Why Isn’t Macron an Illiberal Pinup?

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris, April 2, 2019. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)
His reputation for openness and liberality does not square with his record.

Why is Emmanuel Macron thought to be the leader of liberal Europe against various illiberal challenges — from Brexit to Donald Trump on one side, and broadly populist nationalist governments in Poland and Budapest? I’m having trouble figuring this out.

Is it because France has a dynamic liberal and open economy? The kind that the EU has fostered and cajoled into existence in other, smaller members? No, that can’t be right. France is one of the most protected, cosseted, and sluggish economies on the continent. Its seat as one of the two original members of the European project and its political advocacy for further integration seem to grant it special exemptions from the liberalizing tendencies favored and imposed elsewhere.

Nations other than France have a reputation for profligacy. Italy was threatened by the EU with a hammering for exceeding the EU’s budgetary rules under a populist government that included Mario Salvini, the anti-immigration politician from Lega who made a habit of criticizing Angela Merkel. But, when you look at the budgets, it’s the French government that has the highest government spending–to–GDP ratio in Europe, at 56 percent. Privatization in France typically means not the creation of open markets, but the licensure of a politically connected cartel, a license to profit. In fact, Macron has wanted to further protect French firms from low-wage workers from within the European Union itself. He wants the state to somehow instigate the creation of more than two dozen billion-dollar tech enterprises in the following years. Expect a level of cronyism that would make Central Europeans blush to contemplate.

So it’s not the Macron economy. What could it be? We often hear extremely vague reports of suppressive measures in Central Europe, though the mechanics of how these suppressions of the news take place are never made all that clear (hint: it’s mostly a consequence of elections, in these nations the press depends on political patronage). Perhaps it is the fact that Macron is a champion of press freedom. No, that’s not right. The French government is aggressively prosecuting journalists who have uncovered the extent of the French government’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

Is it civil rights? At Macron’s behest, the French parliament passed a national-security bill that makes permanent most of the 2015 state-of-emergency provisions. These were legal and civil exceptions meant to deal with an unprecedented wave of Islamist terror. Now the government’s security services can wiretap and detain without judicial supervision. They can even impose house arrests without a court getting involved. To say it’s a French version of America’s Patriot Act is in fact to drastically overstate the powers granted to the American government in that law.

Maybe it’s the welcoming attitude toward immigrants? Macron has berated Italy when it elected a populist government in reaction to the way it was burdened by mass migration over the past few years. Yet, France has been cagey and defiant about accepting migrant quotas. And it has vigorously defended the Dublin accords to keep migrants into Europe from crossing into France from Italy. Macron has been praised lately as a dealmaker for making the same distinction between refugees fleeing war and economic migrants that was a commonplace among supposed “populists” a few years ago. Macron’s communications team has played up his confrontations with migrant activists.

Well, many Central European governments are criticized for their illiberal turns by cozying up to Russia. Sometimes this charge is implausible. In the case of Poland, in fact, a nationalist government will almost always win first place if the continent is handing out prizes for resistance and mistrust of Russia. In Hungary, Orban has talked about a balanced approach between East and West. Macron’s different, right? Yes, in that Macron is Europe’s foremost advocate of reintegrating Russia into a European sphere of influence based on common interests. “We cannot rebuild Europe without rebuilding a connection with Russia, otherwise Russia will move closer to other powers,” Macron said this summer.

Maybe it’s his humble leadership in comparison to the supposedly exotic tyrants running Central Europe? Hmm. No, not really that either. Macron’s talk about his own ambitions would set off alarm bells. He has promised a Jupiterian presidency. He convened an extraordinary rare Congress at Versailles, the Palace of the Sun King, and threatened parliament that he would go over their heads if they didn’t implement his reforms. “The French people are not driven by patient curiosity, but by an uncompromising demand. It is a profound transformation that they expect,” he said.

But Macron’s pretension to be the embodiment of the popular will is risible. Even after he has experienced a remarkable rebound as the yellow-vest protests have sputtered out, his approval rating is now in the low thirties, perhaps 34 percent, up from a dismal 21 percent. By comparison, Donald Trump’s lowest-ever approval rating was 35 percent. And he is a historically unpopular U.S. president by those terms.

So, Emmanuel Macron takes advantage of the EU’s permissiveness while doggedly pursuing his own and his own nation’s interest against those of other European states. He maintains a dirigiste economy, breaks the EU budget rules at will, and tries to pioneer even more protections for his nation’s economy. Though he is fantastically unpopular, he talks about himself in terms of a world historical potentate, while overseeing the dramatic curtailment of civil liberties and unprecedented legal harassment of the press. And he’s Putin’s foremost advocate in Europe.

That he has been cheered as the savior of a liberal world order under threat is a testament to the intellectual laziness and credulity of this supposed order’s partisans.


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