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7 November 2018

Emmanuel Macron’s bad luck is mostly self-inflicted

And populists are biding their time to strike. 

By Pauline Bock

You might have heard that Emmanuel Macron is having a tough time lately. First he was criticised for not handling very well (read: not well at all) a crisis surrounding his bodyguard, who posed as a policeman and attacked protestors at a march. This pushed Macron’s declining ratings into free fall. Then his environment minister resigned. Then his sports minister resigned. Then one of his MPs resigned and compared the party to the Titanic. Then his home secretary resigned, and it took two weeks to replace him. Then his best European ally, Angela Merkel, decided it was time for her to call it quits, too. Come thinking of it, he’s had a tough time for a good six months now.

Manu is weakened in the polls, he is increasingly alone, and is said to be exhausted. Last week, he took four days off in Normandy, fuelling rumours of burn out. Outwardly, the “boss”, as he is called in his inner circle, shows signs of fatigue. For someone known to sleep only four hours a night who was elected for his youth and enthusiasm (and whose labour minister has declared that a burnout “isn’t a work-related illness”), exhaustion is far from ideal.

Macron will need all his strength for the months ahead: European elections are just around the corner, and his party La République En Marche, which last May was solidly ahead Marine Le Pen’s far right, has now fallen to 20 per cent in the latest poll – the same as Le Pen.

How did it come to this? When Macron was elected, all hailed the liberal hero who had defeated the nationalist threat of Le Pen. Now his ratings are lower than his predecessor, the famously unpopular president François Hollande.

“Macron is firstly the president of urban people, and of well-off France,” a Le Monde op-ed claimed recently. This is the key to Macron’s bad luck: most of it is self-inflicted. The French president has struggled to get rid of the “president of the rich” image that has stuck to him since the first summer of his mandate, when he simultaneously announced cuts to student housing aid while opposing taxes on the highest earners.

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He later admitted the housing aid cut was a “screw-up”, but his subsequent economic policies didn’t cut much slack as far as the working man was concerned, either. His reform of the French labour laws were heavily criticised for eroding workers’ rights to the profit of their employers. Next came the pensioners, who were asked to “make an effort” by Macron when his pensions reform slashed their spending power. Macron’s words to jobless people didn’t help, either. To a young gardener who had complained to the president that he couldn’t find work, Macron replied: “I cross the road and I find you one”, suggesting he should look in restaurant work instead.

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Macron is harshly questioned whenever he visits the “real” France. “Your policies are destroying us”, a pensioner told Macron during his WWI commemoration tour in Charleville-Mézières, in France’s north-east, this week. “Your reforms are unjust, you have penalised the pensioners, the middle class.” Another one, this time in Verdun: “Don’t you feel it, from Paris, the malaise that is mounting in France?”

The announced increase of the fuel tax, expected to rise 11.5 per cent by 2022, is the last straw for many. The row has bubbled from social media anger after a viral video asked: “When will this hunt against drivers end?” A day of national protest has been planned for 17 November. “Wait for the 17th, you’ll see”, a local in Charleville-Mézières told Macron. “You won’t do your five years [mandate]”, he added.

Don’t you hear the people sing, Manu? Marine Le Pen, who after her defeat rebranded her National Front party “National Rally”, does. She has limited opposition power: her eight MPs weren’t enough to form a parliamentary group (15 are needed) and can’t weigh against Macron’s party La République En Marche’s 308-strong majority.

But she’s used to to biding her time – the party is known for its big wins at European elections – and has made sure to answer every one of Macron’s unpopular policies. The new labour laws? “A destruction of France”. The pensions reform? “A series of traps.” The National Rally, famously prudent in supporting marches, has offered its official support to the 17 November protest.

Workers, pensioners, jobless people, drivers: from the non-urban people who need their car to the less well-off, many different groups of voters are angry against Macron. Once only focusing on immigration (and they still do that very well), Le Pen’s populists now only need addressing the French people’s economic woes to find, at the very least, a welcome ear. Macron might want to remember who he faced in last year’s run-off. This year’s European election result is likely to be quite different.