In June, just a few days prior to a landslide legislative victory for Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche (LRM) party, the Economist ran a cover feature that depicted him striding, beaming across a body of water.
It was all too easy for commentators to applaud Macron’s win and herald it as a symbol of hope, keeping, as it had, “the populist wolves at the door”. It certainly brought about the downfall of a populist candidate in Marine Le Pen, and was portrayed as a triumph for the free market and globalisation. Mathieu Laine, a French intellectual, encapsulated the prevailing attitude in European capitals, ending a piece for The Guardian by stating that Macron “can be an inspiration to many around the world”. With the weight of rhetoric behind him, expectations were always going to be high when the 39-year-old entered the Elysée, especially considering that he was elected on an economic and political reformist agenda.
Now, three months into the job, Macron has suffered one of the worst ever starts to a French presidency in terms of percentage fall in approval rating, which has dropped to a meagre 36%. He is less popular domestically than his counterpart Donald Trump is in the United States.
So should Europe be worried? After all, he narrowly won his victory in a second round contest with far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. Why has Macron’s honeymoon ended so abruptly and dramatically? What does the most recent approval rating mean for his longevity and the political promises on which he was elected? Is it significant for France, Europe or the world?
Reforming France’s economy
Macron’s decline in popularity might be attributed to his brash approach to reforming France’s economic structure. The country’s 35-hour week, introduced in the 1990s, requires that companies pay between ten and 50 percent more if they need employees to work additional hours and the new president wants to loosen this inflexibility. His decline in popularity stems from an open, aggressive attempt to overhaul the 3,000-page labour code that has long been the target of reforms on the part previous governments. In essence, the average French worker’s rights would be significantly eroded – a policy Le Pen vehemently opposed. Thus far, ‘Macronomics’ has been a tough sell to the ordinary Frenchman.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left candidate for the French presidency who, like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, has gained a cult following among young people, vehemently disagrees with Macron’s sweeping reformist agenda. “We must resist, we have a duty to defend the labour code,” he told French television. However, Macron’s policies do have their supporters. Jean-Philippe Pourcelo of FocusEconomics argues that labour reforms are “appropriate and necessary to attract investment and foster greater job growth in the economy.” The issue is that Macron is trying to uproot well-established tradition – and at lightning pace – armed with a new, politically-inexperienced party.
The challenges facing his reform packages are monumental: national unemployment currently stands at ten percent and youth unemployment at 25 percent, according to Eurostat. France’s public spending is a hefty 56 percent of GDP, compared with 39 percent in the UK, for example. Moreover the French economy shows few signs of growth. The combination of a reduction in corporate taxes from 33 percent to 25 percent; a relaxation of the 35-hour working week; a rise in zero-hour contracts as well as a cut in housing benefits was always going to unnerve the French electorate.
The young tech-savvy president is to France what Amazon is to retail: a disruptor. Whether you believe in his policies or not, he overtly defends a model of economic and social freedom that is grounded in an acceptance of the disruption the digital age has brought. The argument in favour of Macron’s proposed economic overhaul is compelling for many but unpopular with a significant proportion of the population.
A carefully worked image
Further to growing public resistance to his policies, undoubted chinks have developed in the slick image that Macron presents to the world. A spat over funding with the head of the French military, Pierre de Villiers, has given fuel to the belief that the army is overworked and underfunded – and is likely to upset French conservatives.
Macron openly embraces the caricature of himself as a strong, brazen leader who embodies decisiveness and power, but there are undoubted question marks hanging over the substance behind the style. Making moves towards the resolution of the conflict in Libya was certainly courageous and considered by many to have been fruitful, and taking on Donald Trump in a surreal handshaking duel was a helpful publicity stunt. However, upsetting military leaders back home will rile many and taking on Russia, Trump, the Middle East and the French unions all at once echoes the sort of hubristic ambition that eventually led to Napoleon’s demise.
One must bear in mind that Macron’s mandate is weak and grossly overstated, largely by himself, despite the overwhelming victory of LRM in the legislative elections. He won the presidential election with a low overall share of the vote and the legislatives with a perilously low turnout. Rolling out a 60-metre red carpet to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in celebration was unnecessary and demonstrated an unwelcome degree of arrogance. Nevertheless he did win, on the premise of fiscal responsibility and a promise to restore French identity and the country’s global relevance. On paper, these are popular policies even if their political realities are proving unpopular.
A perilous stage
“Should Macron prove unable to address the sufferings of “forgotten France”, however, his reign could be short-lived and hot-tempered”, wrote Samuel Earle in The Atlantic. The trail of royal posturing that has followed the French president over the last three months, in addition to the media hype and his own rhetoric, has pushed expectations so high that Macron’s every stumble will be eagerly jumped upon. That said, the young president’s charisma, charm and readiness to communicate might just pull him through. In May, one of the first moves he made in the Elysée was to speak at length with trade unions and business leaders in an attempt to force a dialogue between these two warring camps: a conciliatory approach that has worked so well in Germany since the 1990s, and something of a novelty in France.
With his radical agenda and an overt celebration of the paradox of an authoritarian approach to promoting liberal socio-economic values, Macron’s success so far is a testament to his ideological self-determination. The loyalty to radical reform he has shown over his first three months signifies the make-or-break nature of his presidency. The big test will come in September when his government is expected to release further details of its labour reform intentions. Macron’s personal skills have enabled him to broker support from the large and moderate unions but expect protests and discontent to haunt his Autumn as radicals take to the streets.
It seems that Emmanuel Macron, Europe’s young, passionate and strong-willed ‘saviour’ will either succeed in his attempt at rejuvenating the French economy and reputation abroad, or be brought low by the conservative inertia that dominates French politics. His first three months have reinforced the idea that, much like his route to Paris, his presidency will not be defined by compromise.