French politics: Emmanuel Macron comes back to earth

President still has more cause for optimism than the rivals he left in his wake

 

The “Jupiterian president”, as his staff lovingly call Emmanuel Macron, is quickly falling back to earth. Three months after he redrew the map of French politics with a remarkable victory in the presidential election, the 39-year-old’s popularity is in rapid decline. Some 54 per cent of French voters were satisfied with Macron as of late July, according to the pollster Ifop – a slump of 10 percentage points in a month. That’s the biggest decline for a new president since Jacques Chirac in 1995. It’s a measure of Macron’s predicament that an attempt this week to act on a harmless if largely pointless campaign pledge to give official “first lady” status, but no extra money or responsibilities, to his wife Brigitte has become mired in recriminations.

Some of the problems Macron is encountering come with the job. His two immediate predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, also suffered sharp, albeit somewhat slower, dips in the polls after taking office. He has also moved on campaign pledges that big sections of society don’t like. Left-leaning voters, for example, are uneasy with his plan to loosen the labour code and shrink the social safety net. One of his greatest strengths as a candidate – his non-party status – is a vulnerability in office, as it leaves him without a dedicated, organised support base with unshakeable allegiance to his cause.

But some of Macron’s problems are of his own making. His public row with the military over cuts to defence spending, which culminated in the resignation of the head of the armed services, General Pierre de Villiers, was a badly-handled spectacle that alienated the right in particular. His breezy contempt for the media has coloured coverage of his early days at the Élysée, while his determination to restore prestige to the presidency can come across as a burgeoning Napoleon complex. French voters may not have liked Hollande riding around Paris on his scooter, but the sight of Macron striding theatrically into the Château de Versailles to a drumroll and an escort from the Republican guard strikes a discordant note in a country where unemployment and job insecurity remain chronic problems.

Still, it would be wrong to exaggerate Macron’s troubles. The left is weak and the right is divided. He has an unassailable majority in parliament, giving him ample space to act on his agenda.

Macron’s unlikely rise has given a shot in the arm to France’s sclerotic political system, while his vigour and clever diplomacy, notably by aligning himself closely with Angela Merkel and attempting to project a sense of liberal-democratic leadership in the vacuum left by Donald Trump, have amplified France’s voice on the international stage. As French political leaders lie on the beach contemplating a difficult autumn ahead, Macron still has more cause for optimism than the rivals he left in his wake.

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