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Macron’s Anniversary

It's been a year since Emmanuel Macron was elected. His “start-up presidency” is a liberal dystopia.

French President Emmanuel Macron and other EU leaders speak to the media following a meeting of European Union leaders at the Chancellery on June 29, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty

A former freight depot and now a residential “start-up campus,” Paris’s Station F is exactly the kind of project with which Emmanuel Macron wants to associate his presidency. Hip, modern, and housed in a building where “old-fashioned” workers used to labor, it gels with his vision of France as “une start-up nation.” His remarks on “France 2.0” are peppered with terms inspired by Silicon Valley, spoken in English for added effect.

For his supporters, Macron is a hero in standing up for “open Europe,” a dynamic political innovator who has pushed aside the old parties of both Left and Right, and he gave full voice to his “modernizing” agenda when opening Station F. Celebrating a new “entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Macron called for his compatriots “not to be ashamed to make money” and credited the assembled start-uppers with “writing a new page for the planet.” It was fitting, he said, that these tech pioneers should be housed in a station, “a place where you come across people who succeed, and other people who are nothing.”

It might seem odd for a democratic leader to refer to “people who are nothing,” but from the beginning of his presidency Macron has embraced this arrogant posture. His muscular liberalism adopts a tough “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” line. In similar recent provocations he has called public-sector workers “slackers” and told students missing their studies for protests that they could not expect easy “chocolate-coated exams.”

In this performance, Macron knows that he really does speak for part of France. His Thatcherite revolution, aggressively confronting the trade unions as he sings the praises of free enterprise, has long been an aspiration of the country’s right wing. But he has no need for the Tory social conservatism which associated them with bygone eras. Instead, Macron is a true market utopian, someone whose vision of France can look upon laid-off workers and disenfranchised Muslim youth for what they really are: potential startuppeurs.

End of the Line

Even if you haven’t seen it, you kind of know what Station F is already. It’s a bit like every episode of Black Mirror, a life-work “hub” fitted out with the gaudy Google-office paraphernalia of colorful beanbags and foosball tables. The current plan is for a clear separation between its residential section and the “makerspace.” A special group of underprivileged residents, “the Fighters” are also welcome in “the ecosystem.”

In a sense, this is, indeed, a campus, just like a university but for people who want to run start-ups. Yet it is also notable for the fact that you have to pay to sign up, and that it is selective. Though this is a private project, and therefore not a real “campus,” it chimes with Macron’s vision for the French university system, the latest target of his pro-business reform agenda.

A “Student Orientation and Success” Law issued in March introduces selection into university admissions and gets rid of re-sits. Together with a rise in fees, this has alarmed teaching and student unions who fear a new increasingly elite and expensive system that will hit the poorest hardest. They foresee the introduction of “two-speed” education system in which fees play an increasingly prominent role.

Twenty-five universities have been occupied in protest at the reforms, fearing the eventual creation of an American or British-style system in which the student-consumer takes out a massive debt as an “investment” in their education and future career. The occupiers fear that students will become a bit like a start-upper at Station F, not the recipient of a public service but a private entrepreneur selling themselves as a product.

The other confrontations on which Macron has embarked in his first year in office follow a similar model. Most notable is his current fight with the rail workers, as he seeks to withdraw the employment protections which allow them to expect to keep their jobs in the long term. Macron presents these public-sector workers as a “privileged” group whose existing rights give them an unfair advantage over other, more precarious workers.

It is easy to see the kind of dynamic that this perspective could produce. All employment rights are based on guarantees, and indeed, the restriction of the labor force. The most fundamental of workers’ rights is the right to not have to constantly compete for one’s own job. To advocate not the generalization of this right, but the removal of it as a “privilege” is to open the way to a race to the bottom, in which all power rests with the employer.

Macron’s success, in this regard, is to adopt an apparently insurgent agenda which in fact draws almost all ruling-class and media support onto his side. He has not just broken through the old center-left / center-right divide, but united the forces formerly aligned with each behind his own leadership. His presidency is the pure expression of a political landscape where the market has not only conquered democracy but increasingly society itself.

Festering Wounds

Macron serves as an example for liberals around Europe, given both his sharp rhetoric and his sudden electoral rise on the basis of his new “online-platform” party, La République en Marche. Receiving 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential contest, placing him far ahead of the conservative François Fillon and the shattered Socialist candidate, allowed him a runoff against the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

Macron’s thumping victory over the far-right candidate in the second round marked a hiatus in the recent series of electoral setbacks for the liberal, pro-European consensus. Figures from Italy’s Democrat leader Matteo Renzi to Jeremy Corbyn’s ultra-Remainer opponents in the Labour Party hailed Macron as proof that the center could indeed hold, and an example to follow. Yet the picture remains far from rosy.

6.6 million French citizens are either unemployed or chronically underemployed. This figure has fallen slightly since 2017 but remains above pre-crisis levels. Alienation from the old parties has hardly won such voters to Macron, whose agenda entrenches the very processes that caused the disaster of ex-industrial France. Nor do Macron’s plans for European reform seem likely to survive contact with German opposition.

Macron’s condemnation of the “adventure” of the “yellow brick road” out of Europe clearly appeals to deep-seated sentiments. In the wake of the election, even the Front National has played down its calls for a break with the eurozone. Its racist identitarianism does at times intersect with economic protectionism, but this latter element is clearly subordinate to the former, the glue of its coalition of support.

The Front National remains beyond the pale for large swathes of the population. This toxic, xenophobic force was Macron’s ideal opposition as he sought to rally the Left to his “open,” neoliberal project. However, an IPSOS study after last May’s election found that just 16 percent of his vote owed to agreement to his program, 33 percent to “political renewal” and 43 percent to opposition to Le Pen.

Macron’s support has declined in recent months, but not as disastrously as his predecessor François Hollande. A survey published by Le Figaro on May 2 found that 64 percent of French people declared themselves “disappointed” by his first year in office. Supporters of the center-right party Les Républicains have, however, become increasingly positive about Macron, whose own party LREM claims to stand above left-right divides.

Given Les Républicains’ weakness against a slick centrist rival, the main opposition (at the level of public opinion, if not in parliament) comes from the Front National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise. These forces are intensely opposed to one another, each seeking to hegemonize the discontent among the old industrial France defeated and abandoned by a series of governments.

France Insoumise offers an opportunity to challenge the Front National on this terrain. In 2017 its remarkable rise among the young and unemployed offered a particular sign of hope. Yet it still has conflictual relations with social movements and trade unions, and a sometimes-unattractive leadership model. Nor should the Front National be dismissed: it was disappointed to receive 34 percent of the vote last year, yet this doubled its 2002 result.

People Who Are Nothing

One of the finest pieces of writing during the 2017 campaign came from young novelist Édouard Louis. His first novel, a semi-autobiographical work about growing up gay in small-town France, had connected its brutality with a climate of ennui and social despair. His works are a tale of the cruelty meted out among the disenfranchised, the petty quest for control among those whom society condemns to have nothing.

In a piece for the New York Times, Louis spoke of why his father voted for the Front National. Injured in an industrial accident, his father was embittered against a Left that no longer spoke gave voice to “suffering, pain and exhaustion” or protested inequality but merely vaunted modernization and harmony. It spoke of a brave new world, just as Macron does: but one that offered no place for people like his father.

Louis’s intention was not to prettify his father’s choice or still less the Front National. It was to point to what happens when those who have nothing find no one to stand up for them, to recognize their basic dignity. Such a heartfelt sense of abandonment is particularly acute when, in Macron’s terms, the disenfranchised are not people who have nothing, but people who are nothing.

Perhaps Macron does believe that just anyone could become an entrepreneur. But very few of them can do it at the same time. Particularly unlikely to do so is the stigmatized Muslim teenager, ever the target of the “emergency” anti-terror measures which Macron has now made a established legal fact. Particularly unlikely to do so is the middle-aged rail worker whose job is today under threat.

For the Front National, these two have antagonistic interests. Emmanuel Macron’s project is to set them in a purer competition. The challenge to him, and the marketized future that he represents, lies in their realization that they have more in common than they yet know.