A gap between words and action on presidential priorities (Part 4 of 4)

French President Emmanuel Macron hit the campaign trail once again in March, seeking re-election following a five-year term fraught with crises. FRANCE 24 takes a look at how Macron’s actions as president measured up to his promises – or didn’t.

This is the final installment of FRANCE 24’s four-part series on Emmanuel Macron’s record as French president on foreign policy, economics, social spending and keeping campaign promises.

From the fight against climate change to the gender equality Macron touted as the «great cause» of his five-year mandate, Macron’s term in office showed he could wax lyrical when it comes to the big issues. But in hindsight, the centrist leader’s lofty speeches could also prove conspicuously short on follow-through. FRANCE 24 looks at four examples of early Macron priorities that didn’t quite pan out.

Cleaning up politics

Macron won office five years ago partly on the back of conservative rival François Fillon’s scandalous downfall. Les Républicains candidate Fillon, a former prime minister and one-time frontrunner in the 2017 presidential race, saw his chances plummet after he was accused of corruption in a fake-jobs scheme involving his wife and public funds. Macron, who had never before been elected to public office before his meteoric rise to the Élysée Palace, was able to present himself as a politician without any skeletons in his closet while condemning «practices from a bygone world». Macron was prodded by veteran centrist François Bayrou – who conditioned his support for the political neophyte’s fledgling party upon it – to pledge sweeping legislation meant to clean up politics.

Named justice minister under a freshly elected Macron, Bayrou himself was charged with drafting the new law. It proposed concrete reforms like banning parliamentarians from hiring family members, capping the number of consecutive terms one can serve, and monitoring lawmakers’ expense accounts. But five years on, it bears noting that Macron’s early golden rule of probity in politics has not always been respected in practice.

>> Five years of Macron on the international stage: Spirited, disruptive, impotent? (Part 1 of 4)

Bayrou and two fellow members of his centrist Modem party were obliged to leave the cabinet in June 2017, just a month after Macron’s election, amid an inquiry into the party’s use of parliamentary assistants in the European Parliament. The same fate befell Macron ally Richard Ferrand that same month over allegations in a separate private health insurance case. But the lofty principles were really left in tatters in 2018 after the Benalla Affair. That summer, Macron lashed out at the press and the justice system in defence of his longtime bodyguard Alexandre Benalla, who had been caught on film assaulting demonstrators during a May Day protest. From then on, the French president appeared to cast many of his pledges aside.

Ferrand, for one, was returned to the mix in September 2018, becoming speaker of the National Assembly. When he was placed under formal investigation a year later in the same private health insurance scandal that had seen him evicted from cabinet at the start of Macron’s term, Ferrand was permitted to stay on in the prestigious post. (The case against him was finally dismissed in 2021.) Gérald Darmanin, for his part, was named interior minister in 2020, despite allegations against him by two women for rape and abuse of the vulnerable (a case also later dismissed). Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, meanwhile, was placed under formal investigation in 2021 over an illegal conflict of interest offence allegedly committed during his time in the job, but he was allowed to remain justice minister.

>> French feminists criticise choice of justice, interior ministers over sexism and rape claims

A collaborative, lateral style 

Macron was quick to grasp the public’s weariness and distaste for politicians and traditional political parties. On the campaign trail in 2017, he promised to «do politics differently». It was a key factor in launching his rise to power, attracting armies of volunteers and activists to his En Marche (On the move) movement, drawn in by the prospect of building a political platform collaboratively. At that point, the idea was self-management at the local level, a lateral structure, shared decision-making and dialogue with opposition parties.

>> Five years of Macron: France’s economy trickles down in drips and drops (Part 2 of 4)

But over the course of Macron’s term, and in particular during the Covid-19 pandemic, he has in practice espoused top-down decision-making and wielded power vertically. France’s parliament, and his party’s majority lawmakers, have mainly acted as a registry office for decisions handed down from above. Indeed, when the deputies freshly elected under Macron’s La République en Marche banner first took their seats in the lower-house National Assembly in 2017, they had to pledge not to oppose reforms. Furthermore, just like in that «bygone world» Macron once derided, the lawmakers had to commit to not supporting propositions tabled by the other groups in parliament.

A police officer points a 40-millimetre rubber defensive bullet launcher LBD (LBD 40) towards protesters during an anti-government demonstration called by the 'Yellow Vests' (gilets jaunes) movement for the 23rd consecutive Saturday, on April 20, 2019 in Paris.
A police officer points a 40-millimetre rubber defensive bullet launcher LBD (LBD 40) towards protesters during an anti-government demonstration called by the ‘Yellow Vests’ (gilets jaunes) movement for the 23rd consecutive Saturday, on April 20, 2019 in Paris. © Zakaria Abdelkafi, AFP

Sometimes, the practice of power under Macron has verged on the authoritarian. His controversial pension reform was forced through parliament without a vote in February 2020 (before the pandemic shelved its implementation). Law enforcement on his watch violently put down anti-government protests led by the Yellow Vest movement in 2018 and 2019, by one count seriously wounding 82 demonstrators, including 17 who lost an eye and four who lost a hand amid the unrest.

In March 2019, the United Nations asked France to investigate cases related to «the excessive use of force». Earlier, the Council of Europe had called for France to «suspend the use of LBDs (which shoot rubber bullets) during operations aimed at maintaining public order» and said protesters’ reported injuries «raise questions about the compatibility of the methods used in operations aimed at maintaining public order with due regard for [human] rights».

‘Make Our Planet Great Again’

Macron also began his term with heady promises on environmental issues. After pledging to invest €15 billion in France’s ecological transition and coaxing the environmentalist (and former TV star Nicolas Hulot) to join his cabinet to lead the battle, Macron used Donald Trump’s June 2017 withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement to launch his own high-impact green appeal with a Trump paraphase: «Make Our Planet Great Again».

But the hope spurred by that early publicity coup soon gave way to disappointment as Macron ceded ground on a number of environmental commitments, rolling back his pledge to ban the herbicide glyphosate and the neonicotinoid insecticides harmful to bees, while implementing a Canada-EU trade deal (Ceta) despite concerns over its environmental impact. Hulot would ultimately quit the cabinet in frustration in 2018, denouncing the «presence of lobbies in the circles of power» when he left.

And yet Macron does have some checkmarks to show on his environmental ledger. Under his watch, France abandoned plans for an airport in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, in 2018, quashed a mining project in French Guiana in 2019, and ended the massive Europacity commercial and leisure zone project in greater Paris later that same year – all plans environmental activists had fought against.

>> Five years of Macron: Yellow Vests, Covid-19 stymie plans for social cuts (Part 3 of 4)

Macron can also boast of having launched France’s Citizens Convention for Climate, a forum launched in the wake of the Yellow Vest protests that had begun in response to a carbon tax hike on fuel. The citizens’ assembly tasked 150 people chosen at random with putting forward proposals that could enable France to meet its carbon commitments while taking social justice concerns into account. Their labours hatched 146 such proposals in the summer of 2020. But critics charged that the proposals that the government managed to translate into policy were partial or watered down. For example, the assembly pitched a ban on domestic flights whenever a train journey under four hours could serve in their place. But when the legislation was tabled, it stopped short of that ambition, opting to nix flights replaceable by 2.5-hour train journeys instead.

Under Macron, France has also fallen short on its renewable energy commitments. With renewables responsible for only 19.1 percent of the country’s energy, France was the only member of the European Union in 2020 not to meet the 23 percent mark set by the bloc.

In February 2021, a domestic court condemned the French State for «wrongful deficiencies» in its climate change fight and later ordered the pertinent French cabinet ministers and the prime minister to «take all useful measures likely to mend the ecological prejudice» by December 31, 2022.

Gender equality

Macron came to power touting equality between men and women as one of the great causes of his term in office. But in practice, the issue hasn’t appeared all that important, relegated as it was until 2020 to the responsibility of a junior ministry under the onus of the prime minister.

During a five-year term that coincided with the #MeToo movement globally, progress was made, nevertheless. Macron kept his promise to broaden legal access to medically assisted reproduction to single women and lesbian couples. Time limits for women seeking an abortion were extended from 12 to 14 weeks of pregnancy. And access to free contraception was broadened to girls under 15 in 2020 and women up to the age of 25 in 2022.

Broad consultations on domestic violence in 2019 led to extending the courts’ power to urgently protect victims, without having to wait for a formal complaint to be filed. France also established the use of electronic bracelets to keep violent men away from their victims as well as a 24-hour hotline (3919) for women suffering domestic violence.

And yet feminist groups say French women’s domestic violence fight has never been granted the resources it needs. The organisations have long appealed for €1 billion to fight femicide and domestic violence generally – a budget that could help create 20,000 places in specialised shelters. But according to a March 2022 Oxfam report, the government has pledged only about a third of the requested amount. The budget dedicated to promoting gender equality in 2022 amounts to just €50 million, out of the government’s total €883 billion budget, or about 0.25 percent.

Meanwhile, salary equality in France remains dire. Despite the equality index established in 2018 to fight pay disparities, men are still being paid 30 percent more than women, according to the French statistics agency Insee. «Job insecurity, salary inequality at all levels, and raises for professions primarily occupied by women, including skilled ones like nurses, midwives and teachers, have been set aside,» the economist Rachel Silvera told Alternatives Économiques magazine.

This article has been abridged and translated from the original in French.

French presidential election
French presidential election © France 24

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