World News

Macron Opens Year Pulling No Punches With Journalists, or Anyone

Posted January 5, 2018 6:54 p.m. EST

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron met with French journalists this week in what is an annual tradition by French presidents to extend a New Year’s greeting. Instead, Macron seized the occasion to lecture them.

You need a set of rules, he told the assembled press corps, some principles, an ethics code. And besides, you give too much weight to off-record quotes when it’s the official word that counts.

The scolding was audacious. But that is Macron’s style these days. For now, he is the undisputed master of French politics and his absolute self-confidence — critics say, arrogance — is undaunted, when it comes to French journalism, its labor code, migration or almost anything else.

The encounter made abundantly clear that, despite roller-coaster ratings since he was elected in May, Macron was unlikely to trim his ambitions for the year ahead.

“These deep transformations have started and will continue with the same force, the same rhythm, the same intensity in 2018,” the French president told his compatriots in his New Year’s Eve greetings a few days before.

Macron was hinting at the real disruptions he has brought about in French political life — in employment and fiscal policy, with other big jolts promised soon. Remarkably in so hidebound a country, he is getting away with it.

Demonstrations against him are few and small; the opposition is weak; and Macron’s newly minted majority of political novices in Parliament merely repeats the leadership’s words “like Pavlov’s dogs,” as political scientist Pascal Perrineau put it in a recent interview in the weekly Le Un.

“The 21st Century Will Not be American” was the title of a stinging essay last month by the pro-American novelist Pascal Bruckner in Le Monde, pointing up America’s retreat under President Donald Trump and reaching the muted conclusion that it could well be France’s century instead.

“Trump is not an accident of history,” Bruckner wrote, adding, “the world has no desire to be American."

Macron, with his upsets to the established order in France and his bid for leadership in the Europe of a politically weakened Germany, appears inspired by the same thought.

His grand vision for France’s role, as expressed in the New Year’s Eve address, harks back to Charles de Gaulle, a leader to which the French press sometimes compares him: “A strong country with a universal pull which, because it is stronger, produces more, and can therefore ensure solidarity at home and make humanist demands abroad,” Macron said.

Europe, he said, “can stand up to China, to the United States.”

The emphasis in these words is on strength. The hallmark of Macron’s program so far — and what is promised in the coming months in two major domains, immigration and unemployment — is its tough-mindedness.

For his critics, that determination tips at times into disdain. That was the message that many took from his greeting, if it could be called that, to the journalists.

The irony was not lost on the assembled press corps that Macron, in fact, owes most of his amazing political good fortune to bold French journalism: It was the weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that torpedoed his principal opponent — and the otherwise likely winner of the 2017 presidential election — François Fillon.

Adding insult to injury, the French president then announced a new, if redundant, law repressing “fake news” — hardly the currency of the professionals in the room, and a problem addressed in French statutes.

Others have felt similarly discarded, or even betrayed. Macron rose to power through his service in a Socialist government, but there is little of the socialist about his policies.

Macron imbibed from his mentor, the late philosopher Paul Ricoeur, a belief in the transforming power of the individual will. As proof, the young president can point to his own quick rise to the top, a stunning success that undergirds many of his pronouncements. Similarly, the changes he has pushed through so far — like his lightening of the mammoth French labor code, with barely a whimper from the opposition — only buttress the narrative of individual determination, which he now hopes to infuse in his fellow citizens.

It is an unusual position for a French politician, who for generations have emphasized the protective power of the state — and the proof of any success will come only with a significant drop in the stubborn 10-percent jobless rate. But surveys show higher levels of confidence among business executives than have been seen in many years.

That is so even though Macron’s cadre of technocrats are “incredibly far from an electorate that demands protection,” Perrineau, the political scientist, said in the Le Un interview. Yet Macron’s poll numbers are climbing again, after a summer trough.

But there are challenges ahead. Macron may not be so lucky with his next intended shock to the French system, a change to the country’s generous unemployment compensation system, scheduled to be negotiated beginning next week.

Already opposition politicians have reacted furiously to a leaked government document that merely spells out what Macron promised during his campaign: tighter controls over those seeking compensation, including sanctions and cutoffs for those who refuse more than two “decent” job offers.

The unions are also unhappy about another Macron promise that appears likely to be on the table in the upcoming negotiations, a vow to make unemployment insurance “universal,” opening it up to independent workers, shopkeepers, artisans and others.

This is in line with Macron’s view that, as the economy transforms itself, workers should be protected in the quest for employment in new fields.

Similarly, his sharp-elbowed immigration policy has marked a break with the looser attitude of his Socialist predecessor. He is outflanking both the far-right’s National Front and the conventional right, both of whom make immigration their war cry. Macron is depriving them of the issue.

He set the tough tone to African students themselves in a November address to those at Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, who were demanding easier access to France.

“I can’t tell my middle classes who work, who pay taxes, that it’s great, we’re going to welcome everybody into the country,” Macron said. “That’s just ridiculous. Who’s going to pay for that? You’ll just fuel racism and xenophobia. That doesn’t exist, totally open frontiers, that just doesn’t work.” Accordingly, forced expulsions of those denied asylum were up more than 13 percent last year, hovering around 15,000, compared with the previous year. The interior minister has asked prefects all over France to step up such expulsions .

“We can’t take in everybody,” Macron said in his New Year’s Eve speech. “There must be rules. It’s indispensable that we check the identities of everyone, and when someone arrives in our country who is not eligible for asylum and has no chance of getting French citizenship, we can’t accept that they stay for months, years, in an irregular situation good for neither them nor the country.”