Macron’s reform agenda in dire straits
As a politician who came to power on a ticket of hope and change, French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform agenda is in dire straits. Once the darling of the young and liberals, his party is increasingly recognized as now being right of center. In the midst of a scandal concerning one of his aides, the champion of the youth — now more commonly known as “Jupiter” or “Napoleon” — is desperate to get his vision for France back on track.
Following encouraging growth figures in the spring, the last consumer spending figures in July were weak, while consumer confidence declined in August. The economic situation is not helping a government weakened by the departure of its most popular minister live on radio earlier this week.
Government plans to rein in spending have been controversial as they will include cutting family and housing benefits, in addition to the contentious plan to stop pegging pensions to inflation. With thousands having already protested against cuts and labor reforms, the president’s ratings have taken a dive this summer. In July, two surveys showed that his approval score went from a low-40s recorded in January to an all-time low of 32 percent.
To many, it seems that the reform atmosphere and initial optimism generated by Macron is now giving way to a more traditional French story: Increasing savings are limiting spending, which is limiting demand and therefore employment growth.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Scandals surrounding luxurious additions to the Elysee Palace and a decision to build a swimming pool at Bregancon, the 17th-century fortress that is the president’s summer residence, have turned public opinion against him.
This is not the first time the presidential couple have been in hot water for their spending habits. Shortly after Macron’s election win in May, the Elysee was forced to admit that the couple had spent €26,000 ($30,329) on makeup in three months, and around €50,000 on new crockery. Nevertheless, isolated reports of presidential home comforts belittle the scale of difficulties that Macron is facing.
Despite having promised to reinvigorate the economy, unemployment has grown almost every month since March. The government must urgently cut public spending and reorganize the economy if it is to become globally competitive. Spending growth is still below 1 percent on the year. This has been in decline since mid-2015 despite improvements in consumer confidence.
To many, it seems that the reform atmosphere and initial optimism generated by Macron is now giving way to a more traditional French story: Increasing savings are limiting spending, which is limiting demand and therefore employment growth. With the government planning to cut 4,500 public jobs next year and more than 10,000 in 2020, Macron will have a difficult time keeping public opinion onside.
The most damaging issue during his presidency has been the affair concerning Alexandre Benalla, Macron’s top bodyguard, who is under investigation after he was filmed beating a May Day protester. The scandal was not only uncomfortable for the president, but also raised serious questions about his leadership style and attitude toward the general public.
Lawmakers from the ruling party had hoped to reform France’s constitution and Parliament. However, the Benalla affair has reinvigorated the opposition and forced the government to suspend parliamentary debate on constitutional reform while it handled the crisis.
The departure of environment minister and government heavyweight Nicolas Hulot has weakened Macron further. With critics noting the government’s marked shift to the right, the departure of a leading liberal such as Hulot deals a blow to Macron’s image as a reformist.
With the most popular minister in the government pessimistic about the president’s ability to instigate real change, it is clear that the implementation of the party’s reform agenda will not be without difficulty. The hero of the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, has been incessant in trying to derail the reform program, tweeting before the summer recess that “we haven’t yet finished dethroning France’s monarchs.”
As the EU continues to face troubles, and with the transatlantic relationship that Macron worked to build showing mixed results, he has plenty to occupy him alongside troubles at home. With inequality being the major challenge in moving France forward, the president must address issues regarding his leadership style that have contributed to recent crises.
If the government is to cut 120,000 public sector jobs over his five-year term while also striving to achieve economic growth, the growing backdrop of Macron’s sliding popularity will make his job much harder. Where extreme self-belief has caused him some difficulty, the president would do better to channel this into efforts to get France moving, just as he had promised during his election campaign.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).