Vidya Ram

French President belies expectations

Vidya Ram | Updated on August 31, 2018

Facing the heat: Emmanuel Macron is no longer the toast of France   -  Reuters

Going back on election promises, high-handedness and a host of blunders have pushed Macron’s popularity to a new low

Earlier this week, Nicolas Hulot, France’s ecology minister, dropped a political bombshell when he announced his resignation live on radio, even before having informed his cabinet colleagues, and President Emmanuel Macron. Hulot, a long-standing and popular environmental campaigner, pointed to his increasing frustration with the government’s lack of action on environmental and green policy, despite Macron’s campaign and early pledges to be one of the global leaders of the issue, as well his wider concerns with the way the government was being run.

The final “drop of water” had been the presence of Thierry Coste, an influential lobbyist, including for France’s active hunting advocates, at a meeting at the Elysee Palace (the official residence of Macron) on the future of hunting in France. Like in much of Europe, hunting is a divisive issue both within countryside and urban communities in France, with the practitioners pushing for further easing of restrictions, while others, including countryside residents, have been pushing for tougher rules, particularly because of concerns around safety(including instances of individuals killed accidentally when out walking in the countryside). Hulot suggested the presence of Coste was a worrying and potentially anti-democratic direction for politics in France.

The development is the latest setback for Macron, who came to power last year, touted — in international circles at least — as the golden boy of France, and the only one capable of challenging the burgeoning power of the far right in the country. Alongside presenting himself as the front against the right, Macron had sought to pitch himself as the answer to France’s social and economic woes, with pledges to clean up French politics by doing away with cronyism, by, among other things, banning the hiring of family members by politicians and tightening up of expenses rules. He had also pledged to reform France’s labour laws, including according employers more flexibility to hire and fire workers.

However, a number of early blunders began to dent popularity, earning him the tongue-in-cheek nickname “Jupiter” for his seeming belief that he existed on a different plane to other mortals. His decision to deliver a “state of the union” style address — similar to that given by US presidents — outlining his vision of France was seen as grandiose by many rather than inspiring, with some suggesting an element of Bonapartism.

Image of arrogance

Equally disastrous was talk of giving his wife, Brigitte, the official (and salaried) job of France’s First Lady. The idea was swiftly dropped after thousands signed a petition against it. The huge makeup and hairdressing bill (the latter was put at over €60,000 a year for the presidential couple) suggested that the image of him as the arrogant president wasn’t misplaced. A range of incidents have backed up this assessment: earlier this year he was captured on video humiliating a young fan for calling him “Manu” (the affectionate abbreviation for “Emmanuel” he had earned from some of his admirers). “You should call me Mr President,” he imperiously told the young man.

While changing labour laws had been one of his election pledges, Macron faced domestic criticism by defiantly using executive orders to push the changes through — leading to unflattering parallels drawn between him and the US President. Further, such parallels were drawn after, early on in his presidency, he introduced steep cuts on corporation and wealth tax, which meant that domestically at least he was increasingly viewed as of the right rather than the centrist position he had propounded during the campaign.

His hope of funding improvements to schools and other services by rolling back pension scheme arrangements (including by breaking the link with inflation) has gone down like a lead balloon, particularly among older voters who formed a core part of his support base (three quarters of pensioners in France are estimated to have backed Macron in the election last year).

His willingness to stick by promises has also come under scrutiny, with a number of decisions suggesting this amounting to little more than rhetoric. For example, after having condemned Italy for turning away a migrant rescue ship with hundreds of people aboard, Macron refused to agree to France being part of an agreement to set up processing centres for asylum seekers across Europe, insisting that France was not a front-line country and should not be party to it. Last year, just months after taking over as President, he told a Moroccan asylum seeker that she should “go back to your country” because France could not “welcome all the misery in the world” — comments that many felt were more in tune with the National Front that Macron had stood against rather than the open En Marche vision that he had championed through the election.

Macron’s popularity by July last year, just two months after taking over as President, according to a poll by one newspaper there, had suffered the biggest decline since Jacques Chirac in 1995.

However, it is the past couple of months that have been the most damaging: Macron had little chance to revel in the World Cup victory in the way he would have hoped having gone to the final himself. Just days after France triumphed, the newspaper Le Monde obtained footage that showed that Alexandre Benalla, a close aide of Macron, dressed as a police officer — with helmet, arm band and walkie-talkie — had beaten up a protester and dragged another away during May Day protests in Paris.

Not only had the Elysee Palace been aware of the issue but it had failed to report it to police. Moreover, Benalla had initially been suspended for two weeks supposedly without pay, though it emerged that even during this period he had in fact been paid. It took several days after Le Monde’s revelations for Macron to respond and even then he failed to treat it with the seriousness many accorded it — describing it at one point as a storm in a tea-cup, while at another he sought to attack the media and its treatment of the issue, again in a way that many felt harkened to Trump’s verbal attacks on journalism.

Political fallout

His critics of course have seized on the incidents to question the whole premise of Macron’s electoral campaign, that he was pitching a new France, freed from cronyism and favouritism. His popularity levels have fallen to their lowest level since he took over as President, while the political fallout from the scandal is set to become apparent as lawmakers return from the lengthy summer break.

Of course the primary factor governing Macron’s future popularity is likely to be the economy, which for now continues at a lacklustre pace (the government cut its growth forecasts for the year to 1.7 per cent), which is set to put additional pressure on the public deficit targets.

For now, however, Hulot’s resignation is a symbol of the mismatch between the high expectations of Macron in the election campaign and the reality of office. Hulot had been courted by previous presidents and his willingness to join the Macron administration had highlighted the hubris around Macron. His departure is surely a reflection of how swiftly that has eroded.

Published on August 31, 2018

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