A reformed, nimble economy could allow France to capitalise on Brexit—and cement a position at the top table in Europe

Four months after Emmanuel Macron became President of France, the French—and the rest of Europe—still don’t know what they are getting. Would-be Macronologists are filling shelves in France book-stores with instant books on him. Régis Debray, who is now, at 80, the grand old man of French political intellectualism, has a new book arguing that Macron represents the triumph of “neo-protestant globalisation” over “catholic laicism”—whatever that means.

But there are not many cuttings on Macron compared to previous presidents of France like de Gaulle and Mitterrand, let alone when compared to Sarkozy or Hollande.

Based on what little we’ve seen thus far, the best comparison for Macron is probably Tony Blair. His is a reformist fusion of Social and Christian democracy; he’s a Davos man with some regard for reducing unfairness and inequality.

Macron does appear to understand that France needs to break free from its current economic model. This currently suits a majority, especially those products of French elite higher education, the Énarques, who run so much of public and private France. He has looked at Britain and Germany and noted how both countries got going following a difficult labour market reform—Mrs Thatcher’s attack on syndicalist trade union privileges in the 1980s and Gerhard Schröder’s liberalisation moves after 2000.

Macron must move fast, but it is not clear where he can find partners. French trade unions represent only about 7 per cent of the totality of French employees and remain bitterly divided on grounds of history and ideology.

France has a tri-cameral system—the Elysée, the National Assembly and the Street. Macron has the first two sewn up. His opponents on the hard left and hard right hope to mobilise the last against him.

This is unlikely and the first mobilisations against his reform have been poorly attended. Macron has used the mechanism of “ordonnances”—decrees—which put forward legal changes on the President’s initiative rather than the parliamentary route of first-second-third readings.

He is determined to take the high wire and get his reforms in early so they can have the hoped-for impact and bring the kind of kinetic energy and reputation as a global performer that Britain enjoyed after the Thatcher years, or Germany won thanks to Schröder’s reforms.

Yet he faces a deep tradition of corporatism and sectoral protectionism in France. On the state-owned and managed SNCF railways, for example, jobs go to members of families and those with union connections. Hence unlike rail public transport in many other EU countries there are few non-white immigrant faces. French airline pilots have blocked any chance of low-cost airlines in France—Easyjet from England and Ryanair from Ireland have the market to themselves. Taxi-drivers fight against Uber and hotel owners fight against AirBNB. You cannot buy an aspirin on an autoroute service station; you will be told to go and find an open pharmacy in a nearby town. Buying a house means paying extra to a notaire—a corporate group of legal officials who have never been challenged by competition.

To understand this, it is worth noting that trade unions in France have always been low in membership and high in political pressure. In contrast to European social democratic traditions where single industrial unions have insisted on an autonomous social partnership with employers to determine wages, the French tradition has sought intervention by the state to legislate pay and conditions. What across the Rhine in Germany or further north in the Netherlands and Nordic EU states is agreed by collective bargaining has, in France, been a matter of state legislation.

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy and networks of local notables—regional and town-hall politicians, prefects and professionals—are as big a block to start-up entrepreneurialism as unions.

Against this backdrop, Macron is simplifying the French state, hoping to make it a nimble competitor for when Britain leaves the EU. He wants to simplify decision-making in France—to make it faster, more transparent, and so create openings for French economic energy. Ministers have been ordered to severely halve the number of fonctionnaires in their offices. The work-load stays the same and officials have complained to Le Monde about 15-hour days, sans lunch-breaks, and le weekend is now part of the working week.

The supreme prize is to make France as economically energetic and productive as Germany. Macron remains convinced that the nation-state in the de Gaulle tradition has seen its best days, and if France needs to grow it must do in the context of the EU. He wants not so much a European France or a French Europe but a European EU. Hence his playing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem, at his inauguration, and incessant rounds of visits to EU capitals or inviting selected EU prime ministers to Paris.

Such overtures are received gratefully in Berlin. Germany cannot help its size and dominant role in the EU, but it would be so much easier if there was one other big European state able to share leadership and responsibility. With Britain now set to write itself out of European history, continental Europe knows it can only take so much German hegemony before trouble starts again.

This provides an important economic opportunity for Macron. But for Germany to take it, France must show itself capable of serious reform.

The question, then, is whether Macron will be able to change the economy in the way he desires. He has become President on a novelty vote not dissimilar to Trump and Brexit. Like those two votes, Macron defeated conventional politics and has not hid his scorn for the rules and practitioners of politics.  But the gods of politics have a habit of getting their revenge on those who claim to be able to defy ancient customs. Macron has referred to his style as “Jupiterian.” He may have to descend to the level where political mortals dwell to achieve his goals.

But for the first time in three decades there is a sense of urgency and purpose in France which makes Britain’s Brexit descent into petty populist provincialism even more Lilliputian.

Denis MacShane was the UK’s Minister for Europe and is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners in Brussels.

Can Macron’s labour reforms make France a leader in Europe?