Emmanuel “neither left nor right” Macron is sliding fast toward the right

More like "never left, more right".

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This is the final article in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week this summer, I examined an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

He admitted it early on: Emmanuel Macron isn’t a Socialist. As François Hollande’s Economy minister, he was never a member of the then-president’s party. “Honesty forces me to tell you that I am not a Socialist,” Macron declared to journalists in 2016.

When he quit the government months later to launch his own presidential bid – a move that sabotaged his former boss’s own ambitions and was seen by many on the left as high treason – the question expanded: was he even left wing? “I am left-wing,” Macron said on TV. “From a left that confronts reality, that wants to reform the country, that believes in freedom precisely because it builds true equality for all. It’s [the left] my culture, my origins, my familial history. I’ve always been clear about that.”

But as the campaign developed, he became less clear about that. Running as an independent, he promised to overcome France’s “sectarianism” and “sterile oppositions” – and claimed to be “neither left nor right.” Not everyone's buying it. “When one says that they’re neither left nor right, it usually means one thing: they’re not left-wing,” historian of the French left Gilles Candar told the New Statesman.

This is proving true for President Macron, whose motto in politics after three months of presidency is starting to sound very much like “never left, more right”.

Macron sent positive signals to the centre right early on by giving high responsibilities to Republican politicians: “The Prime minister, the Finances and Economy ministries are some of the most important government positions and they will drive the rest,” says Candar.

During the presidential campaign, Macron never concealed his liberal stance, especially on the economy and the labour market. But on topics such as immigration, he was also perceived as socially liberal – something that has changed since his election, Candar says. “He has disappointed people who expected that – on security, immigration, his politics are tougher than Hollande’s presidency.”

All the recent measures passed by the French government – except maybe the one on moralisation of politics – are clearly marked on the right. Budget restrictions are hitting all sectors, housing aid for students is to be lowered and Macron’s pledges to reduce the “fortune tax” (paid only by people earning more than 1.3 million a year) and business taxes will favour the rich. Macron’s fiscal and labour reforms “seem to be going the way of employers,” Candar says.

During the election, the economist Thomas Piketty, who backed the Socialist Hamon, regretted Macron’s programme’s lack of “vision for social and fiscal justice” on economy and finance. “Macron wants a lower tax rate on financial income than on working income. (…) How can someone say they are left wing and back such a programme?” The Socialist candidate agreed: “When he questions the 35-hour-week, when he wants to develop extremely precarious jobs, when he reconsiders the tax on the rich, then he [Macron] is not a man of the left.”

Read more: Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

To Mathieu Fulla, a researcher in history of the French left at Sciences Po, Macron embodies the acceleration of a change that started within the governing left in 1981, with the election of François Mitterrand. Until then, he says, in the spirit of the 1936 social movement, the left prioritised social reforms. Under Mitterrand, by contrast, it shifted toward more dialogue with business and finance worlds, but while introducing social rights on unions, or aid, or labour rights. “The Socialists are bound to their historical culture of the social reforms of 1936,” he says. “Macron breaks a taboo [with his liberal reforms]; he realises what some in the Socialist party wanted to do.”

The left has historically sided with workers – Macron never has. Already in 2015, in an editorial in left-wing newspaper Libération titled “Macron is not left wing”, economic journalist Luc Peillon listed Macron’s love for liberalism and his preference of employers and entrepreneurs over workers as signs of his “community of spirit with the right”.

These trends have only become clearer, he tells the New Statesman. “Both the labour reform, that goes very, very far to liberalise the labour market, and the tax system reform, that will redistribute great financial volumes to the richest, are the markers of a government that is clearly right wing,” he says, citing a study that found that 46 per cent of the capital gains from the tax reform will go to the richest 10 per cent and even more to the 1 per cent. “Is Macron president for the rich? The answer is in the question.”

Macron was always open about wanting to liberalise and modernise France – but his “neither left nor right” motto convinced during the campaign thanks to the “socially liberal” values he also defended (and that painted him as far-right Le Pen’s direct rival in the run off). The reality of his presidency has been different. “He has disappointed with his financially liberal politics, but he doesn’t compensate with social or democratic rights,” the historian Candar says. “We don’t really see what’s left of his left-wing side.”

Macron accumulates controlling measures in parliament (where he passed his labour reform via government rulings instead of a vote) and local collectivities (which will be stripped off their authority on housing tax, among others). Candar notes Macron's “displayed contempt” for the opposition, in a political situation where the president’s party controls parliament and could therefore allow the opposition more space. “One may have thought that he would be a liberal in the British sense of the term, that he would recognise rights to the opposition, that he would question the established order, but now he [Macron] is taking an authoritarian path, à la française. It’s obviously very troubling.”

But after a difficult summer that saw his approval ratings plummet, can Macron really afford such right-wing politics? “We can feel some nervousness [in Macron’s cabinet] on the labour reform,” Peillon, who reports on it, says. “They are reconsidering minor points with the trade unions, they realise they have gone too far.” Unions and the far left of Mélenchon (who got 20 per cent of the vote in the first round) are planning protests in the fall. “The ‘neither-nor’ logic has limits,” Peillon says. And honouring only half of it could backfire.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.