x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 August 2017

100 days in, Macron finds France hard to kick into gear

The French president is planning on extending his mission of reform when politics resumes at the end of summer

French president Emmanuel Macron is finding it difficult to enact the reforms he believes the country's moribund political and economic systems need
French president Emmanuel Macron is finding it difficult to enact the reforms he believes the country's moribund political and economic systems need

Patrons of French beaches can look forward to an additional tract of holiday reading this August as volunteers from Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party are deployed to distribute a pamphlet from the new president.

The special edition Summer Workbook has quizzes, a pull-out colouring-in section and an explanation of the vital importance of fighting climate change. Granted a glimpse of the booklet at the Macron headquarters on the Parisian Left Bank, The National was told the purpose of the programme was to maintain engagement between the president and the voters. “We have to keep explaining our work. We want to keep hold of the optimistic belief in reform,” explained one party official. “There are some supporters already asking how can we make a difference. Some are beginning to doubt.

“I believe it can be done and we are already seeing the beginning of the changes that Emmanuel Macron will bring. That’s we must keep on explaining what it is we need to do and why it makes sense for France.”

The 39-year old stormed to the French presidency in May beating Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader. Four weeks later, En Marche, a party that did not even exist a year before, pulled off part two of the Macron miracle by taking a working majority in the National Assembly.

Since then the new order has experienced salutary lessons in politics. Much of Mr Macron’s troubles have been in the parliament his forces nominally control. Legislation to abolish conflicts of interest and introduce a new moral code for public servants was bogged down by bitter opposition from the far-left. 

Perhaps the biggest setback was a row over security. Budget cuts to the military despite the state of emergency to combat terrorism shocked many of Macron’s centrist allies. Pierre de Villiers, the respected head of the army, quit after losing a showdown with the president for more money. Two years of tensions with 30,000 troops on alert at any time had pushed the military close to breaking point, de Villiers warned. In one scathing aside during a discussion on the impact of budget cuts, which Macron had played down as a one-off adjustment, de Villiers drew a distinction with his commander-in-chief. “I am not a six-week-old rabbit,” he pointedly declared.  

Macron entered office declaring he would adopt a Jupiterian approach to leadership. Like the Roman god he hoped to send down thunderbolts to shake up the system. By the time MPs and cabinet ministers broke up for the holidays, Mr Macron was already appealing over the heads of the Parisian elite.

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Olivier Bricq, a retired businessman, is one of the French voters doubting Mr Macron’s ability to deliver on his principal promise to shake up the French economy. The president, he believes, has been exposed by a tumultuous first 100 days in office. 

“I did believe that there was something about Emmanuel Macron that would be great but now I think he floated to office on air,” he said. “There was a moment that all the media were for him and it seemed he was fighting off the old system.

“Now that I’ve seen him in power I see he is one of them. He is part of the system and change won’t come from there.”

Bricq, 55, is an example of the type of French citizen that would dearly like the dirigiste economic system, dominated by regulations and closed-shop workplaces, to be transformed. 

The small trading business he ran for 20 years has closed and now he is reluctant to start again. “It is too difficult to draw in money in this environment and everywhere there are costs. So I shut it because there was no reward for hard work. 

“It is not Macron’s fault that he is too young to succeed but I think that is the case. The people are certainly ready for a new approach but I doubt they will get it.”

To the Macron loyalists his presidency is an idée fixe. The former banker is a symbol that France is at last on the move - as his party's name promises. 

 A close look at pedestrians walking down a street that runs next to the ministry of economy and finance reveals an intriguing example of this strain of support for Macron. 

Retired couples in fleece jackets and sensible shoes make their way to Station F, a refurbished railway siding that has set out its stall as a centre for technology and innovation in Europe’s most hidebound economy. 

Not fully complete, Station F is an embodiment of the type of dynamic France that Mr Macron aims to create. With Paris in August deserted as the French flee to the coast, Station F stands out as a hive of activity. The trickle of couples in their leisure years is a testament to Mr Macron’s inspirational power. 

Jean Dubarry is a retired official who worked for the European Commission in Brussels. Dubarry, not his real name which he withheld as he retains a civil service position, has come to Station F with his wife, Edith, to photograph its long atrium from outside the security barrier - and also to take away lessons to pass on to his two sons.

“These facilities are a new way of doing business for us. I can see in the offices and on the corridors and floors that the culture inside is all about exchanges with each other and making it easy to interact and swap ideas,” he told The National. “I have one son already in business - he designs colourful socks. 

“I would like my second son to avoid the kind of life behind a desk that I have had. He is interested in the digital sphere and in enterprise. He wants to create something in this realm.”

The new president is a figure that can help French innovators to find their way, Dubarry believes. “I am convinced that this president is a strong figure with a global vision of France that he can bring to this place and beyond. He can remove the obstacles that face the young.”

Backed by the businessman Xavier Niel, part-owner of Le Monde newspaper, Station F selects start-up businesses to be nurtured alongside established technology firms. The tenants have had a role in developing the space. 

“We interviewed hundreds of startups in order to design every aspect of Station F - from space design to the types of events they like,” explained Roxanne Varza, a director of the project. “Many of them told us that prior to 15 employees or three years of existence they like being surrounded by other entrepreneurs. This is how they build their contacts and they also heavily rely on other entrepreneurs to help them - they believe that talking to entrepreneurs who may have encountered similar difficulties to theirs is even more useful.”

Hopes for far-reaching reform therefore endure despite Mr Macron’s ratings slump - in July his support dropped to a little over 30%. The new president has been warned not to launch too many battles at once. A hectic presidency is not always effective, as the experience of Nicolas Sarkozy, his predecessor but one has demonstrated. “The devil is in the details,” said Dominique Mosi, a director at Institut Montaigne, a pro-Macron think tank. 

The real test is to come in September and October when a showdown with the unions over labour law reforms and deregulation is expected. 

During a pre-holiday pep-talk to the cabinet to school his lieutenants on the rentrée he expects at the end of August, Macron called for a greater sense of purpose. “It is our time of recoil,” he said. “Virtually all our reforms have begun.”