French Economic Minister Emmanuel Macron declared himself the standard bearer of a “new French capitalism” in today’s Wall Street Journal. (An earlier French version appeared on April 24 in Le Monde, with choice commentary by Arthur Goldhammer). This isn’t just another installment of Emmanuel’s neoliberal loi Macron. Macron’s declaration seems to argue for an increase in state control—but through the very language of entrepreneurship and the free market that he would like to control. Macron begins:
…this old brand of state capitalism is no longer adapted to today’s world economy. In fact, our economic system is adapting to an economy that is far more decentralized, more international in nature and more subject to disruptions by a small group of geeks working from a basement.
At least the French version contented itself with le startup without having to resort to les geeks! Macron continues:
These changes have favored short-term investors and limited the ability of long-term strategic actors to provide both capital and strategic guidance…there is a real need to invent a new, long-term capitalism in which the state has a role to play to accompany companies in their transformation and their investment plans.
This second paragraph describes a form of state capitalism unflinchingly similar to the “old brand” that Macron had just derided in the first paragraph as obsolete. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the Minister of Finance under Louis XIV, declared that “the art of taxation consists of plucking the goose to obtain the greatest possible amount of feathers with as little possible squawking.” Expanded to the logic of the economy as a whole, Colbert’s system grants great priority to the Royal Goose-Plucker himself as the steward that nurtures the French state’s optimal development. So is Macron a champion of the French Left, a proper Colbertist caretaker of a market that cannot be left to its own devices? Or is he a wolf in a goose-down jacket, a careful politician who cries “colbertisme” to appeal to the nationalist element of his party just as the Socialists slide to the economic center?
Macron’s actions don’t do much to illuminate the government’s long-term plan. It’s hard to square the Minister’s earlier reputation as a neoliberal reformer with this most recent move to flood Renault’s board with votes, preventing the French automaker from relocating jobs overseas. In other words, we’re watching Macron test the waters between statism and decentralized control, but it’s unclear where he’ll take the plunge. Perhaps the strategy for now is just to invest in periwigs, millinery and canal building in case Colbert makes a triumphant comeback! Get out your checkbooks…