Last September, French President Emmanuel Macron met an unassuming gardener on the grounds of the Élysée Palace. Introducing himself, the 25-year-old timidly explained that he was having trouble finding work. “I send résumés and cover letters… they don’t lead to anything,” he told the president. Many people in France can relate: The country’s unemployment rate hovers just below 9 percent, more than two points above the European Union average. The joblessness rate, meanwhile, is more than twice that for young people age 15 to 24.
Macron’s reaction, however, was less than sympathetic—almost as if he were hearing this problem for the very first time and wasn’t all that convinced of its seriousness. “If you’re willing and motivated, in hotels, cafés, and restaurants, construction, there’s not a single place I go where they don’t say they’re looking for people!” he exclaimed. Then he added, “If I crossed the street, I’d find you one.”
The exchange only added to Macron’s long list of comically arrogant and out-of-touch utterances, both before and after he took office in May 2017. Along with his policies, which include tax cuts for the ultrarich, a decrease in low-income housing aid, and labor “reforms” that make it easier to lay off workers, these Macronisms have fueled the former investment banker’s image as “president of the rich.” Among the growing list: In 2016, while still serving as minister of the economy under François Hollande, Macron informed a young demonstrator that he wasn’t scared by his T-shirt and told him that he should get to work so he could “afford a suit”; in 2017, Macron described train stations as spaces filled with “people who succeed and people who are nothing”; and, later that same year, he dismissed tens of thousands of union-backed protesters as “lazy.”
Only the most fervent of the president’s supporters would deny that Macron has come to be viewed by many as an avatar for the country’s elites. A recent poll found that he had an approval rating of just 30 percent—down more than 30 points since his election two years ago. The Yellow Vest protests, which erupted late last year and continue today with broad support, have come to embody the intensity of public resentment against Macron. While a chorus of prominent fans continues to cheer him on from abroad, true believers are increasingly hard to find in France itself.
Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief of The Economist, is one of them. Her new book, Revolution Française, is for this reason not very helpful for understanding Macron’s presidency and its limits. But it is useful for understanding his own self-perceptions, as well as the reasons why an ever-diminishing share of European and American liberals still support and admire him.
Pedder is perhaps best known in France for her previous book, French Denial: The Last Spoiled Children of Europe, which was published in France in the aftermath of Hollande’s 2012 election victory. It’s a nasty polemic against the country’s welfare state and relatively pro-worker labor laws, both of which Pedder sees as outmoded and irresponsible in an increasingly globalized world. With the ascension of Macron, Pedder found someone she could finally cheer: a politician willing to loosen workforce regulations and transform France into a “start-up nation.”
Pedder divides her book into two sections. The first traces Macron’s spectacular rise and the circumstances that made it possible; the second turns toward his political project and his brief time in office. Journalists can often be enthusiastic about their subjects, but in the book’s second section, Pedder takes her enthusiasm to a new level. For her, Macron’s presidency is, as the book’s title suggests, nothing short of a revolution. For much of France’s working and middle classes, however, Macron’s tenure thus far has been a source of frustration, disappointment, and anger—and his remaining three years in office promise more of the same.
Macron was born in Amiens, a small city in northern France that was once a hub for textile production and has struggled since the 1970s with industrial job loss. The city’s history, however, seems to have had little effect on Macron’s upbringing. The son of well-off doctors, he was raised in an upper-middle-class home and attended a private Catholic school. At 17, Macron set out on what Pedder calls a “quest for total liberty”—a quest that led him to enroll in an elite prep school; then Sciences Po, the elite Parisian university focused on politics; then the Université Paris Nanterre, where he studied philosophy; and finally the École Nationale d’Administration, the finishing school for the country’s political elite.
After graduating from the ENA in 2004, Macron took a job with the Inspection Générale des Finances, a key state auditing corps based in the finance ministry. After four years, he left that position for the private sector, taking a lucrative gig at the Rothschild & Cie investment bank. Leveraging his impressive list of contacts, the man whom Pedder describes as being guided by “liberty, the sense of possibility, and the freedom to be different” ultimately pocketed over €1 million (post-taxes) for four years of work.
In 2012, Macron transitioned back into the public sector, becoming deputy secretary-general for Hollande, the newly elected Socialist president. But Hollande clashed repeatedly with his minister of the economy, Arnaud Montebourg—a protectionist-leaning Socialist and a well-established critic of austerity—and eventually replaced him with the then largely unknown Macron.
From his new seat of power, the former banker oversaw a modest but hotly contested labor-law reform that allowed more work on Sundays. But he also left little clue as to his broader political vision. When Macron finally announced his presidential campaign in November 2016, he was still seen as something of a long shot—and, for French journalists and voters, mostly a political mystery. Touting a mix of social liberalism and pro-business economic reform, the candidate didn’t even release a detailed platform until less than eight weeks before the first round of voting.
Pedder is a proud practitioner of access journalism, and she has interviewed Macron at length on multiple occasions. Exchanges like these can be fruitful if they are framed around a set of tough questions; they might have even been useful in clarifying Macron’s underlying worldview. Unfortunately, Pedder’s gushing admiration for her subject means that Macron is often treated less like a politician than as some kind of philosopher-poet manqué who simply happened to fall into public service.
Despite Pedder’s efforts, Macron is not even very good at playing this role. Mostly, he provides a series of rambling and mind-numbingly vapid quotes that are neither philosophical nor political. The challenge now, he says, “is to build a neo-progressivism, structured around the idea of individual progress for all, in a way that combines agility with security.” In another, he explains: “We need to define another horizon together. We can be leaders of tomorrow’s world.” At one point, Pedder lets Macron ask and answer his own question about populism: “Why do we have a revival of religious and other fanaticisms? Because they have a hold on the imagination, sometimes an extreme hold, which responds to an ontological need that mankind has for exaltation, for figures that count.”
Macron’s verbosity and his tendency to embrace irritating jargon may have actually worsened since he assumed the presidency. Speaking in vacuous language, it seems, is one of his preferred political weapons. By doing so, he can find a way to appease multiple constituencies at once—by talking a lot and yet saying very little. But the president does have a political project, and it is one that cannot possibly appease everyone. For Macron, France has long been crippled by entrenched special interests—labor, civil servants, naive student protesters—who turn to the state to solve their problems and prevent the economy from realizing its full potential. Macron’s ambition, at least in his telling, is to pass the tough but necessary reforms that will liberate the private sector from these nefarious forces and unleash long-term growth. In this way, Macron can serve as the tribune of the people, the supposed “hidden majority” that supports his plans for “reforming the country.”
Previous efforts to relax the state’s grip on the economy and roll back public spending have failed, because the powerful special interests derided by the president and his ilk ultimately prove to be a large portion of the population. Macron is indeed a tribune, but it is for the economic elites, who themselves constitute their own entrenched special interest. His base is not a “hidden majority” so much as an influential minority composed of executives and white-collar professionals—the latter of whom used to split their votes between the Socialist Party and the mainstream right wing but, in 2016, helped to propel Macron into the second round of the presidential election. In that run-off, Macron then trounced the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, winning support from a much broader coalition of young people, retirees, and public-sector workers. But as the exit polls showed, most of these voters were motivated by hostility toward the far right, not by support for the president’s platform. Macron’s polling numbers today reflect his actual base: the 33 percent or so of the French electorate who genuinely believe in his project.
Not only does Pedder accept Macron’s claims to represent a hidden majority, but she also anchors her defense of him to the idea that France is in dire need of reform because of its hostility toward business. Whether or not it’s the popular thing to do, she argues, the country needs to loosen labor regulations, slash government spending, and privatize public services. This argument is common among certain Anglophone observers of France, especially those of the neoliberal variety. Although France has the world’s sixth-largest economy, boasts 28 Fortune 500 companies (seven more than the United Kingdom), and is a nation where shareholders are rewarded handsomely, with one of the highest rates of corporate profits going toward dividends and stock buybacks on the planet, Pedder insists that “corporate France has not fulfilled its potential.”
Perhaps because she’s so sympathetic to the supposed woes of the business world, Pedder also proves to be not all that interested in the various protest movements which, in previous years, have successfully beaten back Macron-style reforms, and which have flamed into existence again in 2018. Pedder recognizes the street as a potent force in French politics, and she makes note of the 1995 movement against retirement reform and the 2005 student movement against a proposed youth-employment contract. But instead of exploring the causes of these demonstrations, Pedder simply chalks them up to the nation’s “romantic affection for revolutionary rhetoric and theatrical protest.” France’s penchant for protests, as far as she’s concerned, is merely a question of style—not the product of genuine political conflict or class dynamics.
The spectacular success of the Yellow Vest movement should safely put that notion to rest. Launched last November to oppose an increase in the fuel tax, the movement has come to encompass a deep frustration with the rising cost of living and with Macron’s disinterest in providing relief to the working and lower-middle classes. After weeks of disruptive traffic blockades and demonstrations that grew violent, the president was forced, humiliatingly, to make concessions. The government canceled the planned fuel-tax hike and vowed to increase a state subsidy for low-wage workers by up to €100 per month; scrap another tax hike that hit retirees; and stop taxing overtime pay. Needless to say, these aren’t concessions to a protest movement focused simply on prices at the gas pump.
Pedder calls her book Revolution Française because she believes Macron’s election as president could prove nearly as pivotal as the much bloodier political transformations of 1789. It could mark, she writes, “the beginnings of a reshaping of modern France, and with it possibly Europe.” According to this view, Macron’s victory spells the end of a political crisis, the welcome conclusion to a cycle of despair and tepid growth that dates back to the end of the Trente Glorieuses, the nation’s 30-year postwar boom.
In reality, Macron’s election didn’t signify the end of France’s political crisis, but rather its deepening. The Fifth Republic now faces a hegemony crisis without parallel in its 60-year history. As En Marche, Macron’s party, braves the swelling winds of disapproval, the two political families that have dominated life in France since World War II stand in tatters. The Socialist Party is a spent force on the national level, polling in the single digits ahead of this May’s European elections. The mainstream right, meanwhile, has been paralyzed as Macron’s government approves a series of policies it has long advocated. At the same time, populist forces are bubbling on opposite sides of the spectrum: on the left, La France Insoumise, which seeks to mobilize popular discontent against corporations and the ultrarich; on the far right, the newly renamed National Rally, formerly known as the National Front.
At the moment, none of these parties can plausibly claim majority support on their own. Polls are a constant reminder of their basic lack of popularity, with most political figures earning less than a third of the public’s approval. It’s a dizzying and frightening moment—but one not without opportunity for those committed to a revival of social democracy. The left could gain momentum as it rallies behind France’s imperiled social safety net, regaining support from working-class voters. On the other hand, so could the far right, as Le Pen and company continue to harp on national identity and rail against the government’s economic policies.
The Yellow Vests illustrate the complexity of the path ahead. One of the most comprehensive studies of the protesters to date found most of them hostile to political labels and motivated primarily by issues of economic justice—in other words, apt recruits for a reinvigorated left. At the same time, a separate poll showed that more than 40 percent of self-described Yellow Vests backed Le Pen in 2017—more than any other presidential candidate. While her party remains a magnet for chest-thumping nationalists, the National Rally has also managed to reinvent itself as a pro-worker foe of the political establishment represented by Macron.
Given the roller coaster of the last year and a half, only fools would try to predict what comes next. What is clear, though, is that the starry-eyed optimism of Pedder’s account has already been superseded by events. Macron’s appeal peaked the day that French citizens rallied together to deny the presidency to Le Pen. Voters may be called on to do so again soon. Unfortunately, for many, the choice may not be as obvious next time.