Pluralism, the liberal political theorist Jan-Werner Müller argues, is the lifeblood of a functioning democracy. In Müller’s elegant theory, public policy emerges as the result of friendly competition between different ideals and perspectives, weaving together the diverse interests in society like a great tapestry. But this arrangement is threatened when one group goes for broke, claiming that “they, and only they, represent the people” and therefore the public interest. With their “moralistic imagination of politics,” these intruders reduce politics to a clash between “a morally pure” many and a corrupt few from whom there is no “legitimate opposition.” Once democracy falls prey to this disease, there is no easy cure.
Müller calls this condition “populism.” But the term is misleading. Because while he most certainly didn’t intend to, Müller has in fact furnished us with a remarkably close approximation of the first 100 days of former investment banker Emmanuel Macron’s centrist “revolution” and the steady erosion of French democracy that it promises.
Early this spring, the newspaper Le Monde published a several-issue feature on “The Ten Years that Crippled French Capitalism.” It was a catalog of the fears and anxieties that grip many in the country’s political and business classes. While German and British unemployment rates have long recovered from their recession-era highs, France’s sits stubbornly at around 10 percent. With dwindling profit margins and a current-accounts balance in tatters, French businesses have likewise seen their global market share plummet by nearly 45 percent.
French President Emmanuel Macron ran his election campaign on a promise to reverse these trends and, since taking office in May, has moved quickly to deliver on it—opposition be damned. His drastic rewriting of the labor code, signed into law in late September, is the first chapter in a string of investment-inducing and profit-maximizing reforms designed to halt French business’s precipitous decline. Their main principle is flexibility: it should be easier for businesses to hire and fire workers, easier to negotiate individual contracts without the input of national unions, and easier to skirt worker-safety and health regulations.
Macron, for his part, has been decidedly inflexible in pursuing these reforms. While remaining within the bounds of the French constitution, Macron made clear from the outset his intention to pass the labor law by presidential decree. The French parliament, in which his En Marche party holds a commanding majority, was quick to acquiesce. The reforms are now awaiting only an up-or-down ratification by parliament, which the rubber-stamp body is set to complete in November. Macron has thus neatly dodged a long and laborious process of conciliation with the country’s combative unions. It is no small irony that the figure hailed as a savior of liberal democracy would go to such great lengths to avoid compromise.
The law’s backers justify this blatantly undemocratic approach on the grounds that the reforms are simply a matter of pragmatic necessity. And even its opponents recognize the need for change—it doesn’t take an investment banker to acknowledge that a code designed to protect workers in a Fordist economy needs updating in 2017. Yet to call the final product an adaptation of the “French model” of social democracy to the twenty-first century would be extraordinarily generous. The package of reforms would better be described as a power grab by French business, a direct attack on the “acquis sociaux” (social rights or “acquisitions”) built up by decades of worker organizing. Hidden from public view during their drafting over the summer, the laws were created with minimal input from worker organizations—the “social partners” of capital, as the French say. Rather, what they amount to is a cocktail of changes long demanded by the Mouvement des entreprises de France, a highly influential pro-business lobby. A glimpse at a few key provisions reveals the extent of the shift in whom French “labor law” is intended to serve.
For starters: French workers are currently afforded significant job security in the form of “just cause” provisions that restrict firing and impose potential fines for employers in the event of an unjustified termination. Workers can take employers to court and seek compensation, often receiving more than a year’s worth of lost wages. The reforms greatly curtail this—setting a limit to potential compensation, linking the scale of a fine to the tenure of the fired worker, and excluding many from compensation altogether. Other measures serve as broadsides against the country’s national labor unions, whose institutionalized role set a national floor for employee safety rules and compensation packages, whether workers belong to the unions or not. (Despite the country’s association with labor militancy, France’s unionization rate hovers around 11 percent today, as low as that of the United States.) With the decentralization of employee contract negotiation to the level of individual enterprises, French workers will lose a crucial negotiating crutch.
These reforms deepen and extend the measures known collectively as the “Loi Travail,” passed in 2016 when Macron was serving as minister of the economy under François Hollande. Those reforms, too, relied on the more arcane articles of the French constitution to pass widely unpopular reforms. In 2016, the government, despite massive opposition from students and unions, employed the constitution’s now infamous Article 49. 3, which essentially enables the executive to pass a law at the risk of a vote of no confidence in the government.
Critics of the “Loi Travail XXL” fear that the new law will bring a further assault on stable work and the generalization of underpaid and under-protected part-time “mini-jobs.” The CDI, or permanent contract, is as about as close as it gets to a “French Dream” for many workers, especially in an age of consistently high unemployment, above all among the young. The succession of recent reforms point toward a future in which workers will find themselves on a permanent conveyor belt between short-term jobs, earning just enough to survive, but little more.
While Macron may have benefited from the calm summer months to draft his reforms relatively insulated from the public, the arrival of September, with the return of students and the end of summer vacations, marked a significant turning point and a sharpening of political tensions across the country. On September 12 and 21, hundreds of thousands of union members and allies led by the historically communist Conféderation Générale du Travail (CGT) and the smaller left-wing union Solidaires took to the streets in strikes and protests against the new law. The more moderate national unions, like Conféderation Française Democratique du Travail (CFDT) and Force Ouvrière, did not officially endorse the protests, despite expressing their disappointment with the pending legislation. But many of their local branches voluntarily joined the action called by the more radical unions.
On September 23, it was the supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing party, La France Insoumise, who took to the streets of Paris in a march of as many as 150,000 people opposed to the laws, according to organizers. (Police counted attendance at 30,000.) The protesters denounced Macron’s reform drive as a “social coup d’état” and a major step toward the reversal of the “republican social order.”
Sacha, a metallurgical worker and member of the CGT local in Dordogne, a region in southwestern France, came all the way to Paris for the September 23 rally, leaving like many other attendants on early morning buses chartered by unions and La France Insoumise. Although he concedes that this round of the battle is already lost, he sees that it is nonetheless essential to mobilize now: “If we leave [Macron] an open field now, he’ll only be emboldened to go further.”
Sacha’s opposition to the law is heightened by his experience working in Germany between 2007 and 2011. What Sacha saw were the disastrous effects on worker security of the now infamous Hartz IV reforms passed by Gerhard Schröder’s Social-Democratic government in 2003. That law’s harsh reduction of unemployment compensation, complemented by a proliferation of underpaid “mini-jobs,” has been the envy of French business leaders and many in Macron’s entourage who claim that unemployed Germans are more pressed to find work thanks to the thinner safety cushion.
Yet as reactionary as it may appear to its opponents—60 percent of French citizens polled expressed their concern with the law—the current package is only part of a larger dismantling of labor protections constructed throughout the twentieth century. Further changes are slated in the months and years ahead as Macron offers his slightly moderated version of the social “blitzkrieg” promised by the right-wing François Fillon ahead of the presidential campaign.
Indeed, the labor reforms are only one part of a still broader pro-business program. Coming in their tracks at rapid succession in the weeks and months ahead are pension reforms; changes to government unemployment compensation, which unions fear will bring about a simplified, and greatly reduced, lump-sum insurance package modeled on the German system; and a budget with both major tax cuts, of which the lions’ share will flow to the country’s wealthiest, and increased economic austerity to conform public accounts to European Union agreements on deficit-to-GDP ratios. The suspension in July of a monthly five-euro housing stipend is one particularly petty, yet telling, indication of the new government’s approach.
Meanwhile, futile as they may appear in the face of the Macron juggernaut, protests continue at a steady clip. On Tuesday, October 10, between 200,000 and 400,000 public-sector workers took to the streets in opposition to frozen wages and the planned firing of 120,000 among their ranks over the coming years.
Through this “blitzkrieg” of his own, Macron is testing the limits of his power—his control over the scope of political debate—and sizing up the public’s appetite for a radical dismantling of the country’s social protections. Given his party’s domination in parliament, even his use of presidential decree amounted to a gratuitous publicity stunt. It was valuable first and foremost for the message it sent: there’s a new boss in town.
Macron’s long march through the remaining institutions of French social democracy appears all the more relentless in light of the utter decimation of nearly the entire political field.
In the wake of the spring’s elections, it is difficult to find a potential opposition party not mired in an existential crisis. The moderate Socialist Party is all but dead, its left and right wings having largely abandoned ship for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s or Macron’s respective campaigns during the election. Facing an overwhelming financial burden from an expensive, failed campaign—in which it also lost nearly three-quarters of its public financing—it has even been forced to put up for sale its historic headquarters, an elegant mansion in Paris’s upscale 7th Arrondissement. Benoît Hamon, of the party’s left wing and its candidate in the 2017 election, left the Socialists in July to found his own group, but his presence at Mélenchon’s September 23 rally reveals just where the center of gravity lies on the French left.
The conservative Republicans are likewise moribund. Many of the party’s former members now inhabit top posts in Macron’s government, such as Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, and Bruno Le Maire, minister of the economy. Its moderate wing has banded together as a parliamentary caucus called, quite appropriately, Les Constructifs that is determined to cooperate with Macron—no surprise, given that the president now promises many reforms long on the Republicans’ wish list. Meanwhile, the party’s more belligerent fringe, grouped around Laurent Wauquiez, a protégé of hard-line former president Nicolas Sarkozy, is betting its future on a possible ideological rapprochement with the National Front. The Republicans’ perilous situation was temporarily overshadowed, however, by their successful showing in September’s senatorial elections, in which regional officeholders elect members of the parliament’s less powerful upper house, a check against newly formed parties.
But the crisis facing Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front is the most spectacular. By this point, it is hard to imagine that just months ago it was the specter that haunted the very future of the European Union. Now, as with its center-left and center-right counterparts, the coalition the party built for the election is in civil war. While Marine Le Pen may have been the public face of the party and its most recognizable figure, the true architect of its thunderous rise since 2011 was Le Pen’s right-hand protégé, Florian Philippot, who engineered its strategy to woo formerly left-wing, working-class voters through economic protectionism and a vaguely social-democratic platform. But Philippot, a gay man, was also the embarrassment of the party’s Catholic base and its more economically conservative wing, led by the arch-traditionalist Marion-Maréchal Le Pen, Marine’s niece, who quit the party in May. Following Philippot’s highly public quarrel with Marine Le Pen and his departure from the party on the September 21, the National Front’s future is anything but certain.
In the vacuum, Macron has governed as if no one could legitimately question the mandate for his centrist “revolution.” But this mandate too is severely exaggerated. In the lead-up to the second round of voting, major media institutions joined in near unanimity to urge all French voters, whether in favor of Macron’s platform or not, to vote for the candidate in order to block the National Front. These calls for a “strategic vote” resonated enough to turn his 24 percent vote share in the first round—just a few points higher than Le Pen’s—into a decisive win, with Macron winning two-thirds of the vote in the second round. But the chorus celebrating France’s thunderous endorsement of Macronism was belied by the lowest level of voter participation since 1969. Still, 74 percent participation is high, especially by U.S. standards. More remarkable is the level of voter participation that ushered in Macron’s parliamentary domination, with another record low of 57 percent voting in the June legislative elections.
Five months later, Macron’s practical omnipotence remains even as his mandate reveals itself to be more and more illusory. By early September, his approval rating had plummeted to a dismal 30 percent, a rate lower than Nicolas Sarkozy’s and François Hollande’s at the same point in their presidencies—and lower even than Trump’s in the United States. As his political honeymoon ends, Macron maintains that only he can save France from itself, promising in early September not to yield to the “slackers, the cynical, and the extremes.”
The phrase became the rallying cry for the left throughout a busy month of protests. Abraham, a twenty-nine-year-old engineer from Paris whom I met at the September 23 rally, has always considered himself a moderate and says that he “has always been wary of those of the political extremes.” But he considers the anti-democratic tenor of Macron’s first months in office alarming and a radical departure from French tradition. He judges the decree an “illegitimate law” demanding more deliberation and public input—and he finds himself more and more intrigued by Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
Indeed, while Macron has sought to suffocate public debate, the figure who has done the most to painstakingly pry it back open is none other than Mélenchon, the “populist menace” second only to Marine Le Pen in the eyes of the French media. As disarray reigns among the major parties, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has asserted itself as the unquestionable leader of the opposition.
The puzzle that Mélenchon, now a deputy representing Marseille in the National Assembly, and his sixteen fellow Insoumis parliament members have been forced to solve is: how does one effectively challenge a force with such a stranglehold on the political situation?
It is often said that the guiding principle of Mélenchon’s strategy is the veteran leftist’s excessive ego. Skirting association with all other political formations, from his shunning of the moderate Socialists in the run-up to the election—which many blame for the left’s ultimate absence in the second round—to his cold-shouldered treatment of the shrunken Communist Party, Mélenchon is no doubt on a quest to assert his domination on the left.
Yet whether in spite of its leader’s ego or because of it, La France Insoumise is emerging as a coherent political machine while the old acronyms and parties that once peopled the French left limp on zombie-like. From local political clubs to a new independent media organization, introduced last week and launching in early 2018 under the leadership of Sophia Chikirou, Mélenchon’s communications director during the 2017 campaign, the party’s primary task is to expand its territory in a public sphere largely dominated by Macron.
In the process even Mélenchon—long the center of attention—has somewhat receded into the background. Younger members such as Alexis Corbière, Clémentine Autain, Raquel Garrido, and Adrien Quatennans have emerged as new faces of a party long associated with one iconic leader. Elisabeth, a retired librarian, leads a local reading group in Sète, a town in the south of France. From speaking with fellow supporters at these events and participating in caravan tours that criss-crossed the country in August, she embraces the “de-personalization” of the party away from its charismatic leader, seeing it as a sign that the group is planting its roots in French society.
La France Insoumise is certainly a new political force on the French left, not just in terms of strategy and structure but in terms of ideology and vision. While maintaining an element of old-fashioned Keynesianism—a commitment to redistribution and a baseline of equality of consumption through economic stimulus—Mélenchon has also sought to give a political form to the vogue of décroissance (de-growth), a house industry amongst radical French political economists. Against a president obsessed with French competitiveness at whatever cost to the quality of work and to the environment, Mélenchon offers to break from the basic premise that economic growth is desirable in the first place. A complete abandonment of fossil fuels, re-localization of industrial production, support for small-scale agriculture, and the encouragement of worker cooperatives—these are the central tenets of Mélenchon’s green populism.
As well-organized and vocal as La France Insoumise may be, it remains for now little more than a boisterous protest movement against Macron’s practical omnipotence over French political life. What, after all can a group of seventeen deputies do against a cohort of 313 loyal to the president? The labor unions, meanwhile, are divided between those begrudgingly heeding Macron’s line—often despite opposition from members—and those seeking confrontation. Mélenchon wants to rise above this jockeying for power and construct an opposition.
In this respect, La France Insoumise has already won a crucial first battle. Throughout the spring’s elections, pundits indulged in the myth of the Macron miracle: the figure’s supposed transcendence of “left” and “right” as the dividing line in French politics. At the center of this narrative was the dream that politics could finally ignore such nuisances as the problem of inequality and democracy in industrial society and the construction of a welfare state responsible to citizens and not corporations. Ever stubborn, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has sent this fantasy back to the ash heap of history.
Harrison Stetler is a teacher in Paris. His previous writing has appeared at The Nation, the New Republic, and the Baffler.