Macron is draining the swamp in France—or trying to

So many swamps, so little time.
So many swamps, so little time.
Image: Reuters/Stephane De Sakutin/Pool
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France’s new president is unusual in some obvious ways: His young age, his path to power outside the traditional party system, the briskness of his ascent. If he succeeds with his immensely ambitious reforms, starting with laws that will “drain the French swamp,” he will transcend unusual and move on to astonishing.

One of French president Emmanuel Macron’s first moves after being elected was to make good on his campaign promise to “moralize political life.” He and justice minister François Bayrou want to promulgate a sweeping set of new rules that would curtail the employment of family members, ferret out financial exceptions and conflicts of interest, establish term limits for elective office (three and out), and, in general, promote transparency in government.

But how is this unusual? Don’t all politicians say they want fairness and transparency? Not in France. Let’s start with some context.

Sex and money are hot topics for which my two countries exhibit inverted cultural hangups. Here in the US, we freely discuss our money, but experience a countrywide conniption when a singer shows a tiny bit of nipple. In Paris, we happily discuss carnal mischief but would never think of asking someone how much they paid for their apartment—it’s tantamount to grabbing someone’s pudendum. The French demonize money just like we Americans demonize sex. Money is a very private affair.

One of the reasons behind such modesty is an entrenched tradition of hiding one’s money from the nosy taxman. The ubiquitous evasion is seen as a virile sport that extends across all economic classes. I first heard the expression “J’ai une petite défense” (I have this little defensive play) as a child growing up in a blue collar suburb. Is it wrong? Not when everybody does it.

The game was passed down from on high. French ministers and staff routinely received unreported, untaxed, and untraceable cash from an official special fund that was passed from the Treasury to the prime minister who, in turn, dispensed it to his cabinet:

Once a month, an armored car delivers state funds in cash to top government officials. Over the course of a year, more than $50 million. The public has no idea what happens to this money. No legal inquiry can ever reach the truth because the funds are treated as a state secret, and questions go unanswered.

A third world dictatorship? A banana republic? A family-run Persian Gulf country? Guess again.

This is France’s Fifth Republic.

If the neighborhood grocer were caught with such black money it would mean heavy fines or even jail. Hence the disrespect for politicians and rules, and the veil of secrecy behind which one’s own money had to be protected.

In 2001, prime minister Lionel Jospin put an end to the hidden compensation practices…or so we thought. In 2013, Claude Guéant, erstwhile minister of the interior, was caught with his hand in another slush fund. More recently, politicians of all stripes have been caught holding offshore accounts, minimizing their assets, and creating no-show jobs for family members.

During France’s recent presidential election campaign, we were treated to revelations of corruption that led to the indictments of two candidates and a few close associates. Angry shouts of “tous pourris” (they’re all rotten!) were heard at both ends of the political spectrum, from the extreme leftist Jean- Luc Mélenchon and the no-less-extreme Marine Le Pen on the right (who herself was embroiled in the kind of financial shenanigans she accused the “rotten” political class of condoning).

The distrust led to an alarming semi-final: In the first round of the election, Mélenchon got 19.6% of the vote, and Le Pen 21.3%. Combined, that’s an impressive 40.9% of votes for the extremist, anti-system, “all rotten” sentiment.

And thus we get to Macron’s declaration: Enough of the murky, cushy privileges for our solons. The message is consistent with the En Marche! zeitgeist that Macron created and rode to power, and, just as important, it takes the air out of the tires of both extremist camps. In an attempt to differentiate himself from the previous two failed presidencies, Nicolas Sarkozy on the right and François Hollande on the left, the young candidate presented himself not as “anti-system”—an appellation that extremists on both ends of the spectrum are condemned to adopt—but as “outside” the tired left-right order.

Skeptics pointed to Macron’s establishment pedigree: graduate of ENA (National School of Administration), Rothschild investment banker, deputy secretary general to president Hollande, minister of economy… You call this “outside the system?” And yet, even when he was working for the Hollande presidency, Macron managed to make it clear that he was, to use an American phrase, in it but not of it. For his early supporters and, later, for the citizens who voted him into the Elysée, the En Marche! leader represented an infusion of new energy—the hope that France could extract itself from the failed left-right political debate.

Such hope is palpable beyond the presidential election numbers. Here in the US where I’ve lived for more than 32 years, I’ve never seen so much attention paid to the election of a French president—an interest that was aided, certainly, by the US presidential election and the pending Brexit. And my fellow Americans hold a strikingly hopeful view of Macron’s presidency. (Granted, there’s a distinct leaning here in the Valley where French émigrés gave Macron 95% of the vote.)

Next up: There’s a parliamentary election mid-June, with 577 seats in play. If Macron is to implement the reforms he articulated during his presidential campaign, he needs an indisputable legislative majority at the Assemblée Nationale, colloquially referred to as a majorité de gouvernement (governing majority). These reforms—modernizing France’s paleo-marxist labor code, cleaning up unemployment compensation, making retirement regulations and payments more equitable for present and future generations—will arouse opposition from a wide range of stakeholders, and Macron’s parliamentary support will inevitably suffer defections as afflicted voters put pressure on their representatives.

I wouldn’t be French, or Parisian moreover, if I didn’t harbor a dose of skepticism when looking at Macron’s ambitious plans to rejuvenate the old country’s culture. We know the tired but only-too-true joke about campaign promises that only commit those who believe them. But I’m one of many who hope this unusual leader will succeed, and that he will push through equitable laws that will debilitate establishment cronyism and deflate the “everybody does it” argument.

Only by draining the French swamp will Macron be able to reenergize a nation whose many gifts have so often gone to waste, mostly for lack of trust in itself.