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A nation must think before it acts.
After a virtually faultless first year in office, French President Emmanuel Macron has faced more difficult times in recent months. Admittedly, his speeches are as eloquent as ever—about the international order, about France, and about Europe—and he is still much appreciated worldwide as the defender of multilateralism (at the United Nations), of the environment (recently awarded “champion of the Earth”), and of economic righteousness (the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development welcome his market-liberal proposed reforms). Nevertheless, “his people,” as he likes to refer to his fellow citizens in the foreign media, seem today distinctly lacking enthusiasm. Macron’s popularity rating has plummeted below 30%, compared with the 64% favorable opinion in the election’s aftermath. Part of this drop can be attributed to what he prefers to brush off as “minor mishaps,” namely personnel issues, unlucky timing, and unfortunate remarks. They are nonetheless, in the eyes of the public, the reflection of a deeper problem. A malaise is growing in which questions about the personality of the president are now closely intertwined with criticism of his policies.
The same Emmanuel Macron who once seemed to be walking on water has only been accumulating misfortunes and blunders since the beginning of last summer. So much so that, unlike President Jacques Chirac in 1998, he could not even take advantage of the French national team’s victory at the World Cup. The euphoria was swept away, for Macron in any case, by the so-called “Benalla affair,” from May, in which his bodyguard was caught on film beating up protesters. In a completely different realm, but following a similar pattern, the PR effect of Macron’s grandiose speech on the fight against poverty in mid-September was ruined two days later when he told a young unemployed gardener that he should simply “cross the street” to look for work in high-demand sectors, such as in construction or hotels. The 60th anniversary of the Constitution should have been a golden opportunity to restore his presidential image. Instead, it was marked by a photo taken in the West Indies a few days before, where Macron posed in a rather undignified manner, surrounded by two scantily dressed young men, one an ex-convict, the other raising his middle finger.
On a strictly political level, the October government reshuffle, forced initially by the impromptu resignation of Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, was supposed to give the quinquennat (five-year presidential mandate) a much-needed fresh start. It did not. The painful process, stretching over two weeks, ended up in a minimal change, and served mostly to measure how much Emmanuel Macron finds himself isolated these days. Tellingly, some of the candidates he and his Prime Minister approached to take up Cabinet posts chose to make public their refusal to join his team. To top it all, even the commemoration of the end of the 1914-1918 war turned out to be less consensual than usual. As a rule, this kind of event is always rewarding for politicians, and even more so when they have the allure and the eloquence of the current French president. Yet, during his week-long “commemorative journey,” Macron opted for a highly politicized narrative, as a kick-off for next year’s European elections, and it is a risky bet. By insisting on drawing parallels between the “nationalist leprosy” of now and then, he appears, to many in France, as utilizing history for the sake of purely political gains.
As a president elected largely “by default,” due to public dissatisfaction with the established parties and to fear of Marine Le Pen’s extremism, Macron mostly owes his impressive initial rise in popularity to a remarkable intuition. After just a couple of weeks in office, his approval rating spiked up to almost two-thirds. in large part because he theorized and put into practice the “Jupiterian” presidency, in other words, a return to the almost monarchical essence of the Fifth Republic that had been established by de Gaulle. The French public definitely appreciated this change after what was generally regarded as the “de-sacralization” of the office under the Sarkozy and Hollande presidencies. Ultimately, however, Macron ended up self-sabotaging his positive image. The desire to compensate for his almost majestic distance by playing the “cool” president at times led him to a number of unauthentic and ludicrous appearances.
More importantly, his so-called petites phrases (small remarks) make many of his fellow citizens feel as if the Jupiterian distance only hides his sheer contempt for the “lower” classes. When he insults a young jobseeker or tells pensioners to “stop complaining,” these incidents repeatedly bring to mind his past comments about the “slackers,” the “people who are nothing,” and the “illiterate.” Even one of his earliest and staunchest supporters, Gérard Collomb, the Interior Minister who recently decided to leave office, had publicly deplored his “lack of humility.” Indeed, Macron runs the risk that his arrogant, elitist image reinforces the already widespread idea that he is, by his economic policy choices, the “president of the rich.”
In the economic and social field, candidate Emmanuel Macron had promised to “liberate” the economy, “and at the same time,” as he likes to say, to “protect” those in need. However, this dual approach got off balance from the start. The initial decisions focused mainly on the first part: loosening up of labor code, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and announcing the removal of the “exit tax” created to deter entrepreneurs from taking their assets out of France. The president uses various metaphors to explain to the French that “in order to share the cake, the first condition is that there be a cake.” However, his pro-business measures remain closely linked in the popular mind to his suspiciously class-contemptuous remarks. Moreover, as the major economic indicators lag behind expectations, the slowdown hits the “redistributing” part of his plans. Finally, on issues that require decision at the European level (such as the EU digital tax, fiscal harmonization, or stricter protocols on free trade agreements), Macron so far has failed, as had all his predecessors, to overcome the resistance of his EU partners.
In a recent survey, 72% of French citizens say that their purchasing power has decreased since the beginning of Macron’s quinquennat; 84% do not believe that their situation will improve by the end of his five-year mandate. In this context, the recent announcement of a fuel tax hike seems to many like the last straw. Ségolène Royal, former Environment Minister and Socialist Party presidential candidate, summed up the general feeling of injustice when she said that using ecology as an excuse to make additional taxes “is not honest” and that the government “would do better to fill the State’s coffers by fighting big banks’ tax fraud, instead of taxing motorists and pensioners.” La colère populaire (the people’s anger) that manifested itself in the spontaneously organized demonstrations all over the country on November 17 were about more than its direct trigger, increased fuel taxes. The dissatisfaction is nourished by the widespread feeling that the “president of the rich” only favors the wealthy and does not care about those 60% who live in France’s peripheral or forgotten territories.
President Macron’s “at the same time” balancing act quickly reached its limits on the topic that is arguably the most explosive in today’s French society, which encompasses immigration, identity, Islam, and secularism. As a candidate, Macron went so far as to say that, by welcoming nearly one million foreigners during the 2015 crisis, German Chancellor Merkel saved Europe’s dignity. However, he also made a crucial distinction when asking “to welcome political refugees who are in danger, without confusing them with economic migrants.” Ever since, he has been on a tightrope over the double requirement of “firmness and humanity.” In the affair of the migrant boat Aquarius, that Italy turned away and ended up in Spain, this perilous exercise led him to a resounding failure in both directions. By accusing the Italian government of irresponsibility and cynicism, the French president put himself at odds with two-thirds of his own public opinion who approved Rome’s position. But he also annoyed the rest, by declining, under various pretexts, to welcome the boat in France.
The question of immigration is so sensitive because it is seen as part of a larger package that calls into question, through the Islamic factor, basic tenets of traditional French culture and self-image. The so-called identity theme has become one of the primary concerns for the French—so much so that even those who once stigmatized anybody daring to talk about immigration-related problems now use terms that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. The first secretary of the Socialist Party speaks of immigration as “reverse colonization” in certain areas. A recently published investigative book containing shocking revelations on the depth and breadth of what it calls “Islamization” was actually produced by journalists from the left-wing daily Le Monde. In his farewell speech, Macron’s former Socialist Interior Minister called for a “reconquest” of certain territories and warned: “We live today separately, one next to the other, and I fear that tomorrow we will end up face to face.” Under increasing public pressure to explain how he apprehends this crucial issue, President Macron has promised to outline his vision before the end of the year. In the current context, where the stakes are manifest to all, anything short of a complete clarification will likely be considered, by most French, as a dangerous abdication.
Faced with the realities of power, President Macron’s once unifying motto “both right and left” seems to have been transformed into “neither right nor left.” In other words, his policy is now seen as not being sufficiently on the left (especially on economic, fiscal issues) by one part of the electorate, and as not on the right enough (especially on immigration/Islam) by the rest. He can take solace by telling himself that such a dual judgement confirms that he is, indeed, at the center. When the time comes, left-wing voters might still prefer him to a right-wing candidate, and vice versa. Macron is making that more difficult, however, in the run up to EU parliamentary elections next May. In his campaign rhetoric, he advocates a new dividing line, insisting on fighting “a historic struggle” between “progressives and nationalists,” between the so-called pro-Europeans and the allegedly anti-European populists.
Macron reckons that the French, who still remain committed to Europe, will, even if grudgingly, line up behind a leader who claims to fight for the “survival” of the EU. However, this overly simplistic, Manichean approach forecloses meaningful debate on the nature and the policies of the Union. Although the overwhelming majority of the French do not, indeed, wish to unmake the EU, they do not want to see it “progress” on the current bases either. They understand when their president, like all his predecessors, explains that the most effective solution to many of their (economic, security, climate, migration) woes is to be found at the European level. But they also know that for this to be true, the EU should finally embrace the quintessentially French idea of a “protective Europe.” An EU that would assertively protect its own citizens, when it comes to taxing digital giants, promoting social standards, becoming militarily independent, making its own norms a precondition for trade agreements, and effectively controlling its own borders. The French can also see, however, that Emmanuel Macron, like all his predecessors, has no partners for that.
The monarchy-inspired institutions of the Fifth Republic protect the president from political ups and downs during his mandate. Macron is also supported by an absolute majority in the National Assembly and his legendary luck did not abandon him altogether: the three opposition leaders each suffer, for various reasons, from an incredible loss of credibility. Nonetheless, even in his stable position and without significant political opposition, the challenge Macron faces is considerable. To get back on track, he would need to recover his original Jupiterian image, stop making disdainful remarks, and consider a new take on his initial stance of “both left and right.” Instead of trying a self-contradictory balancing act within each issue, he would be better off focusing his left-leaning tendencies on the economic and social agenda and directing his right-leaning energies to the immigration/Islam/identity conundrum. This would not only be perfectly in tune with the vast majority of French public opinion, but would also be utterly consistent with France’s long-cherished project of a “protective Europe.”