2018 was a rough year for French president Emmanuel Macron, too say the least. Fighting opposition from long-time rivals, the streets, and even his members of his fledgling La République En Marche! (LaREM) movement, both French and international media are increasingly highlighting doubt in Macron’s leadership. A man know for his “victory” against populism in 2017 now faces off against Europe’s strongest populist movements in decades. However, behind the protests and outcry, his government continues to legislate in France, passing laws that were at the core of his presidential platform. In that case, are media outlets claims of a president on life support to be believed?
Presidential approval rating
Looking at past approval ratings of other French leadership, one thing is clear: they are almost never high for long. Macron’s predecessors started their terms with relatively high approval, hovering around 60%. As actual legislation, like Sarkozy’s tax hikes and Hollande’s harsh budget cuts were introduced, they soon dropped to squalor level. Despite both being elected to do the opposite of the laws introduced, they signed and supported the bills. This demonstrates a larger effect in French political culture. Leaders promise one thing, but instead are forced to change their plans when the realities of office sink in. The Macron presidency has been no different. Soon after his election, disputed tax cuts for the top 1% deluded his post-election hype. But, in the grand scheme of political culture, this represents an exception to the rule, not an outlier.
La Rebel En Marche?
If the media is telling the full story, the President’s party is grabbling with less than stellar leadership, disunity, and lack of direction. Let’s look into these claims further.
When examining the leadership of LaREM, it’s been a mixed bag. After Macron left for the Élysée Palace back in 2017, the position was filled first by Christophe Castaner later that same year. Running unopposed, his “election” was surrounded by claims of lack of internal democracy. Once in control of the party, Castaner struggled to enthuse the grassroots core of LaREM. A year later, Castaner left his job and went to join the government as Minister of the Interior. Replacing him was Stanislas Guerini, a Macron loyalist from the very beginning. Elected with opponents in the running, he appears to have a stronger mandate to give the party a clear direction as it heads into European elections in 2019. In hindsight, the leadership of this party has not been of great service to the President’s popularity, especially among supporters.
Search Google for “La République En Marche.” Among the articles, one is sure to talk about the disunity of the presidential party, as forces on the left rebel against center-right policy. Proposals of this nature, most notably Macron’s asylum and immigration bill he introduced last fall, face opposition from those who feel the party has moved too far to the right. Recently, the “anti-thug law”, which restrains the right to protest, saw 50 members of LaREM abstain from voting. This is a record for government-backed legislation in France.
The news cycle tends to hype up these events. While the party faces dissidents from the inside, it still controls a large majority in the National Assembly. A group of 50 MPs, who didn’t even vote with the opposition parties, pose little threat to the status-quo. In addition, other political parties, like the far-right Rassemblement national (RN) also face disagreement. In late 2017, vice-president of the party Florian Philippot resigned and formed his own movement. Left learners inside LaREM have yet to go even that far. While the party may be seeking direction after it’s historic 2017 victory, LaREM is not the media’s La Rebel En Marche!.
Relationship with other leaders
Since entering the campaign back in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has been a strong supporter of a united European Union, supported by a strong economic zone between member states. He made it clear that working with foreign leaders, especially Germany’s Angela Merkel, was a top priority. Has be achieved this lofty goal?
Yes and no. While Macron was supported largely by the European poltiical class at the beginning of his term, rifts started to appear. A close friendship with Merkel has grown a bit colder as of late, as she struggles to finish her term leading her weakened coalition. In fact, Macron’s government is set to challenge a controversial gas pipeline project between Germany and Russia, which could further draw these two leaders apart. And Merkel, once supportive of Macron’s economic reforms in the bloc, has softened that tone. If Macron is hoping for a stronger Europe with a French-German partnership leading it, he’d better make some adjustments.
Other leaders have been a puzzle for Macron. As Europe’s populist continue to elect the far-right into power, Macron finds it increasingly difficult to build a dialogue with once reliable partners. For instance, take Italy’s populist deputy PM, Matteo Salvini. A complete opposite of Macron, Salvini attacked Macron’s policies and called for a populist victory in next French elections. In response, the French removed their ambassador from Rome, something that hasn’t happened since World War II. This demonstrates how Macron’s goals of peace among Europe’s leaders may be just a dream.
The “Gilets jaunes” movement
No Macron article would be complete without discussing the Gilets jaunes, or “yellow-vest” movement. This scattered group of protesters, organized on social media platforms like Facebook, are what some are calling the end to the Macron presidency itself. The movement started in late 2018, when citizens upset with the administration’s recent gas tax started to protest across the nation. After repeated riots in Paris and elsewhere, Macron was forced to withdrawal his tax from the 2019 budget. Media, domestic and international, herald the president as defeated, even doomed to never pass a single reform again.
While the yellow-vest movement certainly showed that the streets were nothing to mess with, they are not the end all be all the media is reporting them to be. As weekly protests continue, they keep growing smaller in size. Different factions of yellow-vests are starting to form, as several groups plans lists to compete in the European elections this May. The splintering and radicalization of some has caused the movement to loose some of the public support it once had, strengthening the government’s position.
The ball is now in Macron’s court, and he is playing a tricky game. If he passes legislation that attempts to curb the right to protest, he will certainly look like the bad guy. But if he appears weak in the face of violent street protesters, he will continue to loose credibility with his citizens and political partners, crucial for the reforms he has planned for 2019 and beyond. If there was anything that could turn this presidency into a failure, it would be the yellow-vest movement. To do this, they would need stricter organization and policy to be taken more seriously. For now, they remain a sleeping giant.
So, is Macron really a failure?
At the beginning of his presidency, Macron told the world that he would “rule like Jupiter.” If that was his only goal, then his presidency has been an enormous success. However, this is not the case.
Many of his main campaign messages have been implemented since his election, which is not something all democratic leaders can attest. Changes in education, reforming the unpopular housing tax, and establishing a European Defense Fund have all been completed, which much more planned in 2019. If his government continues to pass legislation at the same rate as it has been, he should be able to take credit for completing most of his agenda.
The question is, did the French really support his agenda in the first place? Due to the unpopularity of his opponent Marine Le Pen in the election back in 2017, many viewed Macron as the only alternative to the nicknamed “devil’s daughter.” This fact alone may prove difficult, as it isn’t clear that a majority of citizen’s agree with his policies.
Stress from populists at home and abroad will be what defines the Macron presidency. If his party can win enough seats in the next European Parliament, and if he can get key leaders on board with important EU reform, I believe Macron will be able to call his first term a win, regardless of what the media report. Alternatively, if he falls to the pressure from the yellow-vest movement and other forces in Europe, it’s not clear what the outcome would be. If Europe’s golden body is soured by authoritarian policy and populist leaders, all that Macron originally set out to create, a more powerful France and Europe, would be gone.
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