How does the new French government differ from the old? The answer is contained in a single name: Emmanuel Macron, the new minister of the economy. Macron is a familiar type to anyone who follows French politics: the brilliant student who, by the age of 36, has succeeded in more careers than the average mortal will experience in a lifetime. He is a graduate of the Lycée Henri IV, of course, of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, of course, and of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, of course. Before the ENA he served as Paul Ricoeur's assistant on the strength of a series of brilliant (of course) dissertations on the general interest, Hegel, and Machiavelli (of course), and after the ENA (from which he graduated no. 5 in his class, of course) he joined the most prestigious of the French corps d'élite, the Inspection des Finances (of course). But because he "values his independence," he left public service for a few years to join the Banque Rothschild (of course). He is said to exercise a strong seductive power on elder statesmen, and it was one of them, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Jospin's Mr. Europe before becoming Sarkozy's Mr. Europe and now secretary-general of the Elysée, who persuaded (of course) the young meteor to take a 90% salary cut to join Hollande's staff. For that strategic decision he now reaps the reward of a ministerial portfolio, replacing the mercurial Arnaud Montebourg.
So what does this portend for French economic policy? The conventional wisdom is that it consummates the victory of the "social liberal" wing of the Socialist Party: free-market economics combined with whatever (little) can be salvaged of the welfare state. Of Hollande it has been said frequently in the last 24 hours that il assume son choix néolibéral, as if that tells us anything. In fact, Macron in his former job worked closely with the ousted Montebourg, particularly on implementing the recommendations of the Attali and Gallois reports to increase competitiveness. But for the most part it was small-bore incrementalism: reducing the fees charged by huissiers and notaires and chauffeurs de taxi may be long overdue in France but is hardly the stuff of a Thatcherian overhaul of the economy, nor is it the thin end of the German Ordoliberal wedge or the mainmise of the Banque Rothschild. Soyons sérieux. Montebourg spoke loudly and carried a small stick. Macron speaks softly and will carry a small stick. The heavy lifting remains, and will no doubt be avoided as long as Hollande is president.
There is no doubt that the French economy is much in need of structural reform. The problem is that structural reform requires political finesse as well as a strong will, and Macron, for all his bourgeois discreet charm, embodies the congenital defect of post-Mitterrand socialism in France. Mitterrand surrounded himself with bright énarques who could get things done elegantly and efficiently. At some point, however, the énarques ceased to be content with being mere exécutants and developed a taste for political legitimacy, encouraged to do so by le Florentin himself. Jospin and Hollande are perfect examples. They were able to win office but without developing the political instincts, the flair, the networks below the elite level that are necessary to facilitate action and communicate les doléances du peuple back to the palace. They became les intendants of the Fifth Republic, a caste of royal officials utterly divorced from the society they purport to govern. One after another, we have seen brilliant young men (and some women), of whom Macron is the latest, rise to power, greeted by journalistic trumpets such as the Libération article I cited above. And with each new appointment, le pouvoir grows more out of touch and less capable of responding to the groans from below. The rise of the Front National is only one sign of the resulting malaise.
Does the ouster of Montebourg represent a real change of economic policy? Surely not. Macron would no doubt like to see a softening of the German heart as dearly as Montebourg did, but if he ever alludes to his feelings on the matter, it will be with an ironic smile and sotto voce. Montebourg was at bottom no more of a politician than Macron: he was a lawyer, playing on the emotions of the jury and courtroom with his elaborate effets de manche and a not always well-calculated mise en scène. Montebourg's error was to think that Angela Merkel might be moved by his stagecraft. But he was no Racine and no Sarah Bernhardt, and in any case Merkel doesn't speak French. Macron's error will be to think that Merkel and her counselors will respond to his very French-style elitist brillance maligne. In fact, Merkel will continue to attend to German interests, and the best Macron, Sapin, Valls, and Hollande will be able to do will be to demonstrate that the German economy, too, is being sandbagged by German policy. It will be a slog.
One other comment on yesterday's change of government. In my Twitter feed yesterday a rather ugly note popped up from Laurent Wauquiez, another bright normalien of the Macron type who is one of the fair hopes of the Right and who seems lately to be pursuing his ambitions by playing to the Hard Right contingent in the UMP. Wauquiez's tweet read: "@ChTaubira maintenue, l'ultra pro-gender @najatvb à l'Education. Un gouvernement entre tragi-comédie et provocation contre les familles." The reference to justice minister Taubira, who was "symbolically" retained by Hollande despite her overt support for Montebourg, is Wauquiez's bid to curry favor with the racists in his party who applauded the photos of Taubira with an ape and the child who tried to hand her a bunch of bananas, while the reference to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, now elevated to minister of education (replacing frondeur Benoît Hamon) attempts to capitalize on the extremist fear-mongering about the Socialists' alleged (but non-existent) promotion of "gender studies" in French elementary schools, which Wauquiez pretends to construe as a "provocation against families." He knows better but apparently has decided that, despite being a normalien, his best shot at power is to pretend to be a yahoo ignoramus in the Sarah Palin mold. (h/t Arun Kapil)
In recent months I have been tempted to believe that French politics could sink no lower, but life is full of surprises.