As Emmanuel Macron approaches his 100th day in office, hope that he would reconcile the French with both each other and free market economics is fading. The French president has made strategic errors, particularly in communicating his vision, but his fall from grace is due more to his compatriots' character.
Macron had a 64 per cent approval rating in late June. That fell to 54 per cent in late July, and 36 per cent by August 3rd. Never has a French president fallen so far so fast.
The summer silly season and the 24-hour news cycle, which amplify every misstep, are partly to blame.
The French give Macron little credit for having restored the country's international stature
Jérôme Fourquet of the Ifop polling company explains Macron’s “brutal re-entry into the atmosphere” thus: “After totally mastering the election sequence, and showing his power in international summits, Macron crashed into reality.”
There is, alas, a great deal of truth to stereotypes about the perennially dissatisfied, ungovernable French. The desire to “burn what one has worshipped” is a national trait, recorded at the coronation of King Clovis in the fifth-century.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left Insoumis or “unbowed” movement, exploited class hatred against Macron during the campaign, addressing him as “Monsieur le banquier”.
François Ruffin, a documentary film-maker turned parliamentary deputy, competes with Mélenchon as Macron's most vociferous opponent. Ruffin published an open letter in Le Monde two days before the election. "You are hated. You are hated, You are hated," he wrote. "I hammer it home because … with the bourgeoisie that surround you, you are socially deaf."
The French give Macron little credit for having restored the country's international stature. Since taking office he's been the star of every summit, and has received three of the world's most controversial leaders, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu, in Paris.
When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord on June 2nd, Macron’s rejoinder, “make our planet great again!” made him an international hero.
Macron's promotion of women in his En marche! movement increased their representation in the National Assembly from 27 per cent to 39 per cent. Some 48 per cent of his cabinet are women. They hold the crucial portfolios of defence, justice and labour.
This week a virtually unknown actor with links to the far-left launched a petition demanding a referendum on Macron's desire to "write a job description" for the first lady Brigitte Macron. Some 300,000 internauts turned a non-issue into a cause célèbre.
Macron’s opponents misogynistically tried to use his wish to define his wife’s role to harm him. Do they expect Brigitte Macron to remain unseen and unheard in republican purdah?
At Macron's insistence, important legislation passed this summer. The law on the moralisation of political life prevents parliamentarians from hiring spouses and offspring, forces them to justify expense accounts, and ends the slush fund known as the réserve parlementaire.
A law enabling the government to rule by decree is the prelude to Macron’s reform of the labour code. The decrees will be presented to social partners on August 31st, and voted in cabinet on September 21st.
The conviction that France will not reduce high unemployment or restore competitiveness unless employers are allowed to hire and fire more easily is at the heart of the labour reform. The communist CGT trade union has called for mass protests on September 12th. Mélenchon's Insoumis will take to the streets 11 days later.
Macron’s plummeting popularity results largely from his determination to comply with the EU’s 3 per cent cap on deficit spending .
Civil servants, who comprise 20 per cent of the French workforce, are furious they will not receive an inflation-indexed salary rise, and will no longer be paid for the first day of sick leave. Absenteeism costs the state €170 million annually.
Macron called the housing ministry’s announcement that it will enforce a €5 reduction in the monthly housing allowance “incredibly stupid”. The measure, which was decided under his predecessor, will nonetheless take effect on October 1st.
Price of a beer
For the price of a beer in a Paris café, students and defenders of the poor have turned against Macron.
A 1.7 per cent increase in the tax that pays for social welfare programmes, the CSG, has also angered voters. They conveniently forget that social charges deducted from salaries will decrease by 3.15 per cent, a net gain for French workers.
The world envies France its brilliant, dynamic, young president. The French appear determined to destroy him
During the campaign Macron promised to do away with the "habitation tax", based on place of residence, for 80 per cent of the population. Prime minister Edouard Philippe announced on July 4th that the tax cut would be postponed for two years. Macron quickly reversed the announcement, but it was the executive's worst gaffe.
The habitation tax benefits local governments. Macron further angered the notables who will elect the senate next month by cutting €300 million in other funding for the provinces.
Macron justified his decision to do away with the ISF wealth tax on capital investments on the grounds that a thriving bourse would stimulate the economy. It’s one of his most unpopular measures. For the left it has confirmed he is “the president of the rich”.
Macron's sacking of the chief-of-staff of the armed forces, Pierre de Villiers, over the pace of increases in the defence budget hurt him with right-wing and centrist voters.
“I will not be screwed,” de Villiers told the National Assembly’s defence commission on July 12th.
“I’m the boss,” Macron replied the following day at a Bastille Day reception.
Macron could hardly have reacted otherwise to de Villiers’s insubordination.
Polls indicate more than 80 per cent of the French crave strong authority. Yet they seem to reject it on the part of a young man. Had the failed conservative candidate Alain Juppé, age 71, become president and sacked de Villiers, age 61, no one would have complained.
It all adds up to a catalogue of petty, often disingenuous, grievances. The world envies France its brilliant, dynamic, young president. The French appear determined to destroy him.
Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent