Emmanuel Macron, the French president set to visit Dublin on Thursday, inspires contradictory reactions among voters and observers. Over the past four years I have seen him loved, hated, admired and scorned, in some cases by the same individuals or groups of people at different times.
Macron is earnest, energetic, intelligent and hard-working. If there were a contest for leaders one would wish to see at the head of one's own country, he would be near the top with the departing German chancellor Angela Merkel. Unlike Merkel, Macron exudes the sort of optimism long associated with US politicians. With a better speech writer, he might even impart some of that optimism to the French.
If Macron is held to a higher standard than other leaders, it is because he sets a high standard for himself. His best-student-in-the-class aura and propensity to lecture have a way of irritating even his supporters.
In 2017, Macron said he wanted a "Jupiterian" presidency. In a style dubbed "progressive-authoritarian" by Stanford academic Cécile Alduy, Macron decides virtually everything in France, from the details of Covid regulations to his recent abrogation of a decree on motorcycle tests.
“In France we need strong presidential authority, a top-down decision-making process, which has the advantage of efficacy,” his European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, told Le Monde this week.
At his best Macron can hold and move an audience, as in his September 2017 address on the future of Europe at the Sorbonne. But he can also be incredibly verbose, packing two-hour speeches with minutiae comprehensible only to experts. A French diplomat who has observed three French presidents interact with Angela Merkel says only Macron matches her wonkish command of detail.
When Macron came to office, France was a declining middle power. He has restored a degree of influence that the country had lost. His constant stream of initiatives and calls for European sovereignty have infused new energy into the European project. Macron’s parenting of the €750 billion Covid recovery fund marked a quantum leap in European integration.
But Macron's idea of foreign policy is often a personal numéro de séduction in which world leaders are meant to succumb to his powers of persuasion. This correspondent felt queasy watching him fawn over Donald Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu and the Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In 2017, he publicly scolded Vladimir Putin for lies propagated by Russian media linked to the Kremlin. Two years later, he angered European allies by wooing Putin without prior consultation.
Macron tried to be the Trump-whisperer, but failed to bring the previous US president back to the climate or Iran nuclear accords. He flew to Beirut after the August 2020 port explosion in the hope of becoming Lebanon's saviour, but was no match for the egotism and corruption of that country's ruling class.
One has to give him credit for trying. Sometimes he almost succeeds. During the 2019 UN General Assembly, he persuaded Trump to talk to then Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on the telephone. At the last minute, Rouhani refused to come to the phone.
Macron's abrogation of the wealth tax, his stint as a merchant banker, the reform of the labour code and attempts to bring order to France's outrageously complex pension system won him the unenviable title of "president of the rich". He is in his element hosting US billionaires at annual "Choose France" investment summits, and visiting start-up campuses, as he will on Thursday afternoon with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe.
At the same time – “en même temps”, to use his 2017 campaign slogan – Macron is spending hundreds of billions of euro on Covid stimulus. He has increased welfare payments and farmers’ pensions, offered university students €1 dinners, halved the size of elementary school classes in troubled banlieues and created a €500 monthly allowance for young jobseekers. He has extended paternity leave and offered free medically assisted procreation to lesbian couples. The Economist magazine calls him a surreptitious or closet socialist.
Yet Macron has appointed two conservative prime ministers, and his tough rhetoric on political Islam and immigration, and the choice of a hard right interior minister, please the right-wing voters whose support he needs to gain re-election next April.
The "en même temps" balancing act sometimes reaches its limits. On August 16th, Macron delivered a televised address about the fall of Kabul. He spoke of "honour" and "values", but the core message was a promise to prevent "irregular migration" from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
The speech apparently had its desired effect because Macron’s approval rating shot up with right-wing voters. But the dissonance between his stance on immigration and television images of desperate Afghans falling off aeroplane wings came across as particularly heartless. It raised such an outcry from NGOs and the left that the government went into public relations overdrive, vaunting an airlift that has already brought more than 1,500 Afghans to French territory, and stressing that Macron’s France accepts close to 10,000 Afghan asylum seekers yearly.
Macron’s Achilles heel is the conviction on the part of many underprivileged, often rural, French people that he looks down on them. This grievance found expression in the 2018-19 yellow vest revolt, which focused anger on Macron personally. He quelled the unrest by throwing money at the protesters’ problems, and by engaging in a time-consuming “great debate” with ordinary people across the country.
Macron’s entourage criticise the media for focusing on anti-vaccine, anti-health-pass protesters this summer. They have numbered, at most, 240,000 in a country of 66 million. By contrast, 6.5 million people rushed to get vaccinated in the weeks following Macron’s July 12th television appeal.
An Ifop poll published on August 23rd gave Macron a 41 per cent approval rating, much higher than his predecessors at the same point in their terms of office. The economy is recovering, with six per cent growth predicted this year. It bodes well for Macron's re-election, as does the upcoming French presidency of the European Union. His entourage, nonetheless, fear popular disillusionment with politics, high abstention and the possible emergence of a successful rogue candidate.