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The Last President of Europe
Emmanuel Macron's Race to Revive France and Save the World
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Old France, weighed down with history, prostrated by wars and revolution, endlessly vacillating from greatness to decline, but revived, century after century, by the genius of renewal!
—Charles de Gaulle, The War Memoirs, 1940-46
A FAST START
The inauguration day of France’s youngest leader since Napoleon was strangely subdued. There was little of the grandiose pomp and splendor that accompany the passage of power in other capitals. In his first act as commander in chief, Emmanuel Macron perched himself in the back of a camouflage military jeep as he rode up the Champs-Élysées to light a flame in honor of his country’s war dead at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. He paid a personal visit to a military hospital, where he comforted soldiers wounded in operations in Mali and Afghanistan. That rainy Sunday morning, Macron walked silently past an honor guard on a crimson carpet laid out on the gravel courtyard of the Élysée Palace. He climbed the steps to his new residence, where he was greeted stiffly by outgoing president François Hollande. Macron had served as Hollande’s deputy chief of staff and economy minister before launching a campaign that would betray his mentor and demolish the country’s political establishment.
The two men briefly huddled in private so that Hollande could pass along the “secrets of state,” including launch codes for France’s nuclear arsenal. Under the gold chandeliers in the Salle des Fêtes, about two hundred people had gathered to mark the occasion, including Macron’s wife, Brigitte, her adult children, and members of the new president’s staff. Laurent Fabius, the head of France’s Constitutional Council, administered the oath of office and urged Macron to “calm the anger, repair the wounds, alleviate the doubts, show the road forward and embody the hopes” of all French people.1 Fabius said that Macron fulfilled the dictum of François-René de Chateaubriand, one of France’s greatest writer-philosophers: “To be a man of his country, one must be a man of his times.” In brief remarks, Macron declared that “the world and Europe need a strong France with a sense of its own destiny.” He promised to heal social and economic divisions in French society and restore the self-confidence of a fractured nation plagued by “doubts and fears.” Noting the grim challenges that lay ahead, Macron assured his listeners “that not for a single second did I think that everything changed as if by magic” with his election. He then turned to several close aides and told them that the celebration would be short and swift. “There’s no time to lose,” Macron said. “The work begins tonight.”2
Inspired by his hero Charles de Gaulle, who wrote in his memoir that “all my life I have had a certain idea of France,” Macron entered office with a clear vision of what he wanted to achieve during his presidency. He had seen up close how France’s sclerotic economy had deteriorated as his predecessors failed to adapt a recalcitrant nation to the rigors of global economic competition. Public debt was nearly 100 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and the jobless rate hovered around 10 percent, with six million people unemployed. Macron recognized that decades of paralysis now endangered France’s leadership role alongside Germany in charting the course toward European unity. That crusade had advanced steadily under the stewardship of de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Helmut Schmidt, and finally François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl. The rocky relations between Paris and Berlin in recent years, however, had left Europe adrift, struggling to cope with the repercussions of the global financial crisis and the resurgence of big-power competition. “I knew this was the key question of our times,” Macron said, describing the state of the world he faced after his election in May 2017. “Nearly thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I realized we were at a new inflection point with the rise of China, the return of an aggressive Russia, and the retreat of America from global leadership. So where is Europe? Rather than trapped between these superpowers, as a zone to be fought over by others, I believe Europe needs its own renaissance to leap beyond its past and become an autonomous power equal to others. This cannot be done by any single nation-state, but only at a European level, with France and Germany assuming special responsibility to lead the way.”3
Macron’s grand strategy for his presidency was conceived with three goals in mind: to modernize France, to relaunch the drive toward a more unified continent, and to establish Europe as a major power in a multipolar world. He believes that these ambitions are closely intertwined; progress in reforming France is a necessary prerequisite to the revival of Europe as a prominent force on the world stage. After his election, Macron needed to act quickly to convince German chancellor Angela Merkel that he could succeed where Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande had failed. The accelerated timetable was critical: Macron realized that the extensive reforms he planned—opening up the labor market, cutting taxes, streamlining welfare programs, shrinking the size of the state, and improving education—would take time to produce tangible results. By demonstrating his commitment to transforming the domestic economy, he could make the case that France was ready to rejoin Germany in steering Europe toward greater unity and influence in the world. Macron regarded the European Union as one of history’s most remarkable success stories—a story of former enemies reconciling in a spirit of enduring peace and harmony by pooling their sovereignty. In a new age of ruthless competition among major powers like China, Russia, and the United States, a revitalized Europe was the missing actor on the world stage. A dynamic Europe was necessary to preserve the multilateral order that had helped the continent recover from two devastating wars and achieve an unbroken era of peace and prosperity over the past seventy years unmatched in its blood-soaked history.
A month after his election, Macron secured a strong majority in the National Assembly, which gave him the powers to circumvent protracted debate and push through his reform program by presidential decree if necessary. His movement, La République en Marche (Republic on the Move), captured 308 of the Assembly’s 577 seats in the legislative elections. This impressive victory ushered into France’s governing institutions a new generation of fresh faces who, as Macron described his followers, were “neither left nor right.” Like Macron, most of the new legislators were elected to political office for the first time. Nearly three-quarters of the cabinet ministers he appointed had never before served in government. A powerful new wave of Macron loyalists swept away the old guard, and the electoral annihilation of the traditional ruling parties, the Socialists and the conservative Republicans, confirmed voter disgust with the political establishment. Their demise left no serious opposition in Parliament to oppose Macron’s radical prescription for change. In those early days flush with triumph, Macron’s stunning ascendancy and the powerful majority he secured in Parliament created such momentum that it seemed like France might undergo a metamorphosis that few experts could have imagined. “Macron’s election is like Hiroshima year zero,” said Laurent Bigorgne, director of the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank, who assisted Macron in launching his political revolution. “A nuclear bomb has fallen on French politics and we’re still standing in the rubble.”4
Macron’s honeymoon phase lasted for several months. A new sense of pride and wonder permeated the streets of Paris, replacing the morose cynicism that had prevailed during the years when the nation seemed stuck in decline. The stock market jumped by 15 percent, economic growth picked up, jobs became available for young people, and the housing market soared. The French public enjoyed the international attention lavished on their youthful new president, who displayed some of the charm, energy, and charisma that John Kennedy brought to the White House after the somnolent Eisenhower years. His compatriots and the media were fascinated to learn that Macron’s hectic schedule reflected his restless nature. Staff members became accustomed to getting 3:00 a.m. messages from him on WhatsApp or Telegram. Macron would rise early after four or five hours of sleep, setting aside ninety minutes for private reading before his first meeting at 9:00 a.m. He would stay fit by jogging three times a week, playing tennis, boxing, and exercising with his bodyguards. His wife, Brigitte, supervised his diet, banning all junk food and ensuring that he consumed copious amounts of fruit and vegetables. But Macron still found time to savor the pleasures of his native land. He admitted that he enjoyed drinking wine at both lunch and dinner, provoking expressions of disapproval from the medical establishment but great satisfaction among the nation’s vintners.
During the campaign, Macron took pains to explain in great detail his vision for an invigorated French society that would empower individuals and curtail much of the population’s dependence on government handouts. He wanted to unleash the imagination of the country’s entrepreneurial class and encourage young people to embrace the digital age by taking advantage of France’s vaunted skills in mathematics. Above all, he extolled the vision of a “new France” in which citizens would take greater control of their own destiny and fulfill personal ambitions through a more dynamic private sector liberated from cumbersome regulations, which were enforced by a bloated government sector that accounted for one out of every five jobs. Macron vowed to shrink the role of the French state, which controlled 56 percent of the economy, higher than any country in Europe, and slash public payrolls by more than one hundred thousand workers. He published a book spelling out his plans to transform society with the portentous title Revolution. It was important, he emphasized, for French voters to comprehend the scope of the dramatic changes in store for them. He insisted that his policies bear the stamp of democratic legitimacy; he did not want to be forced to renege on promises, as his predecessors had done. By the end of his five-year term in office, Macron hoped that his expedited reforms would achieve nothing less than a “Copernican revolution” in the relationship between the French state and its citizens.
Macron believes that in order to get the French economy moving again, he needs to convince foreign investors that his government is friendly toward business. One of his first acts as president was to cut corporate tax rates and reduce levies on capital gains. He also abolished the “solidarity tax on large fortunes,” otherwise known as the wealth tax; introduced in 1981 by the Socialist government, this tax was levied on all those who held more than $1.5 million in assets. Critics said that the wealth tax caused the loss of billions of dollars in revenue because it motivated rich people to shelter their assets abroad. Macron’s decision to eliminate the wealth tax and replace it with a real estate tax was welcomed by foreign companies, which would soon reconsider their previous reluctance to commit to long-term investments in France. Macron received them with open arms. He invited an international group of business executives to a lavish dinner at the Versailles Palace and told them that his government would adopt a business-friendly attitude to encourage expansion of the private sector, spur growth, and create jobs. “France is back!” Macron roared to loud applause. Soon Microsoft, IBM, Facebook, Apple, and other titans of technology and industry pledged to enlarge their corporate presence in France.
Some of Macron’s advisers worried about the political impact of his tax cuts, especially the elimination of the wealth tax. As they feared, with his probusiness attitude and background as an investment banker with Rothschild, he was quickly labeled “the president of the rich.” Jean Pisani-Ferry, who served as the architect of Macron’s economic program during the campaign, proposed coupling the tax cuts for the wealthy with other measures to assist the middle and lower classes. Macron worried that too many tax cuts and subsidies would blow a hole in France’s deficit and break the budget rules of the European Union (EU), thereby undermining the confidence of Germany and other European partners in his reform program. Pisani-Ferry argued that Macron needed to do more to help the downtrodden or he would eventually lose public support for his reform program. “I explained that he would be perceived as catering only to the wealthy,” Pisani-Ferry said. “It would appear to the public as if he was indifferent to those who are struggling and that would badly damage his image.”5 Pisani-Ferry’s warning proved prescient.
Over the summer of 2017, Macron turned his attention to the centerpiece of his reform plans: France’s antiquated labor laws. He and his labor minister, Muriel Pénicaud, launched negotiations to overhaul the nation’s labyrinthine labor code, contained in three thousand pages of arcane rules and regulations dating back to the Napoleonic era. France’s rigid labor markets made it practically impossible to lay off workers or even fire them for cause. As a result of employers’ reluctance to hire people in this environment, many young people were forced to work under short-term contracts that failed to give them much traction in their careers. Pénicaud, who had worked as an executive vice president in human resources at Dassault Systèmes (aircraft systems) and with the Danone food giant, was well acquainted with the difficulties of getting union bosses and business leaders around a table to negotiate a deal. She and Macron abandoned the old format, which almost guaranteed a stalemate, and decided to make a great spectacle of individually consulting labor leaders of every stripe, from those representing white-collar employees to the heads of factory workers’ unions. The televised footage of every union boss arriving at and then leaving the Élysée Palace demonstrated that the government was making enormous efforts to consult at every level before moving ahead with its reform program.
This maneuver enabled Macron to use divide-and-conquer tactics against the union bosses, preventing them from forming a united front in opposition to his reforms. Small companies were allowed to negotiate contracts directly with their workers rather than with unions, while a cap was imposed on damages for wrongful dismissal. The government also approved a $17 billion job-training program for young people under twenty-five years old, nearly one-quarter of whom were unemployed. During his time as economy minister, Macron had seen how France’s rigid labor code cosseted existing workers, who enjoyed guaranteed paychecks, excellent benefits, and a mandatory thirty-five-hour workweek. The code’s glaring weakness was its failure to help the young and long-term unemployed find jobs. Public support for labor reforms began to rise with the spread of Macron’s central message that the need to expand the workforce was a top priority. France was the only large European country not to have resolved the problem of mass unemployment in the past three decades. While France’s largest left-wing workers’ union, the General Confederation of Labor, expressed outrage and staged strikes against Macron’s labor reforms, other union leaders took note of public opinion and declined to follow its example.
Emboldened by his early success, Macron felt confident enough to challenge one of France’s most sacred cows: the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) railway system, the country’s biggest single employer, with 150,000 workers. France’s high-speed rail network is widely admired—it has cut travel time between Paris and Bordeaux to two hours—but its cumulative debt of more than $60 billion had become a colossal burden on the state. Nobody had dared to confront the train unions since 1995, when then–prime minister Alain Juppé was forced to scrap his reform plans and leave office after a three-week railway strike brought the country to its knees. Macron sensed that public opinion was changing, however, because of growing dismay over the generous treatment accorded to railway workers. French train drivers can retire as early as age fifty-two, ten years before everybody else, a privilege dating back to the days when they had to shovel coal into steam engines. They and their families also enjoy free train tickets, free health care, and subsidized housing. But with the rail system losing more than $10 billion a year and the European Union poised to allow rival operators to gain access to the market in 2020, Macron gambled that he could win a showdown with the country’s powerful rail unions early in his tenure.
Macron told the unions that existing workers could retain their benefits but new employees would be compelled to accept less generous terms. He gave them two months to negotiate a final deal with the government or else he would impose his reforms by executive decree. The union leaders were incensed and vowed to carry out rolling strikes until he backed down. Other politicians sympathized with the rail workers: Olivier Faure, leader of the Socialist Party, said that Macron’s demand was like inviting people to negotiate “with a revolver at their temple.”6 The confrontation became the biggest test of Macron’s first year as president. Rail workers carried out strikes every three days, disrupting the lives of millions of travelers for several months. But without the strong public sympathy they had received in the past, the strikes slowly petered out. Macron won a test of wills by patiently explaining to the French public why his demands were perfectly reasonable. Opinion polls showed that more than two-thirds of French voters supported his tough stance. Macron’s triumph over the railway unions surprised even his most ardent supporters, who, like many politicians and pundits, believed that challenging the powerful unions was akin to a death wish. Alain Minc, a prominent business consultant who has known Macron for two decades, was amazed that the young president could win his bold gamble and speculated that Macron succeeded in getting the rail unions to back down through divine intervention. “I’m convinced that you must have some kind of a special contract with God,” Minc told him. “As long as it’s a perpetual contract with Him, that’s fine with me,” Macron replied.7
But Macron’s extraordinary run of good luck would not last long. Pisani-Ferry’s warning about the perception that he was too solicitous of the wealthy class came back to haunt him through several blunders that reflected his lack of political sensitivity. He hosted a lavish fortieth birthday party for himself at the magisterial Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley, prompting comparisons with Louis XVI for behaving like a profligate monarch. The media mocked him for installing a swimming pool at the presidential summer retreat at Fort de Brégançon, on the Côte d’Azur in the south of France, and for paying a makeup artist as much as 26,000 euros for three months’ work. He and Brigitte were chastised for purchasing an elaborate porcelain dinner service for the Élysée Palace at a cost to taxpayers that some estimates put as high as 500,000 euros. He was televised giving a public scolding to a teenager who had the audacity to address him as “Manu” instead of “Monsieur le Président.” He was shown on newscasts chiding an unemployed gardener for complaining about lack of work, urging him to accept personal responsibility for his plight and not seek help from the state. All he had to do, Macron told him, was “cross the street” and he would find a job. He provoked an uproar from leftist opponents when he described those who opposed his labor reforms as “slackers.” After his personal bodyguard was forced to resign for beating up a protester on the streets, Macron was accused for months of orchestrating a cover-up. The cumulative effect of these fiascoes drove down his approval ratings as the public expressed dismay over his arrogance.
At the outset of his presidency, Macron tried to project a more aloof image as a leader who hovered above the fray. He acquired the nickname of “Jupiter,” the king of the gods in Roman mythology. Macron was convinced that the French people yearned to recapture the glory of the monarchy. He had seen how Hollande’s presidency failed in part because he tried to portray himself as “Monsieur Normal,” a common man of the people. While serving as Hollande’s economy minister, Macron gave an interview explaining why he believed that the French Revolution—which culminated in the beheading of the royals and the Reign of Terror—had “dug an emotional, imaginary and collective void” in the minds of the people. He claimed that democracy had not filled that void, except during the rule of Napoleon and de Gaulle, because the French people “never really wanted the king to die.”8 Macron’s monarchist affectations, however, proved unconvincing. As president, he turned out to be an inveterate micromanager who insisted on controlling all policy details from the Élysée Palace. He could never master the philosopher-king role played so effectively by François Mitterrand. Hubert Védrine, who served as Mitterrand’s chief of staff and later as foreign minister, told me that he once advised Macron to emulate Mitterrand’s methods in coping with controversies. He urged Macron to disappear from public view for a few days, as Mitterrand would occasionally do, in order to impress upon the nation that he was too busy “thinking great thoughts” about the state of the world to be troubled by the daily grind of politics. Macron complained that Mitterrand’s vanishing act was now impossible with the omnipresence of social media, podcasts, and cable news networks.9
Despite his declining approval ratings, Macron was determined to accelerate the reform process. He disregarded the advice of those who warned him that he risked alienating the public with his bewildering pace of change. He and his staff stuck to their game plan of front-loading reforms in the first two years of his presidency so that he might reap political dividends by the end of his five-year tenure. “It was our year of living dangerously,” Ismaël Emelien, Macron’s top political adviser during the first two years of his presidency, told me. “We knew we had to move quickly right after the election or risk losing momentum in ways that would paralyze his presidency, as happened to others before him.”10
Macron followed up his success on the labor front by enacting new measures to improve health care and education, two sectors long neglected by his predecessors as too politically volatile to touch. France’s health-care system is considered the best in the world, according to the World Health Organization, but it has been plagued by rising costs, the burdens of an aging population, and the closure of many clinics in rural regions. As the son of doctors, Macron had promised during the campaign that he would preserve the high quality of French health care and ensure that it reached the entire population. “In France, we treat well, but we are not necessarily healthier than our neighbors because we do prevention poorly,” Macron told the nation as he unveiled his plans to revamp medical care. “The health system does not suffer from underfunding but from an organizational problem.”11 Macron promised to dispatch four hundred doctors to rural areas that were not well served with medical clinics and to create four thousand new positions for medical assistants to help doctors carry out their tasks. To expand the health-care network, he vowed to overhaul medical training and abolish limits on the number of students allowed to study medicine, which he said would bring as many as twenty-five thousand more doctors into the health-care system.
Education reform was another key pillar of Macron’s campaign to revitalize France and shake up its ossified society. He strongly believes that education is the best pathway toward a more just and equitable society. He personally flourished as a precocious child from the northern provinces who went to France’s most elite schools, notably Sciences Po (Institut d’études politiques de Paris) and the National School of Administration (École national d’administration), which nurture the nation’s top civil servants. Macron’s two principal mentors, the former Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard and the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, emphasized the importance of access to high-quality education for all sectors of society if France hoped to fulfill its hallowed motto of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” Today France ranks at the bottom of major developed countries in social mobility and in helping impoverished pupils escape economic deprivation, according to a global education study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Even though France spends more money (about $60 billion a year) on education than on any other sector, including defense, Macron was shocked to discover his country’s low ranking. He was also troubled to learn that many employers complained about graduates leaving French schools poorly trained in the skills needed to thrive in the twenty-first century.
Macron exploited his powerful majority in the National Assembly to ram through a comprehensive series of education reforms at all levels. Classroom sizes were cut in half for thousands of elementary schools in underprivileged areas, creating job openings for up to ten thousand new teachers over three years. The government decreed that school would be compulsory from the age of three instead of six. France’s famed baccalauréat, the school-leaving exam introduced by Napoleon in 1808, was dramatically revised. Universities were compelled to become more selective in their admissions process and to offer more opportunities to study computer science and coding to match the needs of the digital world. “From kindergarten to university, we are changing everything,” Macron said in a French television interview.12 As with his other reform efforts, Macron encountered resistance from unions, which protested that such change would undermine the French tradition of teaching every citizen the same course of study. Nevertheless, arguing that the educational system no longer met the needs of the twenty-first century, Macron proceeded with the most far-reaching overhaul ever attempted since French schools became free and obligatory in the nineteenth century.
Like his political mentor Rocard, Macron sees education reform as one of the most effective anti-poverty programs that government can offer. During the twilight of his political career, Rocard spent much of his fifteen years as a member of the European Parliament exploring ways to open up schools and universities to people of all ages so that they would not feel locked into a single career for their entire life. He was an advocate of the deuxième gauche
PRAISE FOR THE LAST PRESIDENT OF EUROPE"This fascinating, well-researched book sheds new light on the vicissitudes of Emmanuel Macron's consequential political career. Read, learn, and enjoy."—George P. Shultz, former UnitedStates Secretary of State
- "Bill Drozdiak offers a sharp analysis of the tumultuous events that marked Emmanuel Macron's first years in the French presidency in this eminently readable and admirably concise volume. His journalist's keen eye, deep knowledge of contemporary European affairs, and first person interviews with President Macron and his team are used to particularly good effect in the chapters on Macron's efforts to reach out to the French public after a series of domestic policy missteps. The book highlights the daunting challenges that Macron faces in implementing his grand vision for France at home and abroad."—Dr. Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia at the White House National Security Council
- "Bill Drozdiak's The Last President of Europe is a thoughtful interpretation of the dilemmas facing France and Europe. It is also an insightful portrait of a leader who may define these issues' resolution."—Henry A. Kissinger, former United States Secretary of State
- "There are not many readable, well-informed books on Europe available to Americans these days. William Drozdiak's book on French president Emmanuel Macron is both. What's unique is Drozdiak's access to Macron, who wants very much to connect with American public opinion."
—Ronald Tiersky Professor of Political Science emeritus, Amherst College
- "An eye-opening account of world politics and how the globe's most consequential leaders deal with each other in private. Drozdiak explains in clear and compelling prose how and why Macron's last-ditch efforts are vital for citizens in the U. S. and elsewhere in the world."—Jim Hoagland, Washington Post columnist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner
- "It is fascinating to read a portrait of this young and intelligent French President as seen through American eyes. Drozdiak demonstrates a sense of objectivity and a well-documented and informed knowledge of Macron's European passion. This is a very serious and complete work, yet written in clear and readable prose. The virtue and quality of Drozdiak's book lies in his shrewd analysis and judgement of Macron's presidency and his place among today's world leaders."—Philippe Labro, best-selling French author, journalist and film director.
- "The Last President of Europe is the extraordinary story of the ambition of a young, audacious, inexperienced politician to transform not only his country, France, but also Europe, for the challenges of the 21st century and the new great power competition. In this riveting, well-informed book, William Drozdiak takes us to the heart of Emmanuel Macron's fight, through the hopes and failures, the bold vision and the disastrous mistakes. The violence of the Yellow Vests' revolt, Angela Merkel's quiet passivity, Donald Trump's rage and Vladimir Putin's disdain set the stage for an enlightening look into one of the most original political experiences of today's Europe."—Sylvie Kauffmann, columnist and editorial director, Le Monde
- "An intimate portrait of the French president at a moment of European and global crisis, William Drozdiak's The Last President of Europe presents Emmanuel's Macron's visionary plan for a revived, cohesive and more independent Europe, capable of embodying western democratic values and liberty as China asserts itself and the United States retreats. Macron's plan is bold, and its viability uncertain, but its importance for humanity in the 21st century is unquestionable, as Drozdiak makes clear in this important book."—Roger Cohen, New York Times global affairs columnist
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages