Macron is still airborne

Many predicted his demise, but France’s Icarus fights on, writes Marie le Conte

Emmanuel Macron watches an Airbus flying over Orléans

Tempting as it has been for French commentators to describe Emmanuel Macron as an Icarus, the young president has so far managed to let the sun lick his wings without crashing to earth.

The journey hasn’t been easy; he famously ran for the job without a long-established party behind him, and though he managed to shine during the presidential campaign, his honeymoon was shortlived.

A hundred days after being elected, Macron was incredibly unpopular. Only 36 per cent of the population was satisfied with what he had been doing, the lowest figure in recent memory.

While his reforms on ‘confidence in public life’ were broadly applauded − there is more transparency than ever in the National Assembly, and harsher rules on conflict of interests for politicians − one cannot bring a country together by regulating the Paris bubble alone.

His proposals to amend labour laws without having to create new legislation passed through the Senate in July, but raised eyebrows among left-leaning voters and politicians, and trade unions promised to give him hell in the autumn.

Then there was the rookie mistake; in July, his government announced that housing benefits would be cut by 5 euro a month, while elsewhere, the ISF − the solidarity tax on wealth, paid by the richest in France − would be reformed and become lighter. The scandal was twofold. First, campaigners and recipients of the benefits argued that on such low incomes, 5 euro a month could be a life-ruining amount to lose. Second, and perhaps more damagingly, announcing the two changes at the same time felt clumsy and taken out of the playbook of a comfortably right-wing government, as opposed to a centrist one that voters on the left had decided to support while pinching their noses.

While the rest of the world was still enchanted by this Tintin character bouncing his way around the globe, the motherland was frowning: by August 15, things looked bleak for the 39-year-old president. 

Seeing the wax starting to melt, detractors and talking heads alike announced that Macron was finished. His ambitions had been bolder than his predecessors’ but his fate would be the same, especially as he still had a deadly fight with the ever-powerful trade unions to look forward to. Word trickled down from the Élysée and into the papers that the message had been received and he would turn the ship around, but the youthful optimism made most smirk. It had happened to Hollande and to Sarkozy, now it was happening to him.

Still, the autumn came and went, and Macron’s labour reforms − including proposals to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over five years − passed with little fanfare. There were protests, but nothing close to the pandemonium expected.

Other votes were passed, mostly reforming the economy and education, and though En Marche’s stompinmajority in the National Assembly certainly helped, a routine started to establish itself.

Outside Parisian political circles, however, Macron started gaining a nickname; le président des riches. On January 15, a study by the influential OFCE − France’s Office of Budget Responsibility − showed what some had already guessed: the biggest winners of Macronist policies so far were the richest 5 per cent, who will pocket 42 per cent of the overall gains, while the quality of life of the poorest 5 per cent will be dropping by 0.6 per cent.

This bombshell echoed the worries some had during the election campaign; that for all his post-party political posturing, Macron was, at the end of the day, a somewhat shallow figure keener on trying to run France like a start-up than reducing inequality.

Rightly or wrongly, this didn’t touch him: on January 18, a poll conducted by Ifop-Fiducial found he had reached approval ratings of 59 per cent, a 23-point rise in five months. This might well be because
Macron voters, who were more likely to be educated and metropolitan, knew what to expect, and those who now dislike him disliked him then.

The other possible reason, and one of Macron’s greatest achievements to date, is that voters have nowhere else to go: he did not simply get elected, his victory made every other main party in France implode, and none has quite recovered yet.

His second-round opponents, the National Front, were expecting a much better result last May, and a never-ending blame game after the election meant that the party lost itself in a vicious factional war. They are currently trying to choose a new name.

‘He has managed to make a country bored to tears by political apathy believe in his vision’

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left-wing firebrand who received 20 per cent of the vote and managed to get 16 of his MPs into the National Assembly, is also struggling. He had promised to cause chaos once elected but is finding out that the daily grind of the lower chamber makes it hard to sustain the necessary energy.

The two former main parties are hardly in better shape. On the right, Les Républicains oscillated between remaining close to Macronism and embracing a more conservative brand of politics then chose the latter when they elected Laurent Wauquiez as their leader in December 2017.

Though new to the job, he has so far shown his eagerness to win back National Front voters and embrace a very French brand of culture wars. Wauquiez has, among other things, praised Donald Trump’s ‘lack of taboos’, started a campaign for nativity scenes in public spaces, and backed proposals to ban substitute meals for Jewish and Muslim children when pork is on the menu.

The Socialist Party, on the other hand, is currently as good as dead. Having received a bleak 6 per cent of the vote last June, it is now half-heartedly going through a leadership contest in which no candidate is even pretending to have the answers to the party’s predicament.

With its centrist wing having deserted its natural home to join En Marche during the campaign and with its left wing still licking its wounds over Benoît Hamon’s defeat, there is no obvious way back into the light.

Now emperor of the centre ground, Macron is left victorious but exposed − with no viable opponents to keep him in check, his downfall may yet be caused by his own arrogance. He has so far managed to make a country bored to tears by political apathy believe in his vision of France, but it might not last.

A proposed new law on immigration, first trailed in December, would make it easier to keep potential asylum seekers in detention and kick them out of the country more quickly. Left-wing activists and politicians as well as charities have already made their concerns about the legislation known, but Macron should be more worried about rebellion closer to home.

For the first time, a decent portion of En Marche MPs have spoken out about their concerns, claiming that Macron’s rhetoric on immigration was much more liberal when he was campaigning.

They might not get what they want from the president this time round, but the move remains significant. Macron may not have to worry about the voters or the other parties at the moment, but his party could yet cause his downfall. En Marche is the broadest of broad churches. And pleasing eager new MPs and old hands who switched allegiances for the next four years could well prove to be a balancing act too far for Macron.

Or it might not. Once a national sport, trying to predict Macron’s demise has now become a fool’s game few try to play. 

Once mocked for admitting he wanted his presidency to be ‘Jupiterian’, Emmanuel Macron turned out to at least be prescient. Living in his own world and playing by his own rules, he is untouchable.

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