After the ripple effect of the Brexit vote in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in November, the election of Emmanuel Macron against Marine le Pen decisively reframed the dominant political narrative of the rise of populism. Macron ran unambiguously on a centrist, socially liberal, and business-friendly platform that defended the importance of the EU, the need to accept migrants, and the rejection of protectionism.
Yet only a few months later, French President Emmanuel Macron, who embodies many of the qualities that conservatives expect of their president, contrasts quite decisively with Emmanuel Macron the candidate, who had “Trudeau-esque” characteristics at times.
In the early weeks of his presidency, Macron focused heavily on reforming the French labor laws and taxation. He drastically reduced France’s wealth tax, a taboo law that the right for years shied away from suppressing. His labor reforms, while not as important as expected, nonetheless offer companies increased flexibility. Again, the right for years had claimed it would reform France’s labor laws but always fell short of doing so in power.
Many critics of Macron’s supposed shift to the right usually focus on these economic reforms to prove their point. Yet they miss the fact that Macron announced the vast majority of these reforms. Macron championed classical liberalism over state intervention long before his presidency. The real shift from a liberal centrist to a more conservative president occurred mainly on two issues: immigration policy and governance style.
As a presidential candidate, Macron had promised a major political revolution. He wanted to take power away from the two major parties. By nominating legions of fresh-faced novices (as well as making the current legislature the youngest and most gender-balanced since 1958) to become France’s members of parliament, Macron let his base envisage a more horizontal style of governance in the traditionally centralized French nation-state.
More than any of his recent predecessors, President Macron embraced the role of president-king that the fifth Republic grants to its leader. At the top of the pyramid, Macron rules with two trusted technocrats. Macron also manages to control his cabinet ministers, either technical experts with no political ambition or political figures with little experience of the fields they cover, in a manner unheard of since at least the Giscard presidency in 1974. Macron even meets in person with every senior administrative head of each ministry. In Parliament, La République en Marche (LREM) MPs can be expelled from the movement for co-signing legislative amendments with MPs from other parties, a harsh measure unheard of even in France’s traditional political parties. To be fair, Macron had discreetly theorized such a “Jupiterian” presidency, but ran mostly a new look centrist that would democratize political life before ruling as a president-king. On the right, many applaud the return of a figure of authority, while the left criticizes his “authoritarian” governance.
Immigration is at the heart of Macron’s right-wing evolution. During the campaign, he had openly lauded Angela Merkel’s welcoming of a million refugees in Germany. In a country already massively defiant to immigration, he maintained this position during the campaign. In contrast to the other runner-up, Marine le Pen, Macron’s rhetoric of an open France appeared obvious to most political observers.
Yet his handling as president of issues relating to immigration took many by surprise. Humanitarian associations criticized a whole series of measures, including the searches of undocumented migrants in emergency shelters and the increased number of deportations. Patrick Weil, a left-wing historian of immigration even declared, “Macron is the opposite of Sarkozy: he’s sugary in his dialogue, but on the ground it’s the dagger.”
It is hardly surprising that Macron, whose electoral base came from the center-left, now appeals in polls more to right-wingers than to left-wingers. Macron no longer considers the Socialist party to be a threat, and his right-wing shift could be a move to kill the right-wing Les Républicains. Yet he should be careful; Macron’s unofficial slogan “en même temps” (“at the same time”) reflected his need for balance between the left and the right.