For much of the world, the French elections are over. New globalist teen idol Emmanuel Macron won the presidential race, and his upstart centrist party has secured a massive majority in the country’s legislature.
The world is once again safe for democracy (for now). The tide of populism seems to be ebbing.
However, fears that Marine Le Pen and her right-wing, anti-immigrant National Front Party could win were grossly misunderstood, and thus overstated, outside of France. Yes, crazy outcomes like Trump and Brexit have happened. But in reality, too many people in this country still connect Le Pen and her family to a Nazi past to ever let her come to power.
Inside France, this election was about something very different: the future of work. The country is still fundamentally divided over two competing visions regarding the widespread changes being wrought by technology and globalization. In retrospect, it’s too bad left-wing insurgent Jean-Luc Mélenchon didn’t make it to the second round against Macron because it would have allowed for a more direct debate about how France should respond to the changing economy, rather than getting caught up in questions of immigration and closing borders.
Simply put, Macron represents a surging sector of independent workers and a growing entrepreneurial class who are excited about these changes and want reforms that will let them embrace new opportunities and accelerate the race toward the future. These are the people swept up in Macron-mania that the world saw dancing in jubilation in front of the Louvre Museum that night of electoral victory.
Mélenchon (and to a large degree Le Pen) spoke for those who either feared, or deeply distrusted, what these changes meant and sought greater protection and social support against this tide. If you put them together, along with some of the other left-wing candidates, this more protectionist, progressive side got nearly 50 percent of the votes in the first round of the presidential race.
Fundamentally, Macron’s challenge is to bridge that divide, to prove that he can unleash the entrepreneurial spirit in a way that lifts all of France and doesn’t just create a few lucky billionaires in Paris. He says it’s possible to support more entrepreneurship while protecting workers and making sure no one gets left behind. But to do that, he must demonstrate that a country can embrace Silicon Valley-style innovation without necessarily suffering the Silicon Valley-style inequality that has made the San Francisco Bay Area uninhabitable for so many.
“We are at the beginning of a new wave,” Macron said. “And this is the place to be, to invest, to work, to invent. We need a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.”
Viva Macron, Viva Technology
Macron made those remarks at the end of an almost three-hour appearance this month at Viva Technology, France’s mega tech trade show that is in its second year. To say that he was welcomed as a conquering hero would be to understate the adoration he received from thousands of attendees.
Once word spread that Macron was touring the trade show, thousands mobbed around him, snapping photos. As he moved, a tiny speck in a sea of humanity, the crowd followed, knocking over booths and displays in the hopes of catching the slightest glimpse of their man.
These were the people Macron had been addressing since he first became Minister of the Economy in 2014. He did not start the French Tech program, but he embraced it wholeheartedly, talking about the need for entrepreneurship and for the country to reform its strict work rules to allow its economy to adapt. With an unemployment rate stuck around 10 percent, and unemployment double that for young people, he became relentless on the theme of change.
“The tide has been turning in our favor for about year now,” Nicolas Dufourcq, CEO of the country’s state investment bank Bpifrance, told Reuters at Viva Tech. “It is as if the French Tech’s boss had been elected as the new president.”
Macron eventually did more than just talk about startups. He created what is arguably the country’s most successful startup when he quit his post in 2016 and started a new political movement called En Marche! Using digital tools and entrepreneurial cunning, he built a new centrist political party from nothing — one that carried him to the presidency and then to a massive legislative majority.
But while Macron proved a master of tactics, his victory was emblematic of the fundamental economic changes in France. Much of the world seems to think France has gone startup mad as a result of Macron’s election. Really, the opposite is true: He successfully rode a wave that’s been building for several years.
Since 2014, the number of startups and amount of venture capital in France have grown at a greater rate than in any other major European country. According to VC firm Atomico, French startups raised more money in 2016 than Germany, and started to close the gap with the U.K., the continent’s undisputed startup capital.
Bpifrance has been the leading source of venture capital in the country, and even as it expands its funds, more international money is flowing into the country. But startups and VCs are only one measure of this change.
The other transformation has been happening more quietly but is no less profound. France’s economy is traditionally built around its largest companies and the government, the nation’s largest employer. The primary financial and cultural motivation is to find a job with one or the other, which traditionally has come with a near-guarantee of lifetime employment and the promise of comfortable retirement.
But as these largest companies have slowed or stopped hiring, a growing number of French are choosing to work independently, to be “self-employed.” While that’s been common in places like the U.S. for a long time, in France it is a somewhat new concept, made challenging by archaic rules surrounding social benefits and taxes. If you work for a big company, paying your taxes might take about 10 minutes per year. Independents, by contrast, have to maintain a mountain of paperwork and are often required to hire an accountant. They are also governed by a different agency for social benefits, one that Macron has vowed to abolish.
Despite this uphill slog to work independently, France has seen one of the biggest increases in self-employment over the past decade. According to one study, the number of independent workers in France increased 85 percent between 2004 and 2013, behind only the Netherlands and Poland. Still, another study by French freelance platform Hopwork and sharing-economy organization OuiShare noted that 90 percent of the French are still salaried employees, and the concept of independent or freelance work still comes with a strong negative connotation.
“The subject of freelance work is one that stirs controversies and passionate debates in France,” wrote Laetitia Vitaud, editor of Switch Collective, a publication for independents and freelancers. “In a country where unemployment exceeds 10 percent of the active population, a majority of ‘insiders’ protected by rigid work contracts see all the ‘outsiders’ as a potential threat that ought to be eliminated. They aim to erect more barriers to stop alternative work models from developing. Freelancers are perceived either as the poor helpless victims of evil American digital platforms or as feckless millennials unable to hold a ‘real’ job.”
The fear, and it’s not an unreasonable one, is that companies want to push workers toward independent or temporary positions to reduce protections and benefits and make it easier to hire and fire people.
Macron is promising to tear down those barriers regardless. This month, details of his plan to reform France’s work laws (“Loi du travail”) have begun to emerge, changes that would create more flexibility for big employers in terms of hiring and firing employees. More proposals are expected this summer that would make it easier to start companies, extend more social benefits and unemployment protection to entrepreneurs, and change tax laws to encourage more investment.
“I want France to be a startup nation,” Macron said at Viva Tech. “To put it in a word, ‘entrepreneur’ is the new France.”
Ni Macron, Ni Reform
After Macron came in first in the initial round of voting for the presidential election, protesters across the country took to the streets chanting “Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen.” The latter was unthinkable because of her anti-immigrant and racist views. But Macron, a former investment banker, was seen by many as a lap dog for big business.
At one such march in my town of Toulouse, Florian Bernard, a young technician speaking to the crowd with a megaphone, echoed the feeling of many that they had been left without a voice in the second round of voting.
“Our goal in coming here today is not just to be against Le Pen and Macron,” he said. “We are also against the machine that put them there.”
As much as Macron is beloved by many entrepreneurs, it would be just as hard to underestimate how deeply suspicious much of the country remains of him. While the world hears Macron make speeches about protecting the environment and the Paris Accords, I was recently speaking with one friend of a colleague who said she simply didn’t believe he meant it. As for Macron’s rising international status, she said, “Well, the bosses are happy anyways.”
These vocal holdouts are a sign of a country that remains badly divided following one of its most important elections in decades. Both the second round of presidential voting and the legislative elections saw record levels of abstentions, even as Macron won sweeping victories. In France, not voting is not considered a passive act, but rather a way to signal discontent. On the night of the final legislative election, representatives of Mélenchon, whose own left-wing party will be almost powerless in the new Assembly, promised they would instead take their message to the streets in the coming months.
During the presidential election, Mélenchon had offered his own detailed plan for fixing France’s stagnant economy. It included investments in new industries like environmental technologies. He wanted to renegotiate France’s relationship with the European Union, which he felt had become too business-friendly and had imposed austerity budget measures that were too harsh.
In addition, Mélenchon proposed raising the minimum wage, cutting the work week to four days, and borrowing heavily to inject a strong dose of spending by consumers to turbocharge the economy. He also had his own set of reforms designed to make entrepreneurship easier. By the same stroke, he wanted to require international companies to comply with French work rules that would have made life difficult for many Silicon Valley companies doing business here. The idea was to emphasize “Made In France” products and services by ensuring all companies were playing by the same rules.
This platform drew tremendous support for Mélenchon, transforming him from a fringe candidate to a serious contender who almost made it through to the second round. And while there were important differences, a good part of this economic agenda overlapped with that of Le Pen’s, who also sought to boost French companies by making it tougher for outsiders to do business here and also planned to borrow heavily to stimulate the economy. Macron is planning to take on new debt, but far less than either of these two.
Put together, the supporters of Mélenchon and Le Pen were largely throwing their weight behind this very different economic vision for France’s future.
The resistance to Macron isn’t just a sign of a country that refuses to change, either. Macron’s years as Minister of Economy were tumultuous ones. In 2015, he proposed reforms that became known as the “Loi Macron,” which included such radical notions as allowing some stores in some sectors to stay open a handful of extra Sundays every year and liberalizing rules around working at night.
The proposal, which Macron said was necessary to start to simplify the country’s work laws, triggered widespread protests.
That law passed the Assembly with support by President François Hollande’s Socialist Party. But a second work reform, dubbed the “El Khomri law” after the Minister of Labor, ran into even tougher opposition, splitting the Socialist Party and requiring the government to do a little procedural sleight of hand to get it passed. It resulted in even larger protests that summer.
This is what Macron can look forward to this summer and much of the rest of the year. Many of the reforms proposed under the previous government, and the ones to come under Macron, will seem tame by U.S. standards, where the balance of power has shift entirely in favor of corporations. U.S. workers have meekly given up benefits like retirement plans and work protection and are still fighting over issues like whether they have a basic right to health care.
French workers have seen this decline, and they watched in neighboring England where Conservative and Labor governments dismantled worker protections in the name of liberalizing the economy. What they see are economies that have become unfair and far more brutal in the name of competition and cheaper goods. While some of the reforms in France seem trivial, the greater fear is that if they give a single inch now, they will step out on the slippery slope where every year they are being asked to give up more and more.
At the “Ni Macron, Ni Le Pen” march in Toulouse, an organizer named Robin said the protest was the start of a longer-term resistance to Macron and his work reform proposals.
“We must mobilize and demonstrate,” he said. The crowd then marched through the city for the next hour, chanting “Ni fachos, ni patrons” (neither fascists, nor bosses) and “Ni La Brute, Ni Le Banquier.”