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26 September 2018

Macron’s black September: how the French president fell to Earth

To the outside world, Macron still appears something of a success. But in France, his approval rating has dropped to just 23 per cent.

By Andrew Hussey

The autumn, to put it mildly, has not begun well for the government of President Emmanuel Macron. In France, this time of year is known as la rentrée, the moment when most French people return from their summer holidays and regather their energies. Traditionally, the president will address the nation in a set-piece speech and outline his vision for the future. It is as much a fixed part of the French calendar as the Queen’s Christmas message in the UK.

This year, however, Macron has broken with tradition and deferred his address until October. Officially, this is because the “modalities” of the speech have yet to be concluded. Unofficially, it is clear that Macron is buying time to address a series of unforeseen crises that arose at the end of the summer. Nobody in the Élysée Palace will admit it, but the overall mood is now one of panic and confusion.

The greatest challenge facing Macron is the resignations, in swift succession, of three ministers. The first to depart was Nicolas Hulot, the 63-year-old environment minister, who quit at the end of August. Macron had no inkling that Hulot, a green activist who declined job offers from previous presidents, would resign. Worse still was that he resigned live on public radio, declaring that the Macron government was doing little or nothing to tackle climate change.

This resignation was followed a week later by that of Laura Flessel, the sports minister, amid rumours of financial mismanagement, and finally – most damaging of all – the announcement by the 71-year-old interior minister Gérard Collomb that he intended to leave the government to run for his previous post as mayor of Lyon in 2020. Collomb is a grizzled veteran and a political heavyweight who helped give Macron’s newly founded party En Marche! much-needed credibility on the left. In a long interview with L’Express, Collomb made no direct attack on Macron, remarking only that the government – meaning the president himself – “lacked humility”.

This much has long been clear to the French public in Macron’s response to the Benalla affair – the scandal surrounding the arrest of one of his chief bodyguards, Alexandre Benalla, for impersonating a police officer and beating up protesters at a May Day rally. One of the lingering mysteries of the case is why Macron was so secretive and so slow to punish Benalla – who continues to change his already bizarre account of his role in the president’s team.

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Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly known as the National Front) has been on the offensive, warning that the Benalla affair could become the Macron affair. The president has promised finally to address the matter in his October speech, leaving the impression that he is at best unsure of the facts himself.

For all this, to the outside world, 40-year-old Macron – France’s youngest leader since Napoleon – still appears something of a success. Within the European Union specifically, he is regarded as a skilful, hard-headed diplomat. As his humiliation of Theresa May at the Salzburg summit demonstrated, he is at ease confronting the UK government and the Brexit project (though he has been less successful in persuading Angela Merkel of the need for eurozone reform).

It is, however, a markedly different story in France. The French are increasingly impatient for visible signs that the reforms Macron promised during his 2017 election campaign are being delivered and bearing fruit. As it is, Macron appears to the French public as arrogant and detached from reality, an image not helped when the president recently snapped at an unemployed gardener that he had only “to cross the street to get a job”. It was a moment comparable to Norman Tebbit’s 1981 exhortation to the unemployed to get on their bikes and find work.

The most recent YouGov polls show that Macron’s approval rating has fallen to just 23 per cent, below his previous nadir of 27 per cent in August.

Alarmingly for France’s self-styled “Jupiterian” saviour, this is even worse than his Socialist predecessor François Hollande, who was previously the most unpopular French president in history (though it bears remembering that Macron won just 24 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 2017 election before his landslide victory against Le Pen in the run-off). At the same time, the French far right are once more advancing towards the mainstream. Le Pen’s party is almost tied with Macron’s in polling for the 2019 European elections.

Meanwhile, the president’s chief left-wing opponent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who finished fourth in the 2017 election with 19.6 per cent of the vote), is now the country’s most popular political leader.

Many of Macron’s supporters argue that his travails reflect negative but mistaken perceptions – that, for instance, as a former Rothschild banker, he is “the president of the rich” and disdainful of ordinary people. This is simply not true, they insist, pointing to his recently announced €8bn “war on poverty”, which aims to aid the nine million French people who live below the breadline.

The defining question is whether the president is enduring a fatal crisis or merely a traditional, if severe, mid-term slump. Macron has a gift for improvisation and for turning seemingly intractable situations to his advantage. But he will still struggle to regain the momentum of 2017, when he won the presidency only a year after founding his party. The consolation is that he will not face the electorate again until 2022.

Yet even Macron’s most faithful supporters fear that, without a radical remaking of his image, he could be permanently tarnished. The French president may be a “republican monarch” but the electorate craves more than patrician aloofness. 

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs”

This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis