told reporters, opportunely quoting France’s brand new Nobel laureate for economics, Jean Tirole.
Critics were swift to deride the gap between the minister’s bombast and the actual scope of the proposed reforms.
“It’s striking and, frankly, somewhat ridiculous,” said Michel Husson of the Paris-based Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES), in an interview with FRANCE 24.
While conceding that the minister’s plans to heal the French economy were still only in their infancy, Husson described Macron’s first proposals as “timid”, “peripheral” and “disproportionate” relative to France’s economic woes.
France’s new socialism
French lawmakers are not expected to vote on a future “Macron bill” until the spring of next year.
But with the government’s popularity at rock bottom and EU officials breathing down its neck, France’s embattled President François Hollande has urged his ministers to step up their reformist oratory.
Since entering the goverment in late August, Macron has proved especially zealous, instantly becoming a fixture of French news reports.
Le Monde has described him as “being on the move at all cost, whether or not the exact direction is known”.
According to the respected French daily, Prime Minister Manuel Valls is fond of referring to him as the “star player” in his cabinet.
Significantly, the right-wing press has proved particularly lenient, relishing Macron’s freedom of speech – if only to better criticize the rest of the government.
Even before his ministerial appointment, conservative daily Le Figaro had ranked him number one in its list of “the 100 leaders of tomorrow”.
Meanwhile, the gossip press has dwelled on his marriage with his former high school teacher, Brigittte Trogneux, who is 20 years his senior.
Macron has also attracted considerable attention abroad, with a lengthy profile in the New York Times describing the pro-business technocrat as the “face of France’s new socialism”.
Remarking on his youth, the US daily stressed his “aura of authority” and considerable clout within the Hollande administration.
Inevitably, Macron's four-year spell at investment bank Rothschild, which made him a millionaire, has been widely noted – and hotly debated.
Enemy no more
At first glance, Macron’s appointment looks like an odd choice for Hollande, who famously campaigned for the presidency saying “the world of finance is my enemy”.
Despite having joined the Socialist Party more than a decade ago, Macron is still nicknamed “the banker” both by far-right leader Marine Le Pen and left-wingers sceptical of his Socialist credentials.
The economy minister has countered by urging critics to stop obsessing over his CV and start looking at his policies instead.
“Besides, there is nothing wrong with having worked for private firms,” he told France Inter radio on Thursday, “particularly when your job [as minister] is to help them out.”
But the ouster of his equally outspoken predecessor, Arnaud Montebourg, supposedly the cabinet’s most leftist minister, only strengthened the idea that the Hollande administration was pulling away from the left.
“In fact, Macron’s arrival is consistent with the reformist shift Hollande began at the start of 2014,” says Marc Ivaldi, a colleague of Nobel laureate Jean Tirole at the Toulouse School of Economics.
The centre-piece of Hollande’s new economic policy is the so-called Responsibility Pact, which promises companies €40 billion in tax breaks in exchange for pledges to hire more workers, and which Macron helped draft.
“But plans to open up transport and lift restrictions on Sunday trading have been in the pipeline for longer,” Ivaldi told FRANCE 24.
He believes the real change Macron has introduced is one of “tone, which has become openly liberal”.
The minister’s candid tone has already triggered a number of rows, not least when he questioned the wisdom of France’s 35-hour working week on the eve of his ministerial appointment.
More recently, he took aim at another bulwark of the left by calling for a far-reaching reform of France’s unemployment benefit system.
To woo Merkel – or not to
According to Ivaldi, Macron’s provocative statements are largely aimed at officials in Brussels and Berlin, whose patience with the French government’s bloated budgets is wearing thin.
Macron’s press briefing on Wednesday was timed to coincide with an EU deadline for France and other eurozone members to submit their draft 2015 budgets to the European Commission in Brussels.
The country is struggling to bring its budget deficit back down to the 3% ceiling mandated by the EU and has repeatedly missed the target.
Despite announcing €50 billion in spending cuts over the next three years, the French government has once again warned it will be unable to meet EU requirements, meaning the Commission could reject its draft budget and tell France to change it or face a fine.
“Nobody wants this to happen,” says Ivaldi, “which is why [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel has offered a way out: Europe will accept France’s budget as long as Paris commits to wide-ranging reforms.”
Finding a way out of the economic doldrums, however, is another matter.
“Macron’s reformist pledges may appease Brussels for now, but they do not feature in the Socialists’ election platform and that is a real problem – we still don’t have a clear economic strategy,” says Ivaldi.
According to IRES’s Husson, France’s economy minister would do better challenging the austerity policies advocated by the EU Commission rather than trying to please it.
“Macron’s talk is all about ‘blockages’, ‘rigidities’, and ‘blowing things up’,” says Husson.
“But that will have no impact on jobs so long as the EU’s budgetary orthodoxy means the economy stays flat.”