France is blocked by the self-serving tendencies of its elite. And I’ll tell you a little secret: I know it, I was part of it.
Emmanuel Macron, Rally in Pau, April 2017
As the French edition of this book was barely making its way into bookshops and libraries, a major political breakdown suddenly hit France. Thirty-nine-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who was virtually unknown to the general public up to three years earlier, and had never before run a single campaign large or small nor been democratically elected to any political position, unexpectedly won the presidential election on his first try. As a victor over France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen, he immediately became the object of liberal admiration throughout a world that saw Macron’s France as an island of resistance in a global context of the rise of populisms. As he claimed to govern France “neither at the left, neither at the right,” Macron’s political positioning that combined promarket, socially liberal, and pro-European ideas profoundly broke away from France’s past political coordinates. Within only a few months, his political movement En Marche! had literally “Uberized” the French political system. It brought the two governing parties that had ruled the country ever since the establishment of the Fifth Republic (the Socialist Party [PS] and the neo-Gaullist party [UMP]) to near collapse, and forced an entire political class into retirement.1
The book suddenly took on a different light. As the profile of the Macronist governing elite was progressively delineated, and the reform agenda was disclosed, it became clear that Macron’s success could hardly be reduced to “the fruit of a brutal form of history, of a breaking-and-entering,”2 as he himself actually put it. While he and others tend to produce a narrative that points at the ways in which the disruptive and charismatic leader skillfully managed to take advantage of an unprecedented political context (the demise of the Hollande presidency and the corruption of the conservative candidate), what this book shows is that his access to power is in tune with larger and deep-seated transformations of French politics and government that had been taking place for decades. Even though (or maybe precisely because) it was written before Macron’s ascent to power, this book allows us to consider Macron’s “structural banality”—in sharp contrast with the many lazy discourses about his extraordinary gifts or radically unique nature. Beyond the heroic illusion that has contaminated much of the interpretative work on the “Macron phenomenon,” this book allows us to reposition Macron’s rise in a deeper sociological and ideological context and account for the part of France’s field of power in which it has been able to prosper.
If one agrees that social fields are always personified by idiosyncratic “heroes” and “great men” who embody the very logic of a given field more and better than the others, then Macron is definitely a representative agent of the field of public-private brokerage that is described in this book. Not only because of his being typical in terms of social properties and educational trajectory, but also because of the professional and political strategies he has built over the years, the type of capital he was able to accumulate, and the specific worldview and political platform that consolidated as he was progressively rising to power. Interestingly enough, Macron encountered the field’s gravitational effect early on in his career, almost immediately after passing all the steps of the cursus honorum of French state nobility leading from Sciences Po to the École nationale d’administration and ultimately to the most selective state grand corps (Inspection des finances).3 His trajectory was indeed profoundly marked by his being called, at the age of thirty, to act as rapporteur to the important wise men committee set up by then president Sarkozy “for the liberation of French growth” (2007–2008). The so-called Attali Commission, named after its president (a former Élysée secretary general turned banker), gathered a mixed bag of highly prominent personalities coming from the public and the private sectors (CEOs of large private as well as state-owned firms, economists, business lawyers, presidents of regulatory agencies, etc.) who would eventually converge in promoting “market competition” as the new public policy holy grail.4
The fact that Macron’s career debut as high civil servant implied crossing through this public-private hub has indeed proved critical both in terms of setting his policy preferences and structuring the range of professional opportunities that he would later encounter. Right after the Attali Commission his career started featuring an intense series of moves in-between the public and the private sectors. After spending four years in the financial sector as a senior banker at Rothschild Bank (2008–2012),5 he was called by François Hollande who made him his top economic adviser during his 2012 presidential campaign. This position then led him to become deputy secretary general of the Élysée (the second top bureaucratic position in the president’s staff) after Hollande eventually won the election. From there, it only took two years before Macron moved again, this time to the private sector where he was hosted for a couple of months in the offices of the law firm whose managing partner was a fellow member of the Inspection des finances.6 But a government crisis was soon to open up a new unexpected opportunity as he was called to replace the resigning minister of economy from the left of the Socialist Party.
While the pace and breadth of Macron’s accumulation of titles and experiences did set him on an exceptionally fast track, the public-private pattern of his trajectory as well as his constant positioning at the intersection of politics, government, and business, is in no way exceptional in the context of the neoliberal turn of the French state described in this book. Interestingly enough, as he progressively built an entourage of his own that would eventually follow him to the presidency subsequent to his successful 2017 bid, Macron drew heavily from these emerging public-private professionals, selecting a governing elite very homologous to his own social and professional profile. Prime minister Edouard Philippe is quite emblematic in this regard: despite being drawn from the conservative ranks, he is by many standards a “structural clone” of the president. Just like him, he successfully climbed all the steps of state nobility’s cursus honorum (Sciences Po-ENA-grands corps). Just like him, he then started moving back and forth between top bureaucratic positions (notably at the Conseil d’État) and the realm of public affairs in the private sector—as a partner at the Debevoise & Plimpton law firm (2004–2007) or lobbyist in chief for Areva (the French publicly owned nuclear company: 2007–2010).7 Generally speaking, Macron’s marching wing, the little group that now populates both his and the prime minister’s offices, is emblematic of the neoliberal state nobility described in this book—one that is deeply engaged in a continuous crossover between public positions (whereby they promote a probusiness and procompetition agenda) and private positions (whereby they “commercialize” their public assets and state knowledge).8 Strikingly, Macron and his close group of advisers have immediately adopted for themselves the “bilingual” jargon that is spoken in the remit of this public-private field. As they express themselves in this mixture of corporate slang and old bureaucratic motto, they dream a dream of a France that would be striving to become “a start-up nation [sic].”
But there is more to Macron than his being the field’s representative agent: through his insurgency in politics, he has progressively turned into its “structural hero” skillfully interpreting its growing impatience with the functioning of representative politics. Truly enough, in the years that immediately preceded Macron’s meteoric rise to power, it was not difficult to feel the growing frustration of this new public-private elite vis-à-vis the traditional governing parties and their politics of compromise and electoral clienteles. The fate of the Attali Commission had served as a clear signal in this regard, dashing the hopes of directly feeding the regulatory reform agenda (an all-out promotion of the market competition paradigm) into politics. The commission’s final report had heavily insisted on the fact that the list of reforms proposed were not a menu for politicians to pick and choose but a package whose efficiency depended on its complete and integral implementation. But yet again, filtered through the hot waters of representative politics and the complex interplay of party factions, the agenda hardly made its way into Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s policies—despite their paying lip service to its value and importance.
This failure to adopt what had been presented as a self-evident nonpartisan reform agenda was met with increasing incredulity in the different quarters of this field of public-private intermediation. It should be said that, as the field had progressively expanded and consolidated along the coral reefs of the state, its agents had grown in both political authority and self-confidence. Law firms, regulatory agencies, parts of the Conseil d’État, were accumulating experience and authoritativeness in their claim to identify common sense reforms of market government. As they produced surveys, policy memos, annual reports, in which the private-public reform agenda was been promoted, these so-called regulators were gaining media visibility and political leverage vis-à-vis central government as well as in the public debate. The traditional self-censorship vis-à-vis representative politics that had long dominated among these unelected actors with experience both in public service and private companies, was increasingly felt as a undue limitation to the necessary reforms of the French State and economy. Frustrated in its reform agenda, a whole field of actors was moving into politics and yet we were collectively unable to see it, as the traditional routine of party politics and its game of alternance between socialists and conservatives continued, apparently unchanged.
As this slow-moving landslide was producing cumulative political effects, it increasingly encountered the hurdles of representative politics blocking the full recognition of the governing role of this nouveau monde. Access to government remained dependent upon going through the long trials of partisan politics, and the lengthy cursus honorum of local campaigns and party positions: an obstacle course that had been patiently followed by Sarkozy and Hollande whose ascent to power had taken more than two decades. For an elite who had accumulated an unprecedented variety of government, bureaucratic, and business positions, the trials of lengthy political careers in party politics was considered too costly and too uncertain. As Macron himself confessed as early as 2010, at the time of his entering at Rothschild Bank: “today, I am not ready to make the concessions that are required in parties, that is to excuse myself to be a white educated male and to have succeeded in exams (to access the grands corps) that were open to all.”9 Even as he became minister of the economy, he would not hide his reluctance to engage in the traditional career of professional politicians: “a lot of people tell you—or present things to you: to be part of the political life, one has to become MP first; but this is the cursus honorum of ancient times.”10
His impatience was that of a whole field of public-private intermediation for which he would later coin the term “nouveau monde.” His bold move directly into the presidential race is indeed hard to understand without seeing that the tree hides the forest: what was somehow pushing behind was an entire field of actors and institutions which had grown increasingly confident of its credentials to rule and increasingly frustrated with the impediments of representative politics. Interestingly enough, while Macron’s insurgency into the presidential race was met with irony and sarcasm among the ranks of the governing parties who took time to identify him as a “serious” candidate, it received almost immediately an enthusiastic echo among the business and the administrative elites—as can be traced by his many prominent supporters (starting with Attali himself) as well as by the money he was able to raise in a limited amount of time.11 In a few months, as he was professing his nonpartisan and promarket beliefs, exactly in the terms of the Attali Commission’s report,12 and engaged in a stringent criticism of the French political elite, he had become the point of convergence and spokesman of a whole field, whether center-right or center-left leaning. His capacity to revamp the rather unglamorous set of ideas delineated in the Attali report into a Revolution, as Macron entitled his campaign book (2016), turned him into an object of liberal admiration. An unlikely candidate for charisma given his career in finance and bureaucracy, Macron was indeed becoming the field’s “structural hero” opening an unexpected breach into politics and government, and providing full political recognition to the field’s increasing claim to govern.
As a result, it would be misleading to equate Macronism with the mere promotion of business interests; neither should it be understood as just a late avatar of Reaganism or Thatcherism. Precisely because it is deeply grounded in the coral reefs of the French regulatory state, and because it originates within the state’s grand corps, Macronism proposes less a retreat of the state than a redefinition of its elites and missions from the interventionist tradition to a promarket “regulatory state.”13 By many standards, his programmatic platform reads like a patchwork of the many reformatory mottos that have fermented ever since the first decade of the twenty-first century in the different (public and private) poles of the regulatory state, from the Attali Commission to the set of law firms, regulatory agencies, and ministerial cabinets described in this book. Macron’s first legislative fiat, the so-called Macron Act that he promoted when he was still minister of economy, is a mixed bag of reforms aimed at liberalizing the economic activity (legal professions, coach transport) while reinforcing the powers of the regulatory state (in particular the Autorité de la concurrence).14 The ideas put forward were far from novel as most of them had long been peddled in the reports of the competition agency. Yet, they had remained dispersed and restricted to a variety of semipublic circles and only partially fed into the programs of the successive governing parties. In this regard, Macronism can be read like the entering into politics of this public-private world whose reformatory common sense has been turned into a full-fledged programmatic platform, and branded as a new political offer.
Note to epigraph: Quoted in Michel Rose, “Macron Banking Whizz-Kid Is Anti-Establishment Presidential Favorite,” Reuters, April 14, 2017..
1.For a rich collection of inquiries into the meteoric rise of Macron: see Bernard Dollez, Julien Frétel, and Remi Lefebvre, eds., L’entreprise Macron (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2019).
2.Quoted in Lauren Collins, “Can Emmanuel Macron Stem the Populist Tide?,” New Yorker, June 24, 2019.
3.For a detailed account of Macron’s trajectory, see Collins, “Can Emmanuel Macron Stem the Populist Tide?”
4.Commission Attali pour la libération de la croissance économique, Increase Competition for a Better Purchasing Power, October 2007.
5.There, he led the nine-billion-dollar acquisition of Pfizer’s baby-food division by Nestlé, a dossier that had been brought to him by the chairman of the Nestlé Group he had met in the Attali Commission.
6.Antoine Gosset-Grainville, a former economic adviser of Pascal Lamy during his time at the European Commission and later deputy chief of staff of prime minister François Fillon (2007–2012).
7.Interestingly enough, newspapers suggest that his unexpected nomination as Macron’s prime minister took him by surprise as he was envisaging a move back again to private legal practice in a context where his political mentor and former prime minister Alain Juppé had announced his retirement from politics.
8.For a sociology of Macron’s government elite see Valentin Behr and Sebastien Michon, “Le gouvernement Macron et les nouveaux technos: Noblesse d’État et circulations public-privé,” Revue française d’administration publique (2019): forthcoming.
9.See https://www.emilemagazine.fr/article/2017/3/23/il-y-a-7-ans-emmanuel-macron, accessed August 2019.
10.“Pour Emmanuel Macron, devenir député est un ‘cursus d’un ancien temps,’ ” Le Monde, September 30, 2015.
11.“Ce que révèle la liste des donateurs de Macron,” Journal du dimanche, December 1, 2018.
12.“The moment has come…. This is not a report, nor a study, but an instruction manual for urgent foundational reforms. It is neither partisan nor bipartisan: it is non partisan. This is not an inventory in which the government could pick and choose, and even less a competition for original ideas bound to remain marginal. This is a coherent block where each piece is articulated with the others, in which each element is key to the success of the whole,” in Commission Attali pour la libération de la croissance économique, Increase Competition for a Better Purchasing Power, 1.
13.See in particular two bills (the so-called Avenir professionnel Bill of August 2018, “Transformation de la fonction publique” Bill of May 2019) that have facilitated, even incentivized the pantouflage and retro-pantouflage of top civil servants.
14.The package was actually welcomed as a “refreshing breeze” by the president of the Autorité de la concurrence, himself a former member of the Attali Commission: “Projet de loi Macron: L’autorité de la concurrence dans les starting-blocks,” Lettre des juristes d’affaires, July 9, 2015.