Right, Left, and Macron
At a time of deepening inequality, the primary challenge France faces is to shift its focus from damage control to damage prevention. President Emmanuel Macron’s policies will need to be assessed on the basis of that goal, not according to ideological labels that have lost significance.
PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron, once viewed as the quintessential centrist, has lately been labeled a right-wing politician. He has, after all, eliminated the wealth tax, introduced greater labor-market flexibility, cut housing benefits, and introduced reforms to higher education – policies that a majority of right-wing voters embrace. But things aren’t quite that cut and dried.
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The right-left divide remains deeply felt in France. The right has traditionally emphasized freedom – breaking down barriers that impede individuals’ ability to create. The left has focused on equality, pursuing policies that aim to create a level playing field through redistribution. This division remains particularly acute in economic and social policy, though it also extends to other areas, like education policy (for example, extended education versus early specialization).
Yet the truth is that the fundamentally redistributive nature of the French state has narrowed the gap between the two sides considerably in recent decades. At the same time, divergences within the two main camps have grown, making it much more difficult to distinguish clearly two opposing perspectives.
For example, the far-right National Front denounces “handouts,” as is typical of the right, and yet embraces state-led redistribution. That leftist demand, however, is mediated by the Front’s identity politics, particularly its vehement opposition to immigration. Redistribution, in other words, is only for “us,” the “real” French people.
As for the left, it has not become fragmented so much as atomized. There remains a clear distinction between the “governing left” and its “radical” counterpart. Yet that divide runs even through the once-dominant Socialist Party.
The left is deeply divided on virtually all issues – Europe, secularism, education, business, and more – making it extremely difficult to identify what exactly constitutes “leftist” policies nowadays. In fact, the Socialists have started distinguishing themselves not by what they are, but by what they are not, touting the line, “neither Macron nor Mélenchon” (a reference to the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon).
Yet that distinction may not be as powerful as the Socialists may believe. After all, it was their center-left voters who got Macron elected. And they knew what they were voting for: every policy he has implemented thus far was included in his campaign platform. This suggests that France’s center-left largely accepts the current approach.
To be sure, Macron’s incentive-based economic policies are further to the right than anything France has known for a very long time. And the center-right has, so far, backed every one of them. (Macron’s cooptation of most of the center-right’s economic program has actually compounded the challenge it faces, leaving it with little choice but to use identity politics to stand out.)
At the same time, Macron’s social policies aim to produce roughly the same level of redistribution as before. So, while his approach challenges the left’s political template, it comprises what are fundamentally center-left policies.
Of course, it will take some time for these policies’ effects to be felt. But it will not be the poor who ultimately lose out; it will be the relatively affluent households that were not previously subject to the wealth tax.
The idea that eliminating a wealth tax can benefit an entire economy is difficult to defend. The expectation that the benefits will “trickle down” to the middle and lower classes is highly dubious. Yet, in a country where capitalism has historically been very weak, there is something to be said for the incentive-driven logic behind the move. In an innovation-oriented economy that is now funded by capital rather than debt, the wealth tax had become a historical handicap, thwarting French industry and entrepreneurship.
The French model, which focuses on redressing excessive social inequalities through transfers, was built at a time when the number of losers was relatively small. But, as the share of losers has grown alongside the emergence of a postindustrial economy, this model has reached its limits, with the growing amount of redistribution undermining economic efficiency.
What Macron is trying to do is update France’s economic operating system, shifting from the reparative approach of the past to a preparatory model that can better address the challenges generated by digital technology, globalization, and rapid innovation. Far from ignoring inequalities, this approach aims to prevent them from taking hold. The traditional redistributive logic will be abandoned in favor of a pre-distributive approach.
In practice, this means that unemployment would be addressed not by expanding the public-sector workforce, but by strengthening training via programs that reflect businesses’ real needs. It means that educational inequalities would be reduced not simply by increasing resources, but with an interdisciplinary approach that balances early intervention to support the most vulnerable with greater institutional autonomy. And it means that the health-care system’s quality will be improved not by throwing more money at it, but through a greater emphasis on preventive medicine.
Macron’s melding of the left and right has created something of an existential dilemma for France’s traditional political parties, which are now struggling for survival. The 2019 European parliamentary elections may amount to a kind of reckoning.
But that isn’t the point. At a time of deepening inequality, the primary challenge France faces is to shift its focus from damage control to damage prevention. Macron’s policies will need to be assessed on the basis of that goal, not according to ideological labels that have lost significance.