Monday, April 17, 2017

Response to Another Reader on Macron

In response to my previous post on Mélenchon, another reader writes:
I'm sure that I speak for many of your readers when I say I would appreciate a clear, affirmative presentation of the case for Macron on this blog sometime before the first round of voting. My sense from what you have written so far is that you support him more or less the way I do: faute de mieux, and with considerable foreboding.
The writer seems to want something I cannot provide: assurance that in marking his or her ballot for Macron, he or she will be doing "the right thing." We are in a moment of great uncertainty. No one can say for sure what "the right thing" is.

I am fairly confident that the programs of certain candidates are the wrong thing, however. Yesterday, I said why in the case of Mélenchon. It does not need saying why I think Le Pen's program is wrong: some of the reasons (her anti-European stance, her faith in protectionism and devaluation) are similar to the objections I raised against Mélenchon; others (national preference in hiring, hostility to minorities) are unique to her. Hamon, though personally and morally more appealing than either of those rivals, proposes a radical experiment in social and economic reform that I think would tip the balance against France in what I believe is a precarious early stage of recovery (see, e.g., this article on France's high-tech renaissance).

Macron would seek to push that recovery along by doing what centrist technocrats always do: making gestures friendly to business to improve the investment climate, spending money on education and R&D in areas that seem promising to young entrepreneurs with profiles similar to his own, and helping to position French firms to compete more successfully in the global economy by moving them up the value chain and shifting emphasis away from labor-intensive activities like autos and steel and toward industries where France enjoys a comparative advantage. To people who lose jobs he will offer retraining, which will be painful for some and ineffective for many. There will be pain in the future as there has been in the past. It is hard to predict how he will respond to those cries of pain. Compassion does not seem to be his long suit (I use the word "suit" advisedly, as he advertised the limits of his compassion when he told unemployed workers that the best way to afford a suit like his was to go to work). He will have to learn on the job to curb the asperities of his personality.

What he will not have to learn on the job is what it takes to engage in fruitful dialogue with other powerful economic actors. This is his milieu. Some of you hate this milieu. You don't like Davos men in expensive suits. You don't like successful exam-takers who make millions on their first flyer in the world of mergers and acquisitions just because having the right credentials and the right contacts put them in the right place at the right time. You don't like the way this social hierarchy reproduces itself by securing the best schooling for its sons and daughters.

I don't like these things either. But I do not see an alternative at the moment. Nor do I think this reality is the greatest horror, the most oppressive order, the world has ever known. The Google campus (or its French equivalent) may not be my idea of utopia, but neither does it represent a return to the dark satanic mills of old, as one might think from the hyperbolic rhetoric of candidates of the far left and far right, or even from the amorphous grumbling of the chattering classes about the ravages of "neoliberalism." With Macron the trains may not run exactly on time--that was a fascist promise, after all, to discipline society as one disciplines an army--but when they run off the rails, he will shake up the management of SNCF and follow up by appointing competent monitors to measure the progress of the new managers toward meeting his 14-point improvement program for better rail service. That is the kind of politician he is, for better or for worse.

With Macron you wont get les lendemains qui chantent, but you'll get to work more or less on time aujourd'hui et demain, and you'll need to keep getting to work until you're 65 or perhaps 67, because that's the way things are headed. Some of you won't be wanting to break out the champagne to celebrate prospects such as these. But I've been around a while and have stopped looking to politics for intoxication or even inspiration. Just keeping the train on the tracks is enough, even if it's fifteen minutes late. That I think Macron can manage; with the others a wreck is imminent.

Some of you think Macron won't fare any better with Germany or the CGT than Hollande did. I have more confidence in the German leadership, among whom many have recognized that something has to change and are looking for a French leader in whom they too have confidence to make the necessary adjustments. Regardless of whether Schulz or Merkel is the next chancellor, the Germans have signaled that Macron is the French leader they prefer to work with and, I'm reasonably sure, compromise with. So I have hope on that score. The CGT and the Right and Far Right and the Far Left at home will of course be looking to put spokes in Macron's wheels, but in this area (as opposed to others, such as foreign policy) he actually has acquired the requisite experience through his stewardship of the Macron and El Khomri laws. Despite his youth, he is one of the most experienced French politicians in dealing with the unending guerrilla warfare that is French domestic politics, and temperamentally he is better equipped for it than Valls and surpassed only by the wizened Juppé, whose career is over.

The writer suggests that I prefer Macron faute de mieux. Perhaps, but I think it's rather that of the choices on offer I prefer Macron to manage the world as it is, faute de pouvoir en imaginer un autre. Perhaps that failure of imagination is mine, but for now I think, alas, that Margaret Thatcher was right: There is no alternative. When one presents itself, I might consider voting for it. Macron is a manager, not a magus. But politics is the wrong place to look for magi.


bert said...

My concern is that on the eurozone Macron will settle for managerial competence. The prize that must be defended above all others is the French seat at the Franco-German table. The terms of the compromise required to retain this prize were clear under Hollande. The Maastricht criteria, the stability pact, the 2011 fiscal compact: upheld by France on the understanding that French extenuating circumstances would receive sympathetic consideration befitting her status. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot kicking a can down the road - forever.

Yet Macron has talked about something more ambitious. Institutional and policy reforms designed to give to the eurozone the capacity for macroeconomic management that has been lost at the national level. It's a big ask. It would be an ambitious new integration project, at a time when enthusiasm for such a project, in the Council above all, is thin on the ground. It would require treaty reform and unanimous consent, not least from Germany. I have to say I don't see it happening, not with the current eurozone membership, and I have a low degree of confidence that Macron will push for it in any kind of sustained fashion.

From the other side of the table a centrist victory in France would make a Weltanschauungswende less rather than more likely.

bernard said...

A powerful defense and I agree with it. A few questions remain however:
- on Europe, of course Germany will prefer dealing with Macron, Sculz or Merkel as you say. Will this be enough however? With the current huge membership of the EU, it appears very difficult to agree to any institutional changes, and let us not forget the nuisance capacity of the UK through international client politics even once it is out. So, the only way to go will be through restricted core groups etc. (Precisely what Joschka Fischer argued for some 20 years ago).
-"To people who lose jobs he will offer retraining, which will be painful for some and ineffective for many." This, obviously is the way to go: activities disappear, others appear etc. The only problem here is that the experience of re-training in France has been pathetic. This is a field where "betltway robbers" abund. These are the re-training firms milking the employment budget and uninterested in results, and I would be remiss if I did not mention those who outright steal the funds on a grand scale as has been demonstrated by justice in recent years. In fact, the only similarly corrupt sector I would care to compare them to is the rating agency sector. About as useful. So Macron would have to order a very serious cleanup of this sector first if he wanted to have any chance at success. Easier said than done.
- On the disappearance of unskilled labour demand in advanced economies with widening inequalities, I would note that this is only conceptually true in activities facing international competition. Fortunately a large part of the services sector does not, actually, face international competition. On the other hand of course, and this is fun, where is MLP's gardener going to come from in the future, the Berry or Venezuela, North Africa being of course out of the question.

bernard said...

Schulz of course not sculz

bert said...

”Fortunately a large part of the services sector does not, actually, face international competition.”

French skiing instructors, true.
Unwise to say this in front of the children though Bernard.

How does ”international client politics” work here? From where I'm standing, UK influence is pretty close to fuck all at this point.

bernard said...


in a second from the top of my mind, defense and baltics for instance, large polish crowd in the uk as you know etc,etc...

bert said...

Indirect. Got it.
Thanks for tolerating the momentary lapse into Anglo Saxon, by the way - I'm usually on my best behaviour here. If I understand you right, there's something about the local context that favours domestic provision in services. However much that's true, there's also been a stubbornness about the non-tariff barriers in services that suggests a certain amount of regulatory capture.
Free movement means unskilled domestic labour is more exposed to competition in these sectors now. That's something you're likely to see more and more of in France, assuming the economy continues to pick up. If the Brexit Tories continue as they have been, the large Polish crowd may end up in Paris. Like Huguenots in reverse.

Massilian said...

Thank you for that post.
I agree on all counts.
Plus one, I consider his youth to be an asset for a better understanding of the young society, its problems, illusions and righteous expectations..
I was ready to cast a "vote blanc", you unsettled me back into the undecided voter section.
I am really, seriously, and I mean it, scared of the return of the living dead Fillon for the second round and the only one who might terminate this zombie of the right is Macron.
Don't even mention the possibility of a MLP vs Fillon confrontation or I move to Belgium.

Rédaction Contreligne said...

Art, that's an excellent analysis of what Macron is likely to be and why this is the only good outcome that may result from these élections - the best one I have read with Roger Cohen's paper in the NYT last week. Fillon has a outdated thatcherian program, which he will not even be able to carry out, and the two other eligible candidates' projects (those of M Le Pen or JL Mélenchon) are just ...silly - the IMF will be in Paris within six months.
St A.

bernard said...

Just watched and listened to Macron's rally at Bercy. Macron delivered possibly his most powerful speech, laying out a number of details and timing of coming reforms, was also very tough on the competition, not least Honest Fillon, the SozNat MLP and the paleo-trotskyst JLM.

A very powerful image at the very end: a crowd of youth surounding him, waving flags, including right by his side - no coincidence - a young woman covering her hair and singing full force la marseillaise. My guess, Macron will be getting those votes too. Very well done.

Anonymous said...

I deeply appreciate this reply. I didn't so much want an assurance that voting Macron was the right thing: I'm fairly confident that it is, just as I don't regret having supported Hollande last time. I wish that I were more confident in Macron: you are an excellent judge of French politics and your well-expressed confidence reassures me somewhat. I still doubt that the Germans will compromise with him significantly: it would be hard not to extend concessions on the Euro or on the Stability and Growth Pact to other nations whom they trust less that Macron's France. Time - I hope! - will tell.
Still, there *was* an alternative to Thatcher in the 80s: a more-moderate-than-Benn (eloquent, erudite Tony Benn was the real French JLM), still militant, and above all well-organized English socialism. This proved impossible and the debacle of Tony Blair gives (to my eyes) a partial justification for some of the Bennite intransigence of the 80s. I have always hoped for this sort of "alternative" from the PS: a politically realistic socialism that is not "moderate" in the Blarite sense but which is smart and confident enough to avoid empty rhetoric and useless factionalism. In fact the choice is between dinosaurs and sharks (and pedal boat captains.) JLM strikes me as a much more decent human being than Macron, but I will go for the shark. I will even hope that he is France's Thatcher, rather than Hollande #2, and that he has a handbag.

Anonymous said...

How can you not like a candidate who quotes Diderot and Camus, as he did in his most recent speech at Bercy? "Chaque génération sans doute se croit vouée à refaire le monde. La tâche de la nôtre est plus grande, elle consiste à empêcher que le monde ne se défasse."

I am not of Macron's generation. I am too old but I will be voting for him. His youthfulness and his appeal to French youth appeals to me!

Scott said...

I'm for Le Pen, but this is a very lucid post.

Anonymous said...

I found the paragraph about keeping trains on track and no happy endings deeply disquieting and it made me sad. I'm not sure why but it does. It's like there's no good society to hope for. Perhaps it's because I'm younger and I really hope France will get better because it has so much going for it.
Working till 65-67 is a fake proposal, for instance : people are labelled 'old's at 55 and laid off. Pushing the retirement age will just push thousands of old people into the vacuum between the end of unemployment payments and the beginning of receiving their pension. I'm also not sure of how you can wean French companies from college grads paid €564 a month and 'let go'zt will, or young engineers paid $18-25,000 a year.
I'm quite sure Emmanuel Macron will be elected president but I can't see how the deindustrialized/rural area where I live will be better off. People here need hospitals and doctors, small schools to stay open even if they're expensive because there 's no public transportation and you can't put kids on a 'mobylette', retraining programs that take into account hangups that come from being older and having stopped school at 16 (at a time when getting a CAP meant you were a skilled worker with a good job coming), help in figuring out farm-to-fork systems for small farmers (goat cheese and milk producers), help in moving to co-op when the small business is threatened with closure and it has lots of clients. Most of all, people need hope because a lot are close to despair.
This is what feeds the FN vote and I don't see any concern in Macron's platform, this despite my being extremely weary of the three other contenders.

Anonymous said...

How do the candidates respond to that?

Douglas said...

First of all let me thank you for your daily or almost daily columns with which I generally agree and always enjoy. Nevertheless, I do disagree with your rather glib dismissal of critics of neoliberalism as in "even from the amorphous grumbling of the chattering classes about the ravages of "neoliberalism."

Let me point out that most notable economists are severe critics of neoliberalism including Nobel Prize winners like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz. Their criticisms and those of other distinguished economists are anything but an amorphous. One very readable critical book is Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth. There are any number of books criticizing neoliberalism. By contrast, when I tried to find any book extolling its virtues, I came up with zero. I did find a handful of pro-neoliberal articles by economists affiliated with the Hoover Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

The primary criticism of neoliberalism is that its economic effect is to smother demand especially during a recession such as Europe has experienced recently. The neoliberal agenda adopted by Wolfgang Schauble and Macron includes reducing job protections, minimizing the ability of unions to represent workers, reducing pensions, and reducing government expenditures as well as deregulating the financial industry.

It is ironic that the nation that has produced the foremost economist in the world opposing inequality is on the verge of electing as its next president a politician whose economic platform and ideology are designed to increase inequality.