Analysis

Macron Puts Up a Smoke Screen Before He Targets France’s Labor Laws

The president's rivals say his frantic diplomatic activity is aimed at distracting attention from his real goal – loosening the country's labor laws

French President Emmanuel Macron at the Tour de France, July 2017.
Jeff Pachoud / AFP

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron “loves holding my hand,” U.S. President Donald Trump told The New York Times when asked about their relationship. Well, is the French president more loving to leaders who aren’t used to receiving public adoration, from Vladimir Putin to Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Macron made a point of calling Bibi in their meeting?

The French left is wondering out loud if the new centrist president isn’t a closet rightist, not only on economic issues but also in many other areas such as foreign policy. Henry Kissinger once said Israel is the only country without a foreign policy because its domestic policy dictates its foreign policy. Macron’s France is beginning to look the other way around: a country where everything is foreign policy.

The day after the election, Macron flew to Germany to meet with Angela Merkel, and since then he has repeatedly said, unlike his predecessor François Hollande, that he plans to focus on foreign relations and defense. Regarding economic issues, he only intends to set the goal that the government will have to achieve.

Everything he has said would sound reasonable if it weren’t clear to everyone that Macron will be judged not for improving France’s international standing but for its economy. Thus everyone suspects that Macron’s frantic diplomatic activity is nothing but a smoke screen designed to hide his real goal of loosening France’s labor laws.

And so, no one has gone on vacation yet. Every center of French economic power has kept someone on duty, from the National Assembly and the labor unions to the cabinet, the Senate and even the teachers’ associations. Their job is to mobilize millions of demonstrators should a bill suddenly be submitted.

In fact, Macron ordered all members of his governing coalition not to go on vacation before August 8 — an unprecedented development in the history of the Fifth Republic. He even told them not to stray more than four hours from Paris.

Officials at the lysée Palace reiterate that Macron is innocently striving to reposition France as a country that can’t be ignored. Last week, the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy published its soft power index. France leapfrogged from fifth to first on the scale measuring the power to wield diplomatic influence without relying on violence, but only because of Macron’s election.

But then a crisis erupted in Paris, even before Netanyahu left town, which reminded us that even soft power must confront economic questions. At a closed session of the National Assembly’s National Defense and Armed Forces Committee, the army chief of staff, Gen. Pierre de Villiers, accused the president of duplicity. He said Macron had promised him he’d raise the defense budget to 2 percent of gross domestic product, but now he had discovered that the military budget was a candidate for the biggest cut of the coming year, 25 percent.

In his speech, De Villiers exaggerated in a way familiar to Israeli taxpayers: “We are paying with blood The army belongs to everyone . Security first and foremost . We will have to cut back on battle rations for soldiers on the front with ISIS.”

The truth is more complex. The defense budget will indeed grow by 1.5 billion euros, but the money will go to defense programs of Europe, NATO and electronic intelligence at the Interior Ministry. The army’s budget will shrink by 850 million euros. When De Villiers realized this, he barked out in the committee meeting, “I won’t let myself be screwed like that.” The leak of this outburst triggered the crisis.

Loyal to his nickname, Jupiter, Macron showed up at the Defense Ministry that day and scolded De Villiers in front of the entire General Staff. De Villiers felt he had no choice but to resign the next day. It’s the first time a French chief of staff hasn’t completed his term since France’s so-called Generals’ putsch against Charles de Gaulle in 1961.

Detecting a crack in Jupiter’s armor, the opposition quickly attacked the president and defended the chief of staff’s honor. But is this a rift or cohesiveness? Macron said he’d focus on foreign policy and defense, and his announcement last week to replace De Villiers with François Lecointre completes his control of foreign and defense affairs within two months.

All this is a distraction, warns the leader of the radical left, Jean Luc Mélenchon. He says Macron has no interest in foreign affairs and defense. He just wants to release some smoke before he drops his real bomb, which will violate workers’ rights. Netanyahu, Putin, Merkel and Trump are all part of the theater set hiding the lysée’s real show.

The European parliament announced last week that it was launching an investigation into Mélenchon on suspicion he paid parliamentary assistants with EU money to carry out party work. Mélenchon sees the long arm of the young president in this decision.

He’s probably right, and Mélenchon is probably preparing an excuse for the inconceivable possibility that Macron will be able to dramatically change France’s labor laws. Still, like Jupiter, Macron is probably capable of taking care of foreign relations and domestic discipline at the same time.