Copé, Macron Highlight Timidity of French Parties

Two politicians who are to the right of their parties call for a more thorough liberalization of the economy.

French economy minister Emmanuel Macron visits New York, June 25, 2015
French economy minister Emmanuel Macron visits New York, June 25, 2015 (Consulat de France à New York/Laure Boutteau)

French economy minister Emmanuel Macron launched a political movement on Wednesday that he says aims to unite people from the left and the right around a program of reform.

Macron, nominally a Socialist, denied that the movement is meant to propel him into a presidential candidacy for 2017, but French presidential hopefuls do have a tendency to launch political “movements” one of two years out from an election.

Macron’s announcement comes only days after former conservative party secretary Jean-François Copé launched his own bid for the presidency. The rightwinger fell out with his former boss and current party leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2014 over a financial scandal and would now seek to deny him the Republicans’ presidential nomination.

Neither Copé nor Macron is likely to end up as a presidential candidate, let alone president of France. But the noise they’re making speaks volumes about the perceived timidity of their respective party leaders: Sarkozy and his successor, François Hollande.

Divided left

Macron is the face of Hollande’s late-term conversation to social democracy.

Elected in 2012 on a promise to soak the rich, the Socialist Party leader now recognizes that the only way to get unemployment below 10 percent is to relax state controls. He allowed Macron, a former investment banker, to cut business taxes and let companies opt out of collective bargaining agreements. Sunday shopping hours and intercity transport were also liberalized.

This was an affront to Hollande’s left-wing allies. The Greens temporarily quit the ruling coalition, causing the left to lose several closely-contested local elections. Primary challengers from 2012 publicly condemned Hollande’s policy shift. The trade unions threatened to strike.

The president pulled back earlier this year. A proposal to allow small businesses to negotiate longer working hours with their employees was dropped as was a cap on the compensation judges can award workers who have been found to be wrongfully dismissed.

Macron has never hid his belief that France needs to move much further if it is to keep up in the global economy.

But it seems his party would much prefer to keep living in the past.

Missed opportunity

Copé’s criticism of Sarkozy is similar, if more explicit.

“We never eliminated the 35-hours [workweek],” he laments in an interview with Politico about the previous government. “We never reformed the pension system. We never simplified the labor code. We never adopted a selective immigration policy.”

We never created the necessary conditions to improve competitiveness and bring down unemployment.

Which is almost entirely true. Sarkozy did face down mass protests to raise the retirement age from sixty to 62 (Hollande partly reversed the increase), but he didn’t cut taxes. He raised them. The French state still owns or has shares in postal services, railways and utilities. Sarkozy didn’t privatize anything. Nor did he liberalize labor laws or trade policy. Just before losing reelection to Hollande, he did decry “savage competition” from outside Europe, suggesting more protectionism, not less.


Copé is not a moderate like Macron. He made a name for himself as a hardliner on immigration and was seen as worrying more about losing votes to the far right than to the center.

Still, his critique seems well-timed. Polls suggest the French have become more liberal. Macron’s reforms are broadly popular. A majority agrees that the 35-hour workweek is out of date. A majority already works longer hours anyway. But neither of the two large political parties has caught up yet.

Copé and Macron may each in their own way put pressure on the men almost certain to lead their parties into the next election to keep up with the times.

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