Emmanuel Macron is an unlikely insurgent. A technocratic ex-banker with an elite education and a career that spanned the upper reaches of Parisian business and government, the 39-year-old is in some ways the physical embodiment of the French ruling class. Yet six months into his presidency, Macron surveys a political landscape that, thanks largely to his own disruptive influence, is unrecognisable from that which any of his recent precedessors had to contend with.
It would have been unthinkable, even two years ago, that France would be led by an Independent with no electoral experience, that his hastily-assembled movement would have a majority in the National Assembly and that the two blocs that shared power throughout the postwar period would be in disarray. He did this not by ignoring or pandering to the far-right, as did François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, respectively, but by taking the fight to it.
His stunning rise set a standard that Macron as president, hemmed in by institutions and the strictures of office, would always struggle to meet. But, six months in, his presidency already has important achievements to its name. He has become the first French president to comply with the EU’s 3 per cent budget-deficit ceiling and has begun to overhaul France’s 3,000-page labour code. Street protests against the latter fizzled out.
Macron has also been lucky: there has been no large-scale terrorist attack on his watch, the economy has begun to expand, Brexit is jump-starting the Franco-German motor at the heart of the EU, and the United States's retreat from global leadership under Donald Trump has enabled the French president to take a lead on issues such as global warming. He may be a policy wonk, but Macron's fondness for grand narratives – as demonstrated by his full-throated defence of the European project – has provided an antidote to the narrow proceduralism of modern European politics.
The focus on the president’s slipping opinion polls ratings is overdone, but Macron still has a long way to go to make good on his promise. He can be aloof and distant, and his plan to reduce the symbolically important wealth tax has helped to make the “president of the rich” label stick. Ultimately, his assault on sacred cows will be measured by his ability to bring down France’s chronic unemployment rate – a quarter of the country’s young people are looking for work – and address persistent problems in housing and education.
Europe has a lot riding on Macron's presidency. If he succeeds where his precedessors have failed and improves France's economic fortunes while helping to give the EU a new sense of purpose, he will have dealt a blow to the right-wing populists at home and abroad. But the converse is also true. If he fails, Marine Le Pen will be the first to benefit.