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How Macron's strategic balancing act is wobbling

As France's 2022 presidential race looms, can the self-styled "Jupiter" hold his voters on the left?

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When the then economy minister Emmanuel Macron launched his party, En Marche, in 2016, he mused in an interview on the Franco-German channel Arte that the real divide in French politics was not between left and right. Rather, he contrasted “conservatives,” who benefitted from the red tape and chumminess of France’s expansive bureaucracy, with his camp, the “progressives” who wanted to tear up the system, sweep away the old guard and instil a spirit of daring entrepreneurialism in government.

The political environment had never been more favourable for a centrist insurgent in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election. The incumbent, François Hollande, had approval ratings in the single digits and had decided not to seek re-election. François Fillon, the candidate of the mainstream right, became mired in a corruption scandal during the campaign. The rising fortunes of Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far-left and Marine Le Pen on the far-right horrified many voters, who craved the opportunity to vote for a sensible centrist.

The 39-year-old Macron, sensing a space in the political centre, entered the race, pledging that his administration would draw from both the left and right, combining a social conscience with a zeal for loosening the state’s hold on the economy. The argument convinced voters of an array of political views, who propelled him to the second round of the election, in which he comfortably defeated Le Pen. One poll showed that close to half of Macron’s voters in the first round had voted for the socialist Hollande five years prior.

Three years later, the triangulation that helped Macron win victory and trounce both main parties – transforming him into a hero for disaffected centrists across the Channel in the process – has withered. He has kept to his promises to liberalise the economy, cutting a symbolic wealth tax and dropping the “exit tax” on capital gains hated by business leaders, but now offers increasingly little to his left-wing voters. His approval ratings have dropped sharply, from close to 60 per cent when he was elected to 38 per cent today, according to polling by BVA, but the political field remains just as fragmented as when he first ran for president.

Latest French presidential election voting intention

Macron and Le Pen would fight it out in the second round

Macron is still the most likely candidate to hold back Le Pen on the far-right in the 2022 elections. But as the coronavirus promises to upend the last two years of his term more profoundly than even the gilets jaunes protests, he must now face up to the consequences of his shifting ideology and style of governance.

Over his term, Macron has metamorphosed from a radical who promised to shake up the system to an incumbent surrounded by staid establishment figures. He has gone from rejecting the left-right binary to firmly throwing in his lot with the right, barely paying lip service to left-wing priorities, and appointing the Sarkozyite Jean Castex as prime minister. Can he hold together both halves of his electoral coalition to secure a second term in the next presidential election in 2022?

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Key to Macron’s mission is economic liberalisation. Before being a candidate for president, he was economy minister and made his name backing a law to free up swathes of the economy. As president, he has continued in the same vein, pushing through tax cuts and slashing red tape. While it appeared for a time that Macron’s ambitions to loosen the labour market and cut the costs of the lavish pension system would be tempered by the coronavirus crisis, he has latterly signalled that he will not change course for his last two years. Those close to him see no reason to significantly change his economic course, which they view as the defining task of his presidency and the reason why he was elected.

But Covid-19 brought out a different, more prototypically Gallic side to a man stereotyped by his opponents as a Thatcherite liberal. He has proven comfortable referring to the omnipotence of the state, airily assuring citizens at the onset of the crisis that “l’Etat paiera” (“the state will pay”). Shahin Vallée, an economist who advised Macron while he was economy minister, tells me the pandemic prompted the president to embrace economic dirigisme, with which he is more instinctively comfortable than his opponents would care to admit. He has floated the re-nationalisation of the flag carrier Air France and is pumping hundreds of billions of euros into the economy in response to the crisis. “A part of him is still very statist in many ways,” Vallée says.

Macron dropped his greying prime minister of three years, Édouard Philippe, after the immediate crisis ebbed, seemingly in part because of Philippe’s greater concern for fiscal discipline. The conflict between the two men foreshadows Macron’s thorny challenge at the next election: coaxing both flanks of his electoral coalition into backing him once more.

Just as significant a challenge is addressing concerns around Macron’s style of leadership, which is often perceived as aloof and disconnected. In 2017 the former Rothschild banker’s force of personality allowed him to come from nowhere to sweep away the main two parties, winning not only the presidential election but giving his new outfit, En Marche, a majority in parliament. Irène Tolleret, who joined the party during the presidential campaign and was later elected as an MEP, fervently describes a man “who was making history at a young age”. Yet three years since the election, that strength of character appears a weakness. His critics dub Macron remote, out of touch – and perhaps most devastatingly of all for a professed reformist, ineffective.

“He profoundly misunderstood how to change a country. His view was that in a top-down, almost monarchical system like France’s, you just needed to have a reformist at the top for everything to trickle down,” Vallée tells me. “He tried to bypass civil society, trade unions – all the necessary stakeholders, which he viewed as sources of conservativism and resistance to change. But more often than not, he’s found himself stuck.” Vallée cites Macron getting bogged down with pension reform, which he has been trying to pass for more than six months, as an example.

See also: Simon Kuper on how Emmanuel Macron charmed a nation

The problem extends to his relationship with his party. En Marche is a hollow shell, propelled by the force of personality of the man whose initials it shares, but with little substance besides. It has no storied past, nor local organisation to speak of. It was punished for its feeble ground game with a thrashing in local elections in June. “Macron’s party came ex nihilo and it never really managed to create a presence on the ground,” says Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, an MEP for the French Greens, whose party performed well in last month's municipal elections.

“I think Macron stopped listening once he arrived at the Élysée,” a staffer who worked on Macron’s 2017 campaign says, on condition of anonymity. “One reason why is the position of the party. En Marche, as a political party, is incredibly weak compared to the traditional relationship between government and the party. And there is one person who wanted that to happen: Macron.” Had the president been better able to tune into signals of brewing discontent emanating from overlooked parts of the country, the former staffer believes, he would have been able to anticipate emerging challenges to his authority such as the gilets jaunes protests.

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One area in which Macron is shifting in response to public opinion is a growing focus on the environment, which looks set to mark the the last stretch of his term. The Élysée does not see the Greens as a huge electoral threat: the environmentalist vote is mainly an urban phenomenon confined to young people living in France’s biggest cities, many of which are now led by Green mayors. Still, there is a sense within the party that the climate will be a key part of the 2022 election. “Covid was an unknown natural event which has obliterated economies. It should focus our minds on the fact that we have in front of us a natural event which is going to cause fundamental damage to our lives which we know is coming, and that is climate change,” says Alexandre Holroyd, a member of parliament for the ruling party. “Coronavirus is a foretaste of what will happen if we do not accelerate the fight against climate change.”

Many observers are cynical, arguing that nudging growth and employment up, rather than protecting the environment, has always been Macron’s overriding concern, especially as coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the economy. Macron is doing little more than tapping into a growing public appetite for an issue that is not an instinctive priority for him, says the former campaign staffer: “The climate was not a big issue for him when he first started running for president. His increasing focus on the environment is a reaction to what people want.”

“I think his focus on environmental policies is opportunistic. I think he realises that this is something he needs to position himself towards, but I see no commitment on the environmental front – other than grandstanding and slogans,” says Vallée.

Vallée adds that Macron’s proximity to corporate interests is holding him back from taking drastic action on the environment. “On some of the key issues, the French establishment is deeply anti-environmental. EDF [a state electricity provider], which is really a state within a state, is fully wedded to nuclear energy, which it views as central to reduce carbon emissions, but is a company which has always stifled the development of renewable energy sources that could entirely bankrupt its business model. The same with Renault and the car industry," Vallée adds. "The French corporate establishment is not helping the transition away from fossil fuels – and Macron is not willing to challenge them.”

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A key tenet that Macron’s 2022 campaign will lead on is his record on the EU, which he hopes will unite the left and right flanks of his electoral coalition.

In a speech at the Sorbonne shortly after his election three years ago, Macron set out his vision for Europe. He called for a more closely integrated continent, willing to throw its weight around on the world stage and with a budget for the Eurozone, the existence of which implies fiscal transfers between members. At the time, his federalising instincts seemed out of touch with the mood on the continent, still unsure about whether the UK’s vote to leave the year before was a harbinger of further disintegration. (It was not.)

Coronavirus was the catalyst for traditionally doubtful member states to latch on to the vision Macron has advocated since the Sorbonne. He convinced Merkel to abandon her longstanding northern European frugality, resulting in the Franco-German proposal for European grants, worth three times the annual EU budget, to finance the economic rebuilding of the hardest-hit member states. “He was pushing for concepts that were ridiculed until five months ago in many places in Europe,” says Tara Varma, the head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. “These are big wins for him.”

The €750bn recovery fund, which was agreed by EU member states on 21 July, is a landmark moment in the history of European integration – the first time rich countries have accepted the issuance of common EU debt to support poorer members. It also couldn’t have happened without Brexit, on which France has taken the toughest line in the EU. “If the UK had been a member state, formulating the recovery plan would have been very complicated,” Tolleret observes. Chatter of European health sovereignty – euro-jargon for shoring up the capacity of the EU to produce critical medical goods within its borders, thus weakening the continent's dependence on Chinese manufacturing – is also a triumph for Macron’s conception of what he calls “a sovereign Europe”.

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As the president eyes re-election in 2022, his end-game is unclear. A drawn-out reshuffle in early July installed several alumni of the right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy, incluging Jean Castex, a centre-right moderate with a reputation as a competent manager. The composition of the new government may be intended to signal that Macron is positioning himself to run as a candidate of the united right in 2022. “The point of how he has governed is to avoid [the conservative party] Les Républicains presenting a candidate,” Vallée says.

Polling shows two potential right-wing challengers, François Baroin and Xavier Bertrand, languishing on just 12 per cent of the vote in the first round of voting, far below Macron’s 28 per cent. Tentatively, it appears that Macron’s appeal to his right flank is working.

Le Pen's 2017 voters are more likely to be loyal than Macron's

But it remains far from clear that Macron’s rightward shift will ultimately convince conservative voters, uneasy with his europhilia and easygoing positions on social issues such as IVF for lesbian couples. Neither is it obvious that there are enough right-wing voters up for grabs to offset the loss of some of the left half of his coalition. “Close to half of his voters came from the left, and it’s going to be tough to get many of those voters back,” the former staffer says. Just 76 per cent of Macron’s 2017 voters plan to vote for him again, a proportion that puts him neck and neck with Le Pen, who holds 90 per cent of her voters, in both rounds of the election. On the left, the rising Greens could yet endanger his place in the second round of the 2022 election.

The president dubbed "Jupiter" stormed the last election on the strength of his personality. As Macron himself remarked in 2015: "In French politics there is a void where the king used to be." But in attempting to fill that void, in emitting that unassailable aura, the president stored up problems that are now mounting.

See also: Andrew Hussey on why Emmanuel Macron doesn't understand his own people

See also: Didier Fassin and Anne-Claire Defossez on the gilets jaunes, a year on

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.