Emmanuel Macron, one year on

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Ariane Bogain
Ariane Bogain

Senior Lecturer in French and Politics at Northumbria University

French President Emmanuel Macron is about to celebrate one year in power.

Many hailed his surprise victory as a new reformist dawn for France. He was certainly very quick off the starting block, launching a raft of reforms with gusto and bursting on the international stage with youthful vigour. One year later, with the country in the grip of social conflicts, what can be made of his presidency so far and what does the future hold?

On the international stage, Macron has deployed an exuberant energy, with a flurry of visits around the world. What stands out, besides his firm stance towards both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, his active role in the Syrian conflict, and the resetting of France’s relations with Africa, is undoubtedly his position on the European Union. Three lyrical speeches about its future set out a bold vision with a long list of proposals to revitalise it.

And yet, however warmly his reformist zeal might have been greeted, he has very little to show for his efforts so far. Hampered by the protracted formation of a new government in Germany, the Catalan crisis in Spain, the yet-to-be resolved political situation in Italy, and frosty relations with Hungary and Poland, he is facing a wall of procrastination or downright hostility. Elsewhere, his activism has not yet borne many fruits either. Diplomacy does tend to be slow and Macron’s challenge will undoubtedly be to transform his boundless energy into concrete results.

On the international stage, Macron has deployed an exuberant energy

On the economic front, Macron can boast great success. After years in the doldrums, growth is back, unemployment is down, and the public deficit is decreasing. He has certainly been lucky to reap the fruits of a much improved world economy. However, good economic news has proved politically toxic, with loud demands for their “dividends” to be shared. It is no coincidence that the current social conflicts revolve around better wages. In a society traumatised by mass unemployment, demonstrating that growth benefits everyone will be key to his political future.

Macron’s greatest achievement so far has been his ability to launch reforms, with a dozen already underway, some completed, and many more to come. Passing the labour law reform without a fuss and turning demonstrations against it into a very damp squid has to be the highlight of his year so far. He can legitimately claim to be doing what he said he would, which the French have approved.

And yet, his reformism could prove to be his Achilles’ heel. Speed might be necessary to demonstrate he can transform France and reap the rewards in time for the next presidential election. But what is sorely lacking is an overarching aim: ‒ what kind of society is being built? Justifying each reform in a technocratic way, under the banner of improving the competitiveness of the country, does not provide an end goal. The danger lies in the electorate feeling bewildered by so many loosely connected reforms and rebelling against one too many. To make matters worse, Macron stands accused of Caesarism. Having pushed some emblematic reforms through executive decrees, many have interpreted this as steamrolling over both Trade Unions and Parliament.

After repeatedly wowing to “unblock” the country and staking his political capital on it, his presidency will be judged on his ability or failure to reform. Either he pushes through with his reforms, all the while convincing the French of their merits, and carves an image of a bold reformer able to transform France for the better; or he will turn into a lame duck president with a shattered credibility for the rest of his term of office. Persevering whilst avoiding a big anti-reform wave of protest undoubtedly stands out as his biggest challenge.

Politically speaking, Macron fully benefitted from the seismic shock of his victory. Not only were the two traditional juggernauts of French politics ‒ the Socialist Party and Les Républicains ‒ left reeling and in a state of disarray but his defeated opponent, Marine Le Pen, also became stuck in a post-electoral hang-over and internal recriminations. The speed of the reforms is testament to this lack of credible and forceful opposition. However, it was never going to last forever. Parties are slowly rebuilding themselves and attacking him is the easiest way to come back to full health. Warning shots are already apparent, whether it is the recent by-elections where classic parties soundly defeated his candidates or the Left reuniting itself against his reforms.

Much more politically dangerous than the current efforts by opposition parties to dust themselves off is how the French perceive him, and this is not good news. By presenting himself as a radical centrist who is the Right and the Left “at the same time” , and campaigning on a Nordic “flexi-security” that combines flexibility for businesses with security for workers, Macron succeeded in attracting voters from both sides. And yet, barely one year into his presidency, a majority now places him squarely on the Right.

It is quite easy to understand why. Macron has forged ahead with the flexibility agenda but left the security part for later. This imbalance has led him to be labelled the President of the rich, and this moniker has stuck. Polls in April have shown not only a huge drop in popularity amongst low-paid voters, which reached the all-time low of 27%, but also that accusations of favouring the rich and widening inequalities ring true: only 14% think that the government protect people ‘like them’ and 74% deem the reforms socially unfair. Add to this a very strict immigration law, and it is not hard to see why he is now perceived as a traditional right-wing politician.

The jury is still very much out on whether impassioned international speeches can turn into concrete results

This spells danger for Macron because he owes his victory largely to left-wing voters. Neglecting them might well turn into an exodus of votes. Implementing an “at the same time” policy when it comes to flexi-security would have been much less risky than the two-stage strategy he has promised, especially with a French electorate badly burnt by promises that never came to fruition in the past. Whether they will remain patient is yet to be determined.

Emmanuel Macron’s first year is a cocktail of high energy and reformist zeal mixed with a series of ‘yet’. He has launched France and the EU on a transformative path and has not demurred in tackling complex and seemingly inextricable international issues.

However, the jury is still very much out on whether impassioned international speeches can turn into concrete results. Whether the French will give him the benefit of the doubt or instead rise in mass to send his reforms packing, is yet to be seen. He can take heart in knowing that he remains more popular than his predecessors at this stage, and he is lucky to have a good macro-economic environment. But he will need to do much more to heal a country marred by decades of mass unemployment and tame the French’s deeply ingrained pessimism about the future.

Macron has one more year to convince the French before they give their verdict in his first electoral test as a president in next year’s European election.

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