A lame promenade

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A year and half after strolling to power to the “Ode to Joy”, Macron’s approval rating has dropped to 21% and his presidential progress is meeting fierce resistance

Looking back on the footage of Emmanuel Macron‘s stroll across the Louvre square Louvre on the evening of his Presidential election victory, one has the impression of witnessing the prologue to a show that has never really taken off and so far has not produced the kind of happy ending the script called for.

Yet, the day after he moved into the Elysèe Palace Macron threw himself body and soul into a wide ranging programme of reform, showing a zeal in line with the name he’d chosen for his party: La République en marche. Thanks to the total absence of opposition and trade unions, along with an overwhelming parliamentary majority (308 seats out of the National Assembly’s 577) the self-proclaimed “jupiterien” President (meaning ‘god-like’) during his first year of his mandate managed to reform crucial sectors of the country’s economy in record time such as employment and security. A swashbuckling liberal-inspired revamp designed to unshackle France’s main social and economic totems.  An operation that might have required greater tact and care given its impact on very sensitive areas of the country’s social contract.

The progress of his labours has not, as it turns out, gone hand in hand with his approval ratings. As months have passed his star has waned and his ratings have dropped; only 25% still believed in him by the end of November. «The French are divided between the desire to liberalise its economy even further and the wish to have a welfare state that guarantees social prerogatives. There’s often a contradiction between a call for liberalisation and a demand for protection. Macron has become a victim of this tendency», according to political commentator and constitutional expert Olivier Rouquan.

There have been too many unforeseen hitches in recent months. From the “Benalla scandal“, which broke out after a member of his security detail was recognised in video attacking a demonstrator during a police operation and the cabinet reshuffle in October following the resignations of the Minister of the Interior Gérard Collomb, and Environmental Transition Minister, Nicolas Hulot. All hiccoughs that the French have viewed as indications of an excessively centralised power that is not open to discussing  issues even with its closest circle of collaborators.

Measures such as the removal of the wealth tax or the reduction of lodging subsidies have contributed to build him up as a “President of the rich”, who is not in touch with his citizen’s daily concerns,  particularly in rural and suburban France, where they are too busy making ends meet to worry about what’s going on in French power circles in Paris. «La République en marche! has a very limited presence on the ground, it has few representatives throughout the country and Macron has never won any local elections», Rouqan noted while pointing out that the French President «did not try to offset this failing at the start of his mandate».

The yellow jackets protest triggered in November against the rise in petrol prices is an indication of this distress which has ended up just setting one against the other, with little room for compromise.   A “fluid” movement, built up spontaneously via the web without the backing of parties or trade unions, the ‘yellow jackets’ have just poured out onto the  streets throughout the country to make their voice heard.

In the meantime, outside French borders, the international situation itself does not provide much solace.

On the diplomatic front the President has stood out as a staunch supporter of multilateralism, always ready to keep the door open to discussions, even at the most critical times.

The incumbent President has therefore launched a number of strategic initiatives, such as the attack carried out in Syria alongside Great Britain and under the leadership of the United States or the revival of the discussion with the international community on the remaining funds required to promote the G5 Sahel, the joint military force to which Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger  Chad and Mauritania have all signed up and is designed to counter terrorist activity in the Sahel-Saharan region where France is still engaged in the Barkhane operation. In Libya, the President has shown perhaps excessive zeal (and optimism) in the forsaken hope of organising elections by December, an effort that has been viewed as an attempt to undermine Italian influence in the region.

An overall strategy that has often had to come to terms with reality and has led to failed promises and few immediate results, in an international climate dominated by the protectionist whims of US President Donald Trump. Despite their opposing views, the two leaders have become excellent enemy-friends, alternating pats on the back with vitriolic tweets.

On the European front, his has always looked to the other bank of the Rhine for support. The French President was relying on Chancellor Angela Merkel to kick start his ambitious Eurozone reform project that he laid out in the now celebrated Sorbonne speech, which calls for new measures such as a joint budget, the appointment of a European Finance Minister and the transformation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). But the keys to get the French-German engine back up and running seem to have fallen foul of the European machinery.

On entering the halls of power, the French President was hoping for strong German support, which instead responded with unexpected chilliness. «After his Presidential victory Macron realised that everything was more complicated than he had first surmised» recalls Rémy Bourgeot, an economist at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. According to Bourgeot, France’s European ambitions have been held back by the “conservative shift” that took place in Germany after the legislative elections in September 2017.

Thus Macron has sided with a partner weakened by internal political strife and now on the verge of leaving politics for good at the end of her mandate in 2021. A nasty blow for the French leader, who at the European elections in May risks wearing the mantle of the lone ranger up warding off all the populist forces. The challenge between “progressives and nationalists” launched by the French President could turn out to be a risky proposition.

Yet the two leaders have done their utmost to appear on the same wavelength. The footage shot in November during the anniversary of the end of the First World War in Compiègne caught them standing side by side, in a significant and powerful allegorical stance reminiscent of an equally emblematic moment: when President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl were pictured standing in front of the Douaumont ossuary in Verdun, in 1984.

But aside from their joint symbolic efforts, the understanding between Paris and Berlin has never truly flourished. The Meseberg agreement reached in June has always seemed more of a utilitarian compromise for both parties, with Merkel having obtained guarantees on immigration while Macron returned to Paris with the promise, albeit cut to size, of a Eurozone budget to be set up by the end of 2021 along with the transformation of the ESM. The Eurogroup’s lukework reception of the common budget proposal in November has provided further proof of the many member states’ misgivings about the French proposals.

In light of the many difficulties, the French-German ambitions for a joint defence policy that have been bandied about regularly by Paris and Berlin take on a specific significance. «The idea of a joint European defence policy is always brought up whenever other issues hit a wall. It’s a form of compensation for the stalled Eurozone project», Bourgeot explained. Macron has put a great deal of effort into this sector, from both a strategic point of view with the joint European ‘intervention force”, and from an industrial one, thanks to a French-German collaboration for the development of a number of different joint projects.

In the meantime, Macron is trying to find a new way of rebooting his Presidential march with some of the same initial energy.


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