Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France’s presidential election this year marked the triumph of a steady, centrist hand over the far-right nationalism of Marine Le Pen. His presidency, moreover, was supposed to be “Jupiterian,” characterized by an aloof, dignified posture designed to exalt his office in the eyes of legislators and the public. Yet the storms and harsh realities intrinsic to governing have damaged Macron’s image.
The young president’s popularity has dropped rapidly in opinion polls. One recent survey revealed only 36 percent of French citizens were satisfied with his performance. Macron is now “more unpopular than his predecessor Francois Hollande — himself very unpopular — was after the same length of time in office,” reports The Independent. His popularity has declined about 30 points since June. A separate poll, conducted by YouGov, also found his approval rating had fallen to 36 percent.
The Jupiterian president is learning that he can’t distance himself from the consequences of trying to enact reforms. On the contrary, Macron’s ambitious agenda is forcing him down from his throne.
Consider a structural reform that Macron is proposing for the French government: He wants to streamline the law-making process by cutting the number of delegates in both houses of parliament by one-third. “We need long-term perspective,” Macron said, “but we must also act quickly and swiftly, therefore the shuffle between the two houses of parliament must be simplified.” If necessary, Macron will put the reform up for a vote by the French people. Some see this as a sign of authoritarian tendencies.
Spending and tax cuts have proven just as controversial for Macron. While Macron had hoped to institute tax cuts soon after the election in order to boost the moribund French economy, financial realities have stood in the way. Macron also wants to reduce France’s budget deficit, but to do that and cut taxes requires spending cuts. He decided to cut defense spending, a move that has been met with the disapproval of many French citizens. France’s top general resigned, and another criticized Macron’s “juvenile authoritarianism.” As it stands, Macron’s tax cuts have been delayed, his spending cuts have met much consternation, and his relationship with the military has frayed.
Other reforms in Macron’s agenda have met concerted resistance. A proposal to cut a housing benefit, which would affect hundreds of thousands of French students, met vigorous opposition from students’ unions. “Disgruntlement among students is a thorny issue,” reports the Guardian, “because the government is seeking to avoid students joining potential protests against Macron’s proposed changes to labour laws this autumn.” Macron’s labor reforms are intended to make it easier to hire and fire employees by revising a complex set of regulations.
Whether Macron truly reflects a Napoleonic image will depend on how he handles opposition, and accrues power and respect for the presidency,
Finally, Macron would like to root out nepotism in the government by passing legislation that would prohibit legislators from employing family members. This proposal, in and of itself, would be enough to generate pushback, but the reaction to it has become even more negative because Macron also wants to give his wife the official title of “First Lady.” Several hundred thousand people have already signed a petition opposing this change, and Macron’s political opponents have readily accused him of hypocrisy.
Andrew Roberts, a prominent biographer of Napoleon, has urged caution when making comparisons between Macron and the emperor. Nevertheless, Roberts highlights several apparent similarities between the two men. Whether Macron truly reflects a Napoleonic image will depend on how he handles opposition, and accrues power and respect for the presidency:
Yet it will be in his attitude towards the uprising of the common populace that Macron will either be seen to emulate Napoleon or, like so many presidents of the Fifth Republic before him, show disastrous weakness. Once his proposed reforms to the working week, pension age and other aspects of French employment law come to long-overdue fruition, and when the French trade unions pour onto the streets of Paris in huge numbers, burning car tyres (and possibly even cars themselves), erecting barricades and hurling projectiles at the riot police, Macron will face his great test as president. What will happen?
Macron has an opportunity to effect genuine reforms in France, and perhaps more consequentially, to heighten the authority and honor associated with the presidency, offering himself as the image of a strong, prosperous, yet not politically radical, France. At the same time, he must find a prudential balance between being responsive to the wishes of French citizens and ensuring the best interests of France are not swallowed up in partisan politics.
The future of his presidency will depend on his ability to navigate the unsettled waters in which he currently finds himself.