Rocked by mass protests and record-low approval ratings, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon faces electoral oblivion
Emmanuel Macron swept to power in May 2017 by presenting himself as a youthful anti-populist reformer, a shining example of what was still possible in centrist politics.
Eighteen months later and rocked by mass protests and record low approval ratings, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon faces electoral oblivion.
Last year’s demonstrations against his labour law and rail reform had already tested his presidency, but combined with a bodyguard scandal, stubbornly high unemployment, multiple ministerial resignations and a series of media missteps it appears the French working and middle classes have had enough.
Seemingly innocuous protests over fuel tax rises – the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement – has given way to deadly clashes on the streets of Paris over Macron’s perceived elitist reforms.
“It might have started as a protest against the rise of the fuel tax, but the yellow vests’ anger stems from years of rising precarity,” says Helen Lewis in the New Statesman. “They demand more than just the scrapping of the tax: they want all taxes lowered and a “citizens’ debate” on spending power and climate change. In the protests, “Macron resign” is a recurring battle cry”.
The president’s aloofness and determination to stand his ground has contributed to his plummeting approval ratings, which currently stand at just 26%. By contrast public support for the ‘yellow vest’ protests is holding steady at 77%.
On Tuesday he stuck to his line, saying: “What I’ve taken from these last few days is that we shouldn’t change course because it is the right one and necessary.”
But his remarks were immediately seized upon as a sign of how out of touch with ordinary citizens he is.
“This was a technocrat’s speech, disconnected from the reality of the French” said Damien Abad, a Conservative MP.
“Macron was supposed to be a new, hopeful face” writes Lewis. “Instead, the frustration and violence of the protests suggest, many French people feel he has brought more of the status quo”.
According to political scientist Pascal Perrineau, he has lost three parts of his voter base: the left and the centre-left through his fiscal measures in favour of the rich; pensioners who have suffered cuts; and the middle classes and young voters who swept him to power.
In Europe too, his bid to position himself the logical heir apparent to Angela Merkel as the continent’s dominant political figure “faces big hurdles”, says US News. His headline policies of an EU army and eurozone reform have received lukewarm support. Moreover, “critics say Macron’s policy proposals don’t truly address the issues that are fueling nationalist parties in Europe” reports the news site.
Even if Macron eventually emerges as Europe’s leader, it may not help him at home “where he is deeply unpopular for personal, political and policy reasons,” says Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London. Being seen as the EU’s top head of state “doesn’t really pay off domestically”.
“Because of his political inexperience, his intellectual arrogance, his hubris, and by taking himself for a solitary Jupiterian hero, Macron has locked himself into the image of the president of the rich. Now, France – which prefers equality to freedom – is slapping him in the face”, writes Marion Van Renterghem in The Guardian.
In the wake of last week’s protests, far-right leader Marine Le Pen claimed Macron was “devoid of any solutions” and that France was undergoing a “popular insurrection”.
Recent polls have shown Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly Front National), on course to beat Macron’s En Marche! In the European parliamentary elections in May.
The irony, writes Van Renterghem, is that Llke his centrists cousins Barack Obama and Matteo Renzi before him, “the most anti-populist leader France could have hoped for finds himself actually reinforcing populism”.
Others believe his thrusting reform agenda will ultimately pay off, and he need only stay firm to win in the long-term.
Henry Samuel in the Daily Telegraph writes that “his business-friendly measures have been slow in gaining traction while more “social” measures like abolishing housing tax are only kicking in now”.
As Le Point magazine pointed out this week, this is crunch time over whether he will end up France’s Thatcher or Francois Hollande, his hapless Socialist predecessor who, in the end, was too unpopular to run for re-election.