PARIS — Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs didn’t believe in listening to his customers. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
French President-elect Emmanuel Macron would be wise to adopt the same attitude in finally foisting true capitalism upon the French.
If last weekend’s presidential election proved anything, it was that the French have no clue what they want — only what they don’t want. Macron, an independent, crushed nationalist-socialist Marine Le Pen of the National Front party, 66.1 percent to 33.9 percent. Digging into the final election data, we find a glaring phenomenon: With the exception of the candidates’ loyal supporters, people voted in opposition to one candidate rather than in favor of the other. The French overwhelmingly did not want Le Pen to lead them and gave Macron the electoral equivalent of a Gallic shrug.
Le Pen’s defeat can’t be solely attributed to her protectionist immigration position, since polls across France show that a majority of people actually agreed with her immigration policies.
One of the reasons for Le Pen’s defeat is that she self-immolated spectacularly in last week’s debate. She plopped a series of color-coded folders onto the debate table that she shared with Macron and then rifled through them in search of relevant information as various subjects come up. Macron looked ready for the job while Le Pen looked like a hot mess. It was as simple as that. Because Le Pen’s performance was so pitiful, capitalism may finally have its chance in France.
Macron admonished Le Pen during the debate for having nothing more than nationalization as a solution for a distressed company (Whirlpool, in this case).
I’m not certain, however, that the French are as disturbed as I am by the idea of the government nationalizing private companies. If you’re going to even think about nationalizing a company, it had better at least make nukes and not just household appliances.
As a proponent of limited, free-market government, I picked up on several Macron dog whistles throughout the debate that made it clear he is much more of a free-market supporter than Le Pen. However, it’s impossible to measure the extent to which the French are economically right or left because they’ve never known anything but socialism. That’s why I laugh whenever French friends blame capitalism as the source of their woes: They’ve never actually tried it.
Even if the France’s immigration and security problems were resolved tomorrow, the French would still be complaining about unemployment and lack of buying power, all while wanting the government to stick it to their employers, with whom they have an adversarial relationship. Blame for the country’s economic ills is routinely assessed to private companies, which the French government buries with taxes and social security costs, with all the rights and entitlements belonging to employees.
Macron has promised to reform the labor code and to invest in vocational training, imposing an obligation of results. Initiatives and training centers that can’t demonstrate the successful placement of workers will apparently be dropped. This is precisely where the culture shift must start. If you ask French kids what they want to do for a living, most will tell you one of three things. Either they want to work in the civil service, they want to be a manager (ideally in the civil service, or in one of the multinational French companies that are run like the civil service), or they want to be in charge of a startup (which is really just shorthand for wanting investors to throw money at them unconditionally).
France has elected a president who would reduce the tax burden on a single, childless, self-employed female lawyer taking home 5,000 euros monthly, as noted by the newspaper Le Parisien in an article profiling people who could most benefit from proposed Macron policies. Not surprisingly, the revelation that someone with that particular profile would benefit caused an uproar on social media. That so many people were upset with the idea that an independent person who takes little from the state and gives back so much in taxes should bear an unduly heavy burden tells you everything you need to know about what’s wrong with France.
Members of France’s “Social Front” protest movement — with their Marxist, Communist and Maoist flags and symbols — have already taken to the streets to express displeasure with Macron’s election. Indeed, the most economically conservative candidate has been elected. His biggest challenge will be to sell the French on the benefits of free-market capitalism with results they can see and feel.