With post-Brexit Britain in retreat, and Angela Merkel on her last mandate, in 2018 Emmanuel Macron will pursue his claim to the future leadership of Europe. Fresh from his election in May 2017, France’s young president will seek first to reform his own country, and then to bring Europeans closer together, restoring confidence in the eu’s future.
Reforming France is a prerequisite for progress in Europe. Mr Macron began to deregulate the labour market four months after taking office. But he will want to go further. By reorganising the French welfare state, and cutting taxes and other constraints on business, he should encourage economic growth and job creation. He will overhaul the country’s inefficient vocational-training budget, increase the number of apprenticeships and revive job centres. His government will also start work on reforming the pension system, streamlining the civil service and reshaping education.
Social spending in France, at over 30% of GDP, is ten percentage points above the average in the OECD, a group of mainly rich nations. But Mr Macron’s plans will not involve indiscriminate cuts. His hope is to transform France not into a deregulated America or Britain, but a sort of Scandinavia à la française. Pension reform will be a good test. France’s system of 35 schemes gives workers different rights, lacks transparency and discourages job mobility. Mr Macron will try to unify these into a points-based system, better suited to a more unpredictable world of work. The guiding philosophy will be to set up portable individual rights that make it easy for people to move into and out of jobs.
Such plans will be demanding, require gritty policy follow-through, and prompt apprehension and resistance. Teachers in particular will be put on edge by some of Mr Macron’s plans for education. Periodic protests will take place. The president’s popularity ratings will slide further still. But Mr Macron will keep his nerve.
His fragile but loyal young party, La République en Marche, will face little serious parliamentary opposition. The Socialists will be fighting for their survival. Marine Le Pen will struggle to unite the far-right National Front. There could be some shifting of party boundaries on the centre-right, as the Republicans lurch rightwards under a new leader, Laurent Wauquiez. He will become one voice of opposition. The other will be Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the far-left Unsubmissive France, who will seize every chance to cast Mr Macron as an agent of ultra-liberal capitalism. The president’s challenge will be to persuade his original electoral base, which leans to the left and the centre, that he is not governing just for business and the better-off.
If Mr Macron can stick to his word at home, he will be more credible when promoting his reforms in Europe. On January 22nd, to mark the 55th anniversary of the Elysée treaty, which cemented Franco-German ties, he will attempt to reboot this relationship. Some of his ideas will meet scepticism in Germany, particularly his hopes for a euro-zone budget, finance minister and parliament. But there will be room for common ground on others, including joint defence, security and intelligence measures, as well as education exchanges. In a bid to make Europe more meaningful to its citizens, who are exasperated by the technical jargon of crisis management, Mr Macron will also embark on a replica of the grassroots consultation that helped him build his new party.
As Mr Macron settles into the job in the run-up to his first anniversary, having turned 40 just before the start of the year, he will be tested beyond Europe’s shores. After years of relatively discreet French diplomacy, he will seek a more dominant role, taking the lead on initiatives on climate change, Syria, Libya and Russia. He will try to scale back French security operations on the streets at home, and in the African Sahel. Terrorism, though, will remain a preoccupation.
Le jour de gloire est à l’horizon
The year ahead will mark both the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Fifth Republic by Charles de Gaulle, and the 50th anniversary of the student uprising of May 1968, which presaged the general’s departure. Highly tuned to symbols, Mr Macron will be mindful of the weight of the first, and the risks of the second.
In many ways, his “Jupiterian” concept of the presidency will reflect a return to a Gaullist reading of French institutions, and the remaking of party politics that the general’s election put in place. But Mr Macron will also need to make sure that his presidency is not seen as haughty and disdainful in a way that exposes it to the country’s famous rebelliousness. If he can get the balance right, this could be the year in which France fully emerges from a long spell of depression and decline into a new period of promise.
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