TIT YOUR was sharp. Both hands were hitting the table irritably. The glass of water shook. “We are investing an insane amount in social benefits! »Exclaimed Emmanuel Macron, seated with his advisers on silk armchairs in the Elysee Palace. The video, shamelessly posted by an assistant, went viral. It was in 2018, just one year after starting his presidency, and confirmed what many French people already suspected. Their new president – a former investment banker, who abolished the wealth tax and picked a center-right (and later another) prime minister – was a right-wing liberal who secretly sought to reward the rich and to demolish the social model, the French welfare state from cradle to grave.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on ios or Android.
The image endures. The president is still linked in the minds of the French to more flexible labor laws, to the end of special pension rights for railway workers and to the longest strikes since 1968. at a standstill, just a few weeks before the pandemic . Tough security laws and Islamist extremism seem to confirm a shift to the right. Today, Mr Macron mumbles again about tightening retirement rules to keep the French at their desks until later in life. France, land of slowness and rapid indignation, is preparing for the worst. Relaunching pension reform now, said Laurent Berger, a (moderate) union leader, would be “totally mad politically” and “socially explosive”.
But what if, for a moment, the conceptually-minded French put aside the boxes in which they so avidly locked their politicians and take a closer look at what also happened? Those on the left who think the president has shamelessly betrayed all their ideals may find the evidence difficult. Because Mr. Macron has become a sort of closet socialist.
The most visible proof of the president channeling his inner Mitterrand can be found in his new relationship with public funds. When the pandemic struck, Mr. Macron borrowed a turn of phrase from Mario Draghi, promising to spend ” whatever the cost (whatever the cost) ”to fight it. Since then, he has, in his own words, “nationalized” the wages and operating accounts of companies, spending ten times more last year to keep companies and workers on leave than France never earned. in one year thanks to the old wealth tax.
Macronian alms have multiplied: € 300 ($ 354) for 18-year-olds to spend on “culture”; a supplement of 150 € for beneficiaries; up to € 650 more per month for health workers; university meals capped at € 1; free breakfasts in schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods; free health products for female students; An additional € 100 per month for low-income retired farmers – a proposition, incidentally, by none other than the Communists. “We are catapulting billions” of public money everywhere, said Adrien Quatennens, a far left MP, as incapable of deciding whether to applaud or disapprove.
None of this, of course, is unique to France. Joe Biden’s stimulus package overshadows that of Mr. Macron. Yet before the pandemic, France was not only more generous and better at correcting inequalities than America (not difficult). As part of GDP it also surpassed all the Nordic countries in social programs (much more difficult). Mr Macron, in other words, has succeeded in developing an already highly socialized economy and in doing so has pushed France’s public debt level well above the current high European Union average.
Less noticed is a growing body of progressive rights and rules that Mr. Macron has also introduced: a doubling of guaranteed paternity leave to four weeks from this month, with a mandatory week; fines for companies that fail to close the gender pay gap; the right of homosexual women to free fertility treatment, a historic first in France.
Abroad, Mr. Macron is often tried solo provocative, to impose the views of France while claiming to speak on behalf of Europe. Less well known is his Gordon Brown record of championing progressive multilateral causes, including those now attributed to Mr. Biden, from a global minimum corporate tax rate (a Macron pledge in 2017) to vaccines for Africa. “Coming from the left,” says Clément Beaune, his minister for Europe, “I don’t have the feeling at all that he has betrayed the social-democratic tendency.
Why, if this is true, none of this changes the judgments on the policy of Mr. Macron? The answer may lie in what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The president is an elitist ex-banker who cuts taxes and recruits on the right; ergo, he cannot be left-handed either. The conflicting evidence is confusing. In his well-cut suits and shiny leather shoes, Mr. Macron simply looks like an unlikely defender of the underdog. When, in full presidential gear, he showed up at an online youth video studio and spoke about the need to address “menstrual insecurity” among the homeless, viewers were stunned. Was this the same president who rejects waking culture and haughtily once told a gardener to just “cross the road” to find a job?
Center of attention
Perhaps it is such dissonance that Mr. Macron is looking for. Ahead of the 2022 presidential poll, France’s political center of gravity shifted to the right. It is from there, and not from the left, that his most difficult competition will come. Mr. Macron’s nod to the left is studiously gentle by French class warrior standards, and in line with his intellectual roots. On the contrary, he reconnects not with Mitterrand but with Michel Rocard, the former center-left prime minister of the former socialist president and a mentor (among many) of the young Mr. Macron.
If Mr Macron gets no credit for progressive policies, that may also be intrinsic to his project. Vowing to be “neither on the left nor on the right,” he is forever caught between exaggerated expectations on both sides and the discontent inherent in the compromises imposed by pragmatic politics. Such is the fate of the radical centrist. Yet the contradictions can also be fine for a country that thinks it values theoretical purity, but is in fact often happy to live with messy compromises. Unappreciated progressive, imperfect liberal, implausible conservative: Mr. Macron’s policy mix can work quite well in practice, even if it does not in theory. Long live France! ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “Le socialiste surreptice”