Troubles mount for embattled Macron
The past three years have not been easy for French President Emmanuel Macron. A fuel tax sparked the “gilets jaunes” protests, an attempt to reform the outdated pension system led to widespread public-sector strikes, and his government is accused of an inadequate response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now municipal elections have not ended well for Macron. The environmentalist EELV and its socialist allies put mayors into Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux, Anne Hidalgo retained Paris only after endorsing their green agenda, and Marine Le Pen’s far-right party captured Perpignan. La Republique En Marche (LREM), the party Macron founded before the 2017 general election, won no major metropolis.
Macron has about two years to reposition himself before he faces another presidential election, and his first move was to replace his prime minister. Edouard Philippe’s popularity rating in March, when the pandemic took hold in France, was 27 percent compared with 39 percent for Macron. By last week that had been reversed to 43 percent for the prime minister and 35 percent for the president.
It is rarely a winning strategy to overshadow one’s boss. Philippe resigned on Friday, to be replaced by the relatively unknown Jean Castex, mayor of Prades in the Pyrenees Mountains and a formidable and efficient technocrat. Like Macron and Philippe, he is a graduate of the ecole nationale d’administration, the school for France’s elite. Castex is known as “M. Deconfinement” because he led the coordination of efforts by national, regional and local administrations to ease the COVID-19 lockdown. He is also the national coordinator for the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Macron has about two years to reposition himself before he faces another presidential election, and his first move was to replace his prime minister.
Castex is a safe pair of hands and does not seek the limelight, which is important before an election, but the president’s choice tells us more than that. Macron held a senior role on socialist President Francois Hollande’s staff, but his politics since then have moved right. Philippe and Castex both come from the ranks of the pro-business Republicans. Some on the left and among the environmentalists believe Macron has merely replaced one right-wing prime minister with another.
The next two years will be no easier for Macron than the past three. He has already admitted that the path to economic recovery after the pandemic will not be without obstacles. Also, no matter how much he espouses the environmental agenda, it will not be economically straightforward; environmentally sensible tax increases on gasoline and diesel gave birth to the gilets jaune. So in the short run at least there may well be a trade-off between environmental and economic policies.
It is easy to criticize those who govern; pleasing some of the electorate inevitably angers others. On the European stage, however, Macron was at least able to co-opt German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s backing for the EU’s pandemic rescue package, which was no mean feat; Germany has form for financial prudence and balancing its budget, and the package was supported even by Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s famously frugal former finance minister. Whatever happens to Macron and his party in the next election, he deserves congratulations for his efforts to forge a compromise in Europe during the pandemic — very much in de Gaulle’s tradition of France as “La Grande Nation.”
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources