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It was the best of times. France had just been crowned World Cup champion and millions of ecstatic people were dancing the night away in joyful abandon. President Emmanuel Macron, fist-pumping in the Luzhniki stadium, could feel on top of the world. He had launched France into a whirlwind of reforms at breakneck speed and still managed to remain popular. The supposedly impossible ones that were bound to fuel mass protests – labour market and railway network reforms – had been passed with minimum fuss, the demonstrations swatted away. Macron the reformer could forge ahead with his mission to transform France.
It was the worst of times. Barely three days after that glorious night in Moscow came the revelation of the Benalla affair, amid accusations of cover-up and special privileges. This sparked the unravelling of his presidency. The former President Chirac used to say that troubles come as a pack and so it proved true for Macron. In quick succession came his damaging, off-the-cuff remarks about ‘lazy, change-resistant Gauls’, followed by the resignation of the hugely popular environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, making a mockery of the “make our planet great again” President.
The torrid summer turned into a depressive autumn, with the Benalla affair refusing to go away, the botched resignation of the interior minister and the long-drawn-out cabinet reshuffle that ensued. The social reforms that had been unveiled as part of the carefully designed strategy to erase Macron’s image as the ‘President of the rich’, became invisible, drowned under an onslaught of negative buzz.
This tempestuous year led to a dramatic transformation of his image
It was the winter of despair. November was supposed to mark a renewal of ties between the French and their President, with a week-long journey through Northern France set aside to celebrate the centenary since the end of World War One. It turned instead into a yellow month of protests that caught him off-guard and shook his presidency to the core. Sparked by fuel tax hikes, the Yellow Vest movement tapped into decades of economic, social and democratic malaise. All the fractures that had been gnawing away at France came to a head in an explosion of anger that has yet to be extinguished.
This tempestuous year led to a dramatic transformation of his image. His decisiveness gave way to hesitation, epitomised by the farce-like reshuffle saga. A president setting and controlling the political tempo turned into a figure battered by events, forced into a permanent reactive position. His clinical determination to power through reforms became a series of wavering and mistimed reactions. The President with the Midas touch became a mere mortal, condemned to enduring the same ignominies as his predecessors, ranging from affronts to his authority – with two top ministers slamming the door in his face – to scandals, and having to back down and change tack under pressure from the street. The new world he had promised to usher in looked decidedly like the old one.
While the roots of the Yellow Vest movement go far beyond Macron’s presidency, he did contribute to igniting the spark, reaping what he had sowed. He had campaigned on being “at the same time” from the right and the left, but in his economic reformist zeal, he ignored his left leg. He abolished the tax on the wealthiest and decreased corporate taxation, but increased social charges for everybody. He had promised a more participatory type of democracy, but instead chose personal and vertical power, ignoring all intermediary bodies and steamrolling his reforms.
Cast as the arrogant, pro-business and right-wing President ignorant of the needs of ordinary citizens, indulging instead in disparaging comments, he lost touch with a significant portion of the population. He misjudged the levels of anger and anxiety that underpinned the Yellow Vest movement and, as a result, appeared as the symbol of a happy France who sees a bright future but is blind to the suffering of those who can’t make ends meet.
And yet, despite months of weekly protests, despite scenes of utter chaos in Paris, despite reaching a nadir in terms of popularity in December, his party is currently topping the polls for the upcoming European election, and Macron himself has regained some popularity. His strategy to involve the French in a unique exercise of large-scale participatory democracy, through a two-month long series of debates, has proved a success. With around 1.5 million people airing their grievances and putting forward their proposals to reshape France, he has defied the critics who had predicted a flop.
It might look as if the Yellow Vest movement is fading away, with much lower weekly numbers and public opinion ebbing away from the protests. And yet, its roots have not gone away
To top it all, if the presidential election were held this year, Macron would be handily re-elected. He is still blessed with a scattered Left in disarray, a Republican Right in the doldrums and only the Far Right National Rally as a serious rival. This suits him to perfection. With no party capable of providing robust opposition, he can harbour real hopes of electoral victories. The kicker, however, is that with no one to channel the growing anger, frustration and fear of the electorate, he is exposed to constant, direct confrontation with the French.
It might look as if the Yellow Vest movement is fading away, with much lower weekly numbers and public opinion ebbing away from the protests. And yet, its roots have not gone away. The democratic malaise, the rejection of the elites, the territorial fractures, the perception of social, economic and tax inequalities, the fear of the future – these are all still here. The embers might be dying, but the fire is ready to start again at any time.
The President may have regained the initiative through the grand débat but the most difficult task lies ahead: the French must be convinced that they have been heard, and Macron must then proceed by outlining a credible way forward. He is facing the formidable challenge of finding a way to reconcile economic reforms and social justice, globalisation and territorial equality, measures for the end of the world and measures for the end of the month, while simultaneously satisfying the thirst for active citizenship.
Macron has set the bar very high, with his avowed mission of creating a new contract with the French out of the debates. However, with 68% believing he will ignore their opinions and 79% sceptical about his ability to solve the current political crisis, the risk of failure is very real. His whole presidency is now hinging on his ability to deliver on the expectations of the nation and prove the doubters wrong. The measures he unveiled on 25 April must convince enough French people that he has listened to them and has understood their grievances. Depending on their response, he can then put his troubled year behind him and start afresh. If they feel duped and see that the mountain has brought forth a tiny mouse, all bets are off.
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