OPINION: Macron won’t admit it, but he’s on the election campaign trail

French President Emmanuel Macron announced new health measures in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday - but he also appeared to be setting out his re-election campaign. John Lichfield casts a glance over candidate Macron.

Emmanuel Macron making his TV address to the nation on Tuesday.
Emmanuel Macron making his TV address to the nation on Tuesday. Photo: Christophe Archambault/AFP

President Emmanuel Macron’s 25 minute slot on most TV channels last night was an excellent campaign speech masquerading as a presidential address to the nation.

President Macron omitted to say so – maybe he forgot? – but he evidently intends to run for another five years in the Elysée Palace.

That was never really in doubt. The President has the right to choose the best moment to announce his candidature. The first round of the election on April 10th is still five months away.

READ ALSO Who’s who in the 2022 race for the French presidency

But last night’s TV address – his ninth since the Covid Pandemic began 20 months ago – was a risky exercise in the muddling of genres. Macron can get away with it once. If he makes a habit of it, he will irritate even the 40 percent or so of the electorate which currently likes or tolerates him.

Last night’s speech was given by two men – President Macron at the start; Candidate Macron at the end.

Thus President Macron announced that the rules of the health pass, limiting access to fun and travel, will be expanded on December 15th to include proof of a third or booster dose of anti-Covid vaccine for the over 65s.

READ ALSO What does Macron’s announcement change for the health pass?

Good. This is a sensible extension of a policy which has annoyed some but protected millions – sometimes against their will. Macron’s announcement of the health pass on July 12th set off a stampede for first vaccinations. France, one of the most vax-resistant countries in the world, now has almost 90 percent adult coverage of vaccines against Covid-19.

The French programme of third vaccinations – needed to keep up the protection of the most vulnerable – has been meandering along since September. Only half of the 7,000,000 people eligible have bothered to get a booster jab. The virus is gaining ground again, though less in France (so far) than in most of its neighbours.

Macron’s announcement last night set off, just like in July, a stampede for third vax appointments. He also announced that over 50s would be eligible for their boosters from December.

All of that took five or six minutes of Macron’s address. President Macron then announced that planned stricter rules on unemployment pay would be triggered – pandemic or no pandemic – from  December.  The economy is booming, he told viewers (It is. It grew by 3 percent in the third quarter alone).

Unemployment is the lowest for 15 years. There are 300,000 job vacancies but there are still 3,000,000 unemployed. To address that mismatch, Macron said, unemployment pay will soon be suspended for those considered not to be actively seeking a job.

After that Candidate Macron – or undeclared Candidate Macron – took over. He made a good stump speech, which sketched quite clearly the outline of the President’s intended re-election campaign.

He appealed to the Left by reminding viewers of the massive and successful intervention of the state to preserve businesses and jobs during the pandemic. He promised further new spending on the state health system.

He also appealed to the Right, promising (but not yet) a radical reform of the pension system and other measures to ensure that France becomes more prosperous by working longer. (Those French who do work are very productive but France, overall, works fewer hours than any other developed country.)

READ ALSO French workers are highly productive despite short working hours

Candidate Macron also promised something that President Macron cannot deliver and cannot, in any case, happen until circa 2040. He said he had decided to give the green light to the first large programme of new nuclear power stations in France since the early 1990s.

He concluded with a rather eloquent attack on the perpetual negativism and  French-bashing of self-proclaimed French patriots, like the xenophobic pundit Eric Zemmour.

“We believe in France – in a France that remains itself, strong in its history, its culture, its language, its secular tradition, strong in what unites us,” Macron said.

“We are strong in our determination to resist dilution in a world which is turning to submission, to dogma, to obscurantism and resurgent nationalism.”

In other words, French identity can be – and should be – tolerance and unity, not hatred and division. It will be protected, he said, by European action and European unity against economic threats from China and the US, not by burying our heads in a narrow and self-defeating definition of Frenchness. (Boris Johnson, please note.)

Macron evidently believes he can win next year by appealing to the large chunk of France which wants stability and calm after the Covid pandemic, not an aggressive attack on the political and social status quo.

In other words, Macron the suited, centrist revolutionary of 2017 intends to become Macron the centrist defender of the best of France against Zemmourist or Lepennist or centre-right or left-wing doom-mongering.

Can that work? Yes, maybe.

Opinion polls give him approval ratings in the high 30s or low 40’s, the best for any incumbent president for 20 years. They show him leading the race in the multi-candidate first round on 23 to 25 percent. They show him defeating all-comers in the two candidate second round – only narrowly beating a centre-right opponent but crushing either Zemmour or Marine Le Pen.

All of that could change rapidly when the campaign proper begins – which explains why Macron wants to delay his formal announcement for as long as possible.

That is fine. But he cannot have it both ways for much longer.

It is understandable to use the presidency pulpit (and he did use a pulpit on Tuesday night)  to lecture the French on Covid. To use his presidential pulpit to launch his campaign – while claiming not yet to be campaigning – will lose more votes than it gains.

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OPINION: Macron’s pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed – but essential for France

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Emmanuel Macron's new pension reforms are likely to be highly unpopular and lead to strikes and demonstrations - so why is he doing it? John Lichfield looks at the president's thinking and why France, in fact, needs this reform.

OPINION: Macron's pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed - but essential for France

The Belgians do it until they are 65. The Germans keep going until they are 65 and 7 months. The British manage it until they are 66. But the French – in theory – stop at 62 (and French train drivers give up much younger than that).

We are talking, of course, of work and the minimum legal age at which European countries can retire on a full state pension.  

President Emmanuel Macron is about to declare war on the French people. He thinks that they should work longer. An overwhelming majority of French people – at least 70 percent according to recent polls – believe that they should not.

President Macron decided on Wednesday night to push ahead rapidly with a new version of the pension reform which was abandoned (when close to enactment) in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.

Militant trades unions have – by coincidence – organised over 200 demonstrations across the country today to protest against several things, including Macron’s desire to delay the retirement age. That is just a taste of the mayhem to come.

Remember the long rail and power worker strikes of 2019? Or the protests of 1995 which almost brought France to its knees? They were both about pension reform.

You can hear John talking more about pension reform in the latest episode of Talking France – download it HERE, find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts or listen on the link below.

After a meeting with senior ministers and leaders of his centrist alliance, Macron has, for now, put aside the idea of imposing pension reform by Christmas by parliamentary putsch. He will allow two months for discussions on detail – but no negotiation on fundamentals – with the unions.

 A draft law to increase gradually the minimum retirement age to 65, or maybe 64, will be presented in December and pushed through by February. The 2023 budget plan published this week assumes that the first stage in delayed retirement will take effect from July.

Macron no longer has a majority in the national assembly to be sure of enacting pension reform by normal vote. He let it be known today that the government will use, if necessary, its powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass one piece of general legislation by decree in each annual session (and an unlimited amount of financial legislation).

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3? 

Opposition members could block a new pensions law by supporting a vote of no confidence (as is their constitutional right). In that case, Macron warned today, he will dissolve the assembly and force new parliamentary elections (as is his constitutional right).

In other words, Macron is ready to play hard ball.

But does it make sense to play hard ball in such hard times?

My favourite French left-wing politician, François Ruffin, the deputy for the Somme (who is sometime annoying but often practical and sensible) describes Macron’s approach as “an act of madness”.

Ruffin said: “After two years of the Covid crisis, with people exhausted, with Emmanuel Macron re-elected without any momentum or enthusiasm, when people don’t know whether they can pay their bills…in this time of exasperation and democracy fatigue, he is going to defy the vast majority of French people – 70 percent to 80 percent according to the polls – and impose pension reform by force.”

So why is Macron doing it? And why now? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

There are two strong arguments for pension reform in France.

As people live longer, a supposedly self-financing system will start to run into deficit next year. According to the official projections, short-falls as high as €10 billion by 2027 and €20 billion by 2032 will have to be paid out of  taxation or state borrowing.

In other words the pension system – in which pensions are supposedly paid from workers’ and bosses’ contributions – will start to limit other spending or swell the French deficit and debt.

Secondly, there is a strong, economic argument that France should work for longer. It is unsustainable for the French to retire three years (at least) earlier than their European partners and competitors.  

France is not a “lazy” country. Those French people who do work do so very productively.  But, taken as a whole, France works less hours than other nations – partly because of the 35 hour week, partly through unemployment but mostly because of the early minimum retirement age.

According to a OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. 

Macron argues that France can only afford its generous social model and can only compete successfully with its European partners and global rivals if – as a nation – if it puts in more hours.

Both these arguments are admittedly open to challenge. The state pension fund deficit is not as big as was once feared. There is actually a surplus this year because so many old people died during the Covid pandemic. In the long run, however, the deficits will grow.

The economic argument can also be quibbled with. Many French people already work beyond 62; many other older people would like to work but can’t find jobs.

In the medium to long term, however, the arguments for pension reform are as powerful as Macron says. But that leaves the question: “why now?” 

Does not France, and the world, have problems enough this winter without Macron picking a huge new fight on the French retirement age?

The President argues that he was given a “mandate” for pension reform by his victory in the presidential election in April. That is dubious. It would be more accurate to say that he lost his parliamentary majority in June because voters detested the idea of working for longer and Macron failed to make the argument why they should.

Now, after a period of drift, the President has decreed that pensions will be the ground on which he fights for a domestic legacy.

Despite a first term disrupted by Covid, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, Macron wants to be the first President for half a century to leave France stronger than he found it – whether France likes it or not.

Let battle commence.