The failure of Macron’s immigration bill puts the president’s inclusive ‘en même temps’ ideology in crisis

The parliamentary wrangling over a law that combined conservative and progressive measures has shown up the limitations of the French leader’s centrist approach

Ley Migratoria Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron during an event on industry in the city of Toulouse, on Dec. 11, 2023.Caroline Blumberg / POOL (EFE)
Marc Bassets

Some have already written the obituary. Not that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has more than three years before finishing his second and last mandate. Rather the obituary is for his stock phrase, en même temps, that expressed his pragmatism — his ability to see all sides of an issue without ideological apriorisms.

The phrase, which translates as simultaneously, may have died on December 11, when a majority of delegates in the French National Assembly rejected the Macron government’s immigration law. The text combined repressive measures with progressive ones. Simultaneously. But it was aborted before the debate had even begun. With this, “Macronism is also beginning to fade away,” wrote the chronicler Solenn de Royer in the French newspaper, Le Monde. The end of an era. Or the beginning of a new Macron.

The en même temps phrase has been Macron’s trademark. In the campaign that brought him to the Élysée Palace in 2017, he used it again and again. Macron was at the same time left-wing and right-wing, progressive and liberal, fervently Europeanist while also aligning himself with the France of De Gaulle. He managed to break the old polarization between left and right and to stop Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Rally party winning at the ballot box.

The president has never completely abandoned his en même temps strategy. He appointed Élisabeth Borne, a Social Democrat, as prime minister a year and a half ago, while some of his most prominent ministers — Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy and Finance, and Gérald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior — came from the Republican moderate right. But he has been increasingly seen as a president more inclined to the right than the left. His economic reforms, including the labor market reform and the pension reform, were considered liberal or conservative in France, putting elements of the left on the warpath, despite being in line with what governments of all stripes have done in other countries.

The origin of en même temps can be traced back to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, whom Macron helped prepare his last magnum opus, Memory, History, Forgetting during his student days. It is this identity that lies between a complex thinker and a politician that can only happen in France: Macron was a Ricoeurian president.

“That’s what I believed,” says François Dosse, Ricoeur’s biographer and the man who brought Ricoeur and the student Macron into contact. The Ricoeurian philosophy “says that there are two poles, and that we must think them together, at the same time. But Macron’s en même temps is a loincloth for a right-wing policy. People who say they are not from any side are generally on the right. And he masked it for a long time,” observes Dosse.

The immigration law was intended to facilitate the expulsion of foreigners who had committed serious crimes, a measure to please the right. At the same time, it allowed the regularization of undocumented immigrants so that they could work in sectors where there was a lack of labor. This measure, in theory at least, pleased the left.

But on Monday, December 11, a coalition against it was formed, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left. As Macron does not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the “motion of rejection” was imposed with 270 votes in favor of the motion and 265 against.

For the right, the law was too progressive, although the minister who had designed it, Darmanin, was open to tightening it up. For the left, it was too conservative, although their rejection of it has paved the way for a more repressive law to be negotiated, based on the version already adopted in the Senate, controlled by the right.

For the center — that is, for Macron — it highlights a stark reality. Since the 2022 legislative elections, he no longer has a majority in the National Assembly. Until now, he has been able to govern with support from other parties. Or, as happened with the pension reform, by decree. The immigration bill indicates that he will have difficulty holding out until the end of his term.

Maintaining en même temps

Macron’s government can continue as a minority government and keep the en même temps approach alive. Or he can dissolve the National Assembly and call legislative elections. The third option is a coalition between the Macronists and the Republicans. It would allow more stability and for the preparation of the next presidential elections.

The essayist and political consultant Alain Minc, who knows Macron well, explained that without a single candidate in 2027 from what he calls “the moderates,” the vote will be divided up between the extreme right.

“For there to be a single moderate candidate, a political agreement is needed between the parties of the Macronist cosmography and the democratic right,” argues Minc. “And who has the key to get them governing together? Macron. If he doesn’t, he is risking Marine Le Pen being elected president.” And then, yes, the famous en même temps will definitely have died a death.

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