Embattled Macron absent without leave
Coming to power following a series of surprise victories that left him with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, Emmanuel Macron was touted as France’s great hope, and he soon enacted long-delayed economic and social reforms to little opposition. In these pages in August 2017, this author warned of the president’s growing autocratic tendencies, as he increasingly became known as “Jupiter.” This winter, Jupiter has been rapidly hurtling to earth as the president struggles to reign in rioting and avoid scandal.
In early December, Macron’s approval rating sunk to a record low of 23 percent, down from 34 percent in August — interestingly, even lower than Donald Trump’s ratings in France. With a tough reform agenda on the horizon, it is increasingly difficult to envisage how he will retain control, with European elections in 2019 and local elections in 2020.
Last spotted in Chad visiting French peacekeeping troops on Dec. 22, French media outlets have reported that Macron’s entourage has requested that their charge cancel a planned ski tip and avoid increased attention in light of the Benalla affair and the “Yellow Vests” mayhem. Seeking to avoid high-profile public relations blunders, staff at the Elysee have used the opportunity to claim that the president is spending time with his family. A far cry from brazen statements such as “if they’re looking for the person at fault, it’s me. They can come and get me,” and “the Republic is untouchable,” which were made during the Benalla scandal. It seems the president is at great pains to avoid drawing unnecessary criticism.
If the case of one of his bodyguards beating up a protester was not enough, France has recently been in the throes of a protest movement that frequently boiled over into violent rioting, the likes of which have not been seen in France in half a century. The Yellow Vests movement was borne out of fury over tax hikes and the high cost of living under Macron, who has increasingly been dubbed as “the president of the rich.”
It may be that the popular protest movements have boxed in Macron and his reform agenda. If this is the case, it may very well be that he becomes the third president in a row to fail to win re-election.
Zaid M. Belbagi
As a moneyed former Rothschild banker, Macron has struggled to connect with ordinary voters. Facing what at times has resembled a state of insurrection and anarchy, the president and his En Marche government are looking increasingly precarious just 18 months into their five-year term. As the protests continued into early December, the president announced a package of measures for low-income workers, estimated by economists to cost up to 15 billion euros ($17 billion). He also acknowledged widespread animosity toward him and reportedly came close to apologizing for a series of verbal gaffes seen as dismissive of the jobless.
Coming to power with an agenda to curb France’s rampant public spending and to make the economy more competitive, Macron has been forced to increase France’s minimum wage and scrap new pension taxes in response to weeks of violent protests. Whether he can get popular protest movements back in the bottle for the rest of his time in office will be a key question.
The president’s capitulation during the crisis was a marked climb down from his economic ambitions, making him a less potent force both at home and abroad. In November, Macron lectured world leaders on building a more just international system on the Armistice centenary; now, in the aftermath of protests against his arguably unjust policies, he seems a shadow of the former version of himself that adorned international front covers as “Europe’s savior.”
It may be that the popular protest movements have boxed in Macron and his reform agenda. If this is the case, it may very well be that he becomes the third president in a row to fail to win re-election. Obsessed with the COP20 carbon reduction targets agreed at Lima in 2014, Macron has shown an inability to understand the concerns of voters by pursuing an agenda that is only a sideshow to his greater promise to reform the French economy. With Paris witness to such instability and the president’s reform agenda far from complete, how Macron continues to promote a shiny new France brimming with jobs and opportunities whilst the 8th arrondissement is carpeted with shards of glass remains to be seen.
As the UK and the EU reach a critical endgame in their negotiations, the decline of Europe’s would-be leader is all too clear. France — its economy also hobbled by an overvalued euro — joins Spain, Italy, Germany and Belgium as another leading EU member that is in a state of social or political crisis, or both. The pooling of sovereignty, carbon emissions and the combining of European military resources mean nothing to the Yellow Vests, who, like others, seek to perpetuate the French state’s unrealistic public spending and sympathetic labor laws as the country slips further behind its competitors.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid