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The France of No Tomorrow

What Macron’s lean to the right means for the liberal elite—and everyone else

In recent years a new kind of centrist politics has been taking shape in France. To confront the twin perils of economic and cultural nationalism, strategists and think tank wonks dreamed up a plan to keep the country focused on the process of globalization and EU integration, paving the way for the “France of Tomorrow.” This vital center would be a French version of the Obama coalition, with the “outsiders”—the precariously unemployed or part-time workers and entrepreneurs and creatives—against the “insiders.” In the new vocabulary of French “progressivism,” the “insiders” label denotes perhaps a few of the expected oligarchic rentiers, but also the employees of the French state and clunky public services and other holders of too-cushy labor contracts. What was taking shape was a battle between a “protective state” and an “emancipatory state,” the outdated mantra of “protect me” against the dormant majority’s real demand: “help me succeed.”

Or so it seemed in 2011, when the Terra Nova Foundation, a Parisian think-tank working alongside the Clinton-sphere Center for American Progress, published a dismal diagnostic of the future of French social democracy.[*] According to the report, the center-left Socialist Party, like its continental counterparts, was surviving on life-support. Its traditional social base in the French working class was fraying in a long-since de-industrialized country. Many former workers had moved up the ranks into the lower-middle classes, preferring personal advancement and the fruits of consumerism. The Socialist Party had failed to adapt.

What was taking shape was a battle between a “protective state” and an “emancipatory state,” the outdated mantra of “protect me” against the dormant majority’s real demand: “help me succeed.”

For the authors of the report, however, the more consequential gulf was a cultural one. France’s professional, urban middle classes had come to embrace the cultural liberalism of the 1970s—“sexual liberation, contraception and the end of the traditional family”—and the new face of multicultural France: “tolerance, an openness toward difference, a favorable attitude toward abortion, immigrants, Islam.” Against the values of the professional class, whose political support remained divided between France’s two outdated centrist parties held back by their respective extremes, the remnants of the French working class had lapsed into resentment: “against immigrants, welfare beneficiaries, the decaying of moral values, and the disorders of contemporary society.” Preserving cultural openness necessitated the formation of a single centrist political bloc, culturally and economically in defense of globalization.

François Hollande’s ineffectual presidency, between 2012 and 2017, was characterized by an opportunistic, half-hearted flattering of working-class loyalties followed by, in its final years, a predictable, yet equally half-hearted embrace of supply-side adjustment. It was the final act of a political epoque whose eulogy Terra Nova delivered in 2011. The New Era—a Risorgimento ushering in an unending Era of Good Feelings under the benevolent stewardship of the professional and entrepreneurial classes—would have to wait until Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 to be put into action.

The France of Tomorrow is now one year old and its contours have begun to take shape. The sleek vision of a society of merit and achievement, a revolution of the “outsiders” against the “insiders” has shown its true colors. Macronism is little more than seizure of the public interest by the French business elite.

Donning the habits of a latter-day Margaret Thatcher, Macron has used the first year of his presidency to take an axe to the remnants of the French welfare state. An overhaul of the labor code by executive order, short-circuiting parliamentary debate, kicked off the New Era last September. The creative and entrepreneurial classes received handsome checks in the form of a flat-tax on capital gains and cuts to estate and wealth taxes. Pursuant to EU regulations designed to create a continent-wide competitive market in rail transportation, employees of France’s national rail company, the SNCF, have seen their contracts redrawn and weakened, creating a scheme in which future hires will no longer benefit from the protections of functionary status but will be free-agents at the whim of management.

What is taking shape is not a society of “opportunity,” a France where every child might aspire to be a billionaire—a vision Macron has touted—but a society of castes and orders, fashioned to the needs of French businesses. Witness the controversial educational reform law passed this spring. Instituting selective admission in public French universities, the law likewise redraws the curriculum in public high-schools, requiring students to select their high school course-load in preparation for their eventual university admission and future career path, thereby excluding students in vocational and technical high schools from university education. Fashioned with the interests of the French business lobbies in mind, technical high schools are set to become workshops tailored to the needs of capital. The France of Tomorrow is a society where a child will know from the age of thirteen or fourteen the place he or she will occupy as an adult.

Macronism is little more than seizure of the public interest by the French business elite.

The embrace of full-fledged Thatcherism can perhaps be chalked up to the need to conform to the race-to-the-bottom dictates of the global market. But what of the cultural aspects of the Terra Nova’s professional class coalition, the unapologetic embrace of cultural globalization amidst a climate of resurgent nationalism? Here again, Actually Existing Macronism is a retreat and an accommodation with the anti-immigrant sentiment his political coalition was intended to counter.  

Certain regions are facing collapse because they are submerged by asylum seekers . . . if we don’t respond, there will be hundreds of thousands of people that we’ll be forced to let in each year in France.” Such sensationalist language is usually standard fare in Marine Le Pen’s tirades against African and Middle Eastern migrants. But the speaker in this case is Emmanuel Macron’s strong-arm Interior Minister, Gérard Collomb, the architect of the Immigration-Asylum law now in its final stages of revision.

Widely criticized by human rights and refugee solidarity organizations, the law erects a tangle of bureaucratic hurdles between migrants and potential asylum in France. For example, new arrivals in France will have to navigate the asylum application process in ninety days, down from the previous one-hundred-twenty days, and will also suffer from a reduced period of fifteen days to deliver an appeal. Likewise, migrants entering France illegally will face harsher retention measures by the French police. As Collomb makes a trademark of clearing out refugee camps wherever they may appear or re-appear, be it in Paris or Calais, the strategy is to make the process of seeking asylum so arduous as to avert it from the start. Asylum and residence in France may still be a possibility and a formal right to the supposedly well-deserving. But Macron—“at the same time” is the catchphrase of this president—has perfected the art of feigning a liberal face all while creating the mechanisms to reduce the flow of migrants to a minimum.

It is no surprise therefore that Macron, alongside an enfeebled Angela Merkel in Germany, can give at best a tepid response to the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across the continent. While serious divergences exist even among different far-right formations, a new consensus has unfortunately emerged across the continent as the recent EU-wide meetings in Brussels attest: the decision to open the doors of the Schengen zone in 2015 was a mistake; the network of camps pooling migrants outside of the European Union in North Africa or in the Balkans, from which legitimate “asylum seekers” will be sorted out from the horde of simple “migrants,” needs to be strengthened. The recent Aquarius fiasco, in which a boat carrying hundreds of migrants was left wandering for days in the Western Mediterranean after being rejected by both the French and Italian governments, is evidence enough that much of the difference between the supposedly liberal and the overtly neo-fascist is style.

The weeks and months following Macron’s election were something of a honeymoon for the commentariat and political classes in London, Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Here at last was a road map and a path to victory. If only a similar reshuffling could be orchestrated across the continent—grouping together the pro-European middle classes in one coalition—it was an experience that could be replicated elsewhere. 

This has not panned out. In election after election, from Italy and Hungary to Austria and the anchor of European policy since 2008, Germany, nationalist and xenophobic parties have made historic advances. The centrist force of which Macron was supposedly the harbinger has yet to take shape. This has led to major revisions in the Terra Nova playbook. Intending to link an unabashed defense of both cultural and economic globalization, Macronism is increasingly urging caution on the former. The cultural anxieties provoked by multiculturalism are legitimate.

Indeed, the balance of Macron’s first year proves that he is best understood not as an exception to but as part of the wave of illiberalism reshaping European politics. Scorn for parliamentary process—key initiatives such as the reform of the SNCF and the redrawing of the labor code were passed by ordinance, a power in the constitution that stipulates that the parliament can yield the drafting of a law to the government in a particular domain—and a taste for staged confrontation with protesters and the opposition have given Macron an aura of a strongman politician.

The danger is that Macron remains, from the point of view of think tanks and newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, the only conceivable, working alternative to right-wing nationalism.

Macron’s lean to the right can also be explained by his desire to corner out any left opposition, all while placing himself as the only check against the far right. In an act of triangulation, Macron has legitimized and appropriated many right-wing ideas, while seeking to situate the far right as his only opposition. This line of thinking can be heard in the reprimands and harsh scrutiny leveled against intra-majority dissent against the Immigration-Asylum law in the French parliament.  If we don’t clamp down on immigrants, Collomb and other party leaders argued, then the far-right will.

The real question is: could it play out any differently? The argument of a perceptive essay, L”Illusion du Bloc Bourgeois, published in the lead-up to the 2017 election by two French economists is that it could not.[**] As Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini argue, The Terra Nova strategy, the roadmap for Macronism drawn up in 2011, would never hold the demographic weight without overtures to either the left or the right. But the unifying theme of Macron’s first year has been one long choreographed attack on the French left—from televised encounters between occupying students and masked protesters and riot police, to the images of a defiant Macron facing down pesky and medieval striking workers. Indeed, it is clear that in the pantheon of values dear to the centrists around Macron, the need to hold together a coalition around economic reforms has prevailed over the creation of an anti-nationalist and anti-xenophobic front with the left, which would require accommodation and compromise in Macron’s unwinding of the French welfare state.

The danger is that Macron remains, from the point of view of think tanks and newsrooms on both sides of the Atlantic, the only conceivable, working alternative to right-wing nationalism. One Macron admirer, Tony Blair, put it clearly when he wrote in a 2017 column in the New York Times: “the correct strategy is to make the case for building a new coalition out from the center. To do so, progressives need to acknowledge the genuine cultural anxieties of those voters who have deserted the cause of social progress: on immigration, the threat of radical Islam and the difference between being progressive and being obsessive on issues like gender identity.”

Back in France, the Terra Nova Foundation stirred up controversy in mid-June when it was discovered that it was conducting an internal survey among supporters and party members of Macron’s political formation, La République en Marche. Test subjects were gauged on their attitude, from “completely disagree” to “completely agree,” toward the following claims: “France has too many immigrants;” “We don’t feel at home like we used to;” “Islam is a threat for the West;” “France needs as its leader a strong man who is not preoccupied with parliament or elections;” “The children of immigrants born in France are French like everyone else.”

While the results await publication, the study itself can be taken as an example of the plasticity of values dear to the liberals around Macron. Mirroring his lean to the right, the survey exemplifies the race-to-the-bottom politics that will prevail so long as politics in the West is reduced to a confrontation between professionals and neofascists. Likewise, as Macron hollows out all positive notions of French citizenship, those that might imply solidarity and collective responsibility, it is no surprise that he is forced to lean with the right on a politics of exclusion. 

But the borders will still be wide open for some. As the Immigration-Asylum law entered its final weeks of debate, Macron announced the end of the so-called “Exit-Tax” on the removal of capital wealth from France.


[*]Gauche: Quelle Majorité Sociale pour 2012?” All translations are my own.

[**] Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini, L’illusion du bloc bourgeois: alliances sociales et avenir du modele français. Raisons D’Agir: Paris, 2017.