Like many other new shiny things, it ended with disappointment.
Emmanuel Macron’s victory in 2017 was hailed as the advent of ‘le nouveau monde’ vis-à-vis the old political elites—a glimmer of hope in the face of the global rise of far-right populism. On both sides of the Atlantic, liberal elites were enthusiastic about this young high civil servant turned private banker, political advisor, Minister of the Economy, and finally elected President.
In their book, The Neoliberal Republic, Vauchez and France explainhow, far from an unexpected event, Macron’s election was perfectly aligned with the deep-seated neoliberal transformations that have been underway in France over the past three decades. The authors map out the myriad of actors—business lawyers, regulators, consultants, high civil servants, and law professors—who have facilitated the neoliberal reconfiguration of the French state through networks that link economic actors and public officials. Their findings are crucial for appreciating this uniquely French kind of neoliberalism.
Beyond this, the book offers a new lens to describe and analyze how legal actors and law enable the triumph of “the neoliberalized state.” It zooms in on the professional trajectories and roles of corporate lawyers, who are increasingly also members of traditional state elites, revealing how they shape the turn towards neoliberal policies and redefine the public-private divide.
By offering a new methodological lens, the book also invites reflections on European, and in particular EU, law and political economy scholarship’s blind spots. Vauchez and France’s study is the first one to explore the revolving door between the public and the private spheres, and how this negatively impacts public interest and democracy—a phenomenon that has been underappreciated in scholarship dealing with the transformation of the state in the neoliberal context.
Vauchez and France show how the erosion of the public/private distinction was enabled by legislation that transformed the legal profession and privatized key public sectors. This legislation was facilitated by EU law, which brought parts of national welfare systems under the EU’s internal market and competition rules. As a result of these dynamics, they claim, we are witnessing the advent of a new “state nobility” and the emergence of “a black hole” at the heart of the state, a “grey area” of public-private collusion, which is under the radar, but which nevertheless damages French democracy.
The conflation of public and private interests helps us better understand why a month after the election, at the VivaTech conference (one of Europe’s biggest start-up and tech events) Macron announced that he wanted France to be a “start-up nation,” “a state that thinks and moves like a start-up.” He said that he will ensure that France becomes “the most attractive and creative environment” and that the government “is a platform, not a constraint.”
Overall, what we can evince from this study is that neoliberalism does not lead to the weakening of the state. Quite the opposite: state institutions, state actors and laws are transformed to accommodate market interests.
But while the book sheds light on this under-studied phenomenon, it also reproduces some of the blind spots of EU law and political economy scholarship more generally. Throughout the book, Vauchez and France do not explicitly engage with gender, ethnicity, race or class as lenses through which to analyze the French State’s transformation. This is not uncommon in literature on law and political economy in the EU. While there is now a robust scholarship on the neoliberal transformations of EU economic law, very little of it addresses how these changes perpetuate and solidify gender- and race-based material and “symbolic” inequalities.
Scholarship that fails to engage with these themes ends up missing an important aspect of how power relations are embedded within the economy. Race, ethnicity, class, and gender-based norms are key features of the neoliberal logic. Our economies rely on them and produce them, and they have material consequences, something that feminist scholars have argued for decades now.
Taking up these themes allows one to better understand the current evolutions of this French kind of neoliberalism, which combines authoritarian practices with policies and discourses that further entrench economic precariousness, as well as gender and racial discrimination. This is illustrated in the recent state laws, practices and discourses of the Macron government: the French police’s excessive use of force during the gilets jaunes protests, state actions which were denounced by the UN and NGOs; the government’s adoption of a new welfare benefits law that economically penalizes those with “non-traditional” working patterns, especially women who interrupt their careers or work part-time to take care of dependents; the French Senate’s legislative effort to reinforce the fight against radical Islam, terrorism, and to promote gender equality—a law that actually targets Muslim communities; the rise of the rhetoric of “Islamo-gauchisme” (“Islamo-leftism”), a name given to the supposed alliance between the left and radical Islamists, with some ministers even suggesting that intersectional theories imported from the US converge with radical Islamism, and that “Islamo-gauchisme” was rampant in French universities.
As recently argued on this blog, a key question for the law and political economy scholarship is how the “economy” is defined. While The Neoliberal Republic rightly invites us to focus on the legal actors central to the neoliberal transformation and to interrogate the myth of the weak neoliberal state, by neglecting issues related to gender and race, it also risks entrenching a narrow understanding of those economic changes, and a limited view of the responses that they require.