Key points

Henri de Castries’s Insights

Institut Montaigne’s Analysis

One year in, Emmanuel Macron and his government have undertaken major reforms that France had been needing for a long, long time. Labor laws, education and vocational training were some of the President’s first key battles. And this is only the beginning. The government has announced more bills to come, from active labor market policies and pension schemes to the judicial system and the national railway system (SNCF).

At the international level, Emmanuel Macron has also been very active. In 2017 only, he visited a whole 15 countries, including Morocco, Mali, Abu Dhabi, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Algeria, Qatar and Niger. In 2018, he pursued his efforts by traveling to other countries whose relationship with France are of utmost importance, such as China, Tunisia, Senegal and India. Let’s not omit the numerous trips he took within Europe, be it in Brussels, in Berlin and in all countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Across the continent, his speeches have recalled France’s ambition for the Union and addressed crucial issues for Europe, from posted workers to the governance of the Eurozone. The President’s pro-European agenda and his firmness on the aforementioned subjects, which both contrast strongly with the political instability prevailing elsewhere in Europe, have been unambiguous.

To restore France’s credibility and influence in Europe and beyond, the President understood that he had to succeed where he was most expected: the country’s structural reforms, competitiveness and the decline in mass and long-term unemployment. The President used ordinances, ordinary legislation, decrees and multiannual programs as means to reform the country. Such measures were, in many cases, the result of the large number of consultations and meetings initiated since May of last year.

However, precipitation and rapid pace are by no means a guarantee of reforms’ success or quality. Think-tanks know this particularly well. Still, to many commentators’ surprise, much of the job regarding the labor market, where reform was most pressing, seems to have been done. French labor laws, often labeled as “impossible to reform”, had been suffering from a very damageable lack of political will to adapt the system for decades. They have now improved considerably thanks to the ordinances that were adopted in the summer of 2017. Having addressed the “flexibility” component, the government then turned to vocational training. The reform, which had to go through heated discussions with trade unions, is undeniably the most ambitious in its field since 1971.

Reforms will not always be adopted without difficulties. Until now, the government had been spared from strikes, but it is a different story for the ongoing reform of the SNCF, the national railway system, which has triggered social upheaval. Only the future will tell us whether or not the government will falter. Moreover, on higher education, the law is being questioned… Some universities are being blocked by student unions, which are very political in France, and the academic staff has been unable to absorb the new assignment procedures induced by Parcoursup, the orientation platform for students applying to universities, the French equivalent to UCAS in the United Kingdom. In this field, changes have been imperfect: vocational education has been overlooked, universities have not been granted the autonomy they need, and the Ministry has failed to put in place measures of evaluation and transparency.

One year is short. And there are four additional years coming up in Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The actual review of his action will have to wait until then. Institut Montaigne has chosen to assess the government’s first 12 months to stress the fact that the dynamic remains that of waiting. A wait punctuated by enthusiasm in some areas – this is the case for healthcare, finally able to promote effective prevention policies. A wait that will have to remain vigilant, as we are very aware that France has opened an unprecedented window of opportunity. Policy inertia is not inexorable in this country and positive change is still possible.