Emmanuel Macron — French savior or tormentor?

Elected six months ago on a platform of hope and change, French President Emmanuel Macron is taking no prisoners both at home and abroad in a bid to make his country great again. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.

The country’s 39-year-old president has been likened to Jupiter, Napoleon and Louis XIV — not necessarily in glowing terms— even as his approval ratings have plummeted from May’s giddy post-election highs.

But so far, Macron has crucially managed to duck the massive and crippling street protests that sunk previous efforts to shake up the country’s sluggish economy and slash its near 10-percent unemployment rate. And the implosion of politics-as-usual in France that has seen traditional parties and leaders struggling to survive— and his fledgling La Republique En Marche party catapulted to power — has left him a clear path to govern.

“In France, you cannot reform anything and remain popular,” says analyst Philippe Moreau Defarges, of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations. “And if he doesn’t act quickly, he will lose.”

Necessary evil

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Macron shrugged off his unpopularity as a necessary evil. “The worst thing is to lose popularity without acting or without being efficient,” he said, adding he was merely delivering on his election promises and ramming through tough reforms early on so they had time to deliver results.

Macron is also acting quickly to exert his influence on the world stage. Last week alone, he paid a surprise visit to Saudi Arabia, amid concern over the fate of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri after inaugurating the new Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi. He then raced home to open a World War I museum with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“When it comes to fulfilling his campaign promises to put France back on the map, I think he’s been pretty effective,” notably in terms of style and projecting a modern image of the country internationally, says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Paris office. “But when it comes to some of his key campaign priorities — on climate, terrorism, Europe and conflict resolution, among others — these are still questions in front of him, and not behind him.”

European leadership

It is in Europe where Macron’s foreign policy moves are arguably most closely scrutinized. A day after his inauguration, he made his first foreign trip to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. The two leaders vowed to draw up a common road map for the European Union, although they differ on issues like the euro-zone’s future.

His strongly pro-European stance has also resonated in a Brussels shaken by Brexit, the far right and deep divisions among member states over issues like immigration. Macron’s keynote September speech on Europe at Sorbonne University in Paris drew praise from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — even as Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis suggested he should stick to governing France.

Yet for all his pro-European rhetoric, Macron is not taking France on a U-turn, Lafont Rapnouil says.

“When you look at his foreign policy, it seems a very classical, French national foreign policy,” he adds, highlighting Macron’s support for the Syrian peace negotiations involving top world powers as a case in point. “There are a few pan-European initiatives, but he’s also interested in France being at the table with Russia and with the US.”

In Africa, Macron has continued France’s active role in combating Islamist militants in the Sahel — his second official foreign visit was to Mali — and suggested France might act in new parts of the continent if requested. He has made missteps; July remarks at the G-20 summit that Africa had “civilizational problem” drew backlash, but he has called for increasing foreign aid to the continent.

Macron has also carved out a complex relationship with US President Donald Trump that began with a handshake wrestle and warmed up during Trump’s Bastille Day visit to France. Yet his efforts to change Trump’s views on issues like Iran sanctions and climate change appear to be going nowhere. With Washington now isolated in its opposition to the Paris climate agreement, the French president made headlines last week by not inviting Trump to a December climate summit.

Home-grown problems

Much of Macron’s time, however, is spent dealing with battles at home.

As much as the country needs them, Macron’s domestic reforms have proved divisive

In September, thousands of French marched against controversial labor, tax and pension reforms he argues are essential to turn France’s around and make it more competitive. Despite an encouraging, recent drop in unemployment rates, Macron’s popularity has sunk to 35 percent, according to a Harris Interactive poll.

On the streets of Paris, residents are deeply divided about their young leader.

“I think everything he’s doing is basically the opposite of what people want,” said 36-year-old English teacher, Florian Breneur, who gives him a 2 on a scale of 1-10. “His policies favor the richest 5 percent, and that’s not what he was elected for.”

But 21-year-old student Imane Amtribouzar is pleased with Macron’s accomplishments to date.

“I don’t think he can enact enormous change in just six months,” she says, “but it’s been pretty positive overall.”

Analyst Moreau Defarges says Macron is under pressure to deliver. “Macron must reform France. He will be assessed on his success or failure of reforming France.”

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