‘The French elect a president to be a king. Then they want to cut his head off’
Analysis: Lara Marlowe on Emmanuel Macron’s first six months as president
On the throne: Emmanuel Macron in Paris shortly after his inauguration. Photograph: Charles Platiau/AFP/Getty
Six months ago tonight a 39-year-old from Picardy with almost no political experience but immense self-confidence made a solemn victory march across the courtyard of the Louvre. “Our task is enormous,” President-elect Emmanuel Macron repeated three times.
Having learnt from his predecessors’ failings, Macron tackled the most divisive issue first, revamping the labour code through the summer months, in the hope of unblocking France’s sclerotic labour market.
In just six months Macron has become the first French president in a decade to comply with the European Union’s 3 per cent budget-deficit ceiling. He established the principle of equal pay for equal work in the EU by persuading fellow leaders to limit contracts for “posted workers”. He ended the state of emergency declared on the night of the Paris massacres of November 13th, 2015. And he put a stop to the corrupt system that enabled parliamentarians to funnel government salaries to family members.
Napoleon allegedly made luck a chief criterion in choosing his generals. Macron’s phenomenal good fortune is legendary. He played the election lottery only once, and won the presidency of France. Then he defied predictions a second time, by winning a majority in the National Assembly.
Since Macron’s election France has been spared major terrorist attacks. The economy has begun to grow, buoyed by a favourable international environment. Protest against Macron’s reform of the labour code fizzled and died. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader of France Unbowed, admitted on October 28th that Macron is winning. There should have been an avalanche against the reform, Mélenchon said. “But it didn’t happen.” Mélenchon questioned why “the mechanisms of social resistance that France always developed in the past against liberal assaults” no longer function.
Macron’s foreign policy is a strange mix of idealism, on climate change, and realpolitik when he courts unpalatable leaders such as the presidents of Russia and the US
Political opposition to Macron remains in disarray. The now leaderless Socialist Party has been forced to put its historic headquarters up for sale. After poaching his prime minister, finance minister and budget minister from the conservative Les Républicains, Macron practically stole the party’s name too, rechristening his En Marche! movement La République en Marche.
Macron won 66 per cent of the vote, to 34 per cent for Marine Le Pen on May 7th, because the electorate rejected the extreme right-wing Front National. Riding the initial wave of euphoria, Macron had a 64 per cent approval rating at the end of June. That began falling in July, and it has stabilised at between 35 and 40 per cent since early August.
When Macron was an adviser to President François Hollande he told the press, “The French elect their president to be a monarch. Then they want to cut his head off.” It’s an apt description of his first six months in office.
Macron’s address to the joint houses of parliament in Versailles on July 3rd was the turning point. For upstaging his prime minister’s general policy speech in the royal palace, Macron was denounced as a would-be monarch and megalomaniac.
On one occasion Macron called opponents of his labour reform “slackers”. On another he accused striking workers of wanting to foutre le bordel, a crude way of saying they wanted to wreak havoc. These and earlier comments have been used as evidence of Macron’s “class contempt”.
Macron does not give up until he bends his interlocutor to his will. Most recently he turned his incredible powers of persuasion on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
The label “president of the rich” is the most damaging criticism of Macron. The 88 per cent of respondents who told an Odoxa poll last month that Macron’s economic policies favour the richest people in France were not wrong. Under pressure the finance ministry released statistics showing that Macron’s reform of the wealth tax, which will still be charged on property but no longer on capital investments, will save the richest 100 people in France an average of €582,380 a year.
Macron’s foreign policy is a strange mix of idealism, on climate change and the future of Europe, and realpolitik when he courts unpalatable leaders such as the presidents of Russia, the US and Egypt, and the prime minister of Israel, all of whom he has received in Paris. Europe is his greatest passion and, along with the French economy, the area where he could make the greatest difference.
I’ve heard it said that Macron is so charming he could seduce a chair. I find him energetic, high powered, even brilliant, but not particularly charming. Real charm is effortless. Macron does not give up until he bends his interlocutor to his will. He did it as a teenager, when he fell in love with a married teacher nearly 25 years his senior. Most recently he turned his incredible powers of persuasion on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. There is no sign yet he’ll convince Varadkar of the merits of reforming digital taxation.
Six months after his election Macron has undoubtedly changed France for the better. Much of the criticism against him has been unfair. The French may be impossible to satisfy.
If one has a reservation it is that one sometimes wonders what lies beneath the smooth, articulate Instagram and Facebook persona. If something seems too good to be true, they teach you at journalism school, it probably is. The French writer Michel Houellebecq said last January, “You don’t know where he comes from. He’s kind of a mutant.”
Personally, I sometimes wonder if the French president could be a replicant, as in the film Blade Runner.Macron gives the impression he’s a robot, so highly perfected that he fools us mere humans into believing he’s a member of our species.