Emmanuel Macron’s deepening problems

FOR A POLITICIAN with a passion for theatre, Emmanuel Macron has a poor mastery of suspense. On October 2nd he lost his interior minister, Gérard Collomb, who had complained about the French president’s “lack of humility”. It took him two weeks to find a replacement, and the longer the wait went on, the more it fuelled conjecture. Was the president too enfeebled to attract good candidates? Was his young party’s talent pool that shallow? Might even the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, be having second thoughts? On October 16th, when Mr Macron finally unveiled his new team, it was a mix of unknowns and loyalists that scarcely made a splash.

If Mr Macron was hoping to reboot his presidency with a headline-grabbing line-up, this was not it. The solid but discreet Mr Philippe remains in his job, as does Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister. Into the interior ministry steps Christophe Castaner, the outgoing head of La République en Marche (lrem), the party Mr Macron founded just two years ago. A former Socialist, he brings political balance to a government led by an ex-Republican, Mr Philippe. A one-time mayor from south-east France, who never attended elite Parisian schools, the burly Mr Castaner is also a useful counterpoint to Mr Macron, a former investment banker and graduate of the high-flying Ecole Nationale d’Administration. No specialist in security, Mr Castaner is backed by a new junior minister, Laurent Nuñez, the outgoing head of the domestic intelligence service.

Yet the new team is better understood as an attempt to bring fresh blood and stability, rather than star appeal, to government. The reshuffle was cautious, rather than flashy; balanced, rather than innovative. Above all, Mr Macron, who campaigned as “neither on the left nor the right”, has maintained the political equilibrium. He gave jobs to centrists, Socialists, En Marche youngsters (including Gabriel Attal, aged just 29) and those from the centre-right (notably Franck Riester, a former Republican who braved party disapproval to back the legalisation of gay marriage).

Will this be enough for Mr Macron to recover his grip? The president’s approval ratings have collapsed, from 53% at the beginning of the year to 33% in October (see chart). Four out of eight pollsters show him to be (just) more popular than François Hollande, his much-derided Socialist predecessor, at this point in their respective tenures; two show him level; and another two have him as more unpopular still. Mr Macron was badly damaged this summer by the poor handling of a scandal concerning his former bodyguard, and then by a series of clumsy remarks that came across as arrogant towards ordinary voters. The departure of Mr Collomb, one of the first Socialists to back Mr Macron’s new party, and who shed a tear during the presidential inauguration, was both a crushing personal and symbolic disavowal.

In a televised address this week, Mr Macron vowed to continue as before. The reshuffled government marks less a shift in policy than an attempt to get on with the job. The paradox is that, on substance, Mr Macron is still pushing the country in the right direction. As Charles Wyplosz, an economist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, puts it: “France is undergoing a profound transformation…but each reform makes the previous one forgotten.” The streets this autumn, usually strike season in France, have been uncommonly quiet. Substantial reforms to the labour market, state railways, public training schemes, university access and the school-leaving baccalauréat have all gone through. Mr Macron next plans to reform unemployment benefit, and unify the dozens of state pension schemes into a single system, with equal, portable rights for all.

Up to a point, Mr Macron can afford to be unpopular. Few people like change, even when they have voted for it, and those touched the most like it the least. Retirees, for instance, are irate because of higher social charges on their pensions. Over the past year, his poll ratings among the over-65s have dropped by 21 points, faster than for any other age group. Yet Mr Macron not only spelled out this policy during his campaign. He designed it as part of a strategy of reducing charges on those in work, which had to be paid for.

With a surer touch, Mr Macron might also have shrugged off the label that stuck to him early on: “president of the rich”. The timing of his cuts to corporate and wealth taxes, announced just weeks after his election, was a necessary early signal that France was changing. But Mr Macron has failed to convince voters that he has balanced such measures with social policy, partly because his approach is not to increase benefits but to invest in education. He has made nursery school compulsory from the age of three, and halved class sizes for five- and six-year-olds in tough areas. Such reforms could be life-changing, but will take a long time to show results.

The underlying problem, in other words, is less substance than style. Mr Macron is accident-prone. When he strides off to shake hands and chat to voters on walkabouts, he more often than not ends up lecturing them. The president, says someone close to him, is finally getting the message. “Sometimes my determination or my straight-talking has upset or shocked people,” a grave Mr Macron conceded on television this week. “I hear the criticism.”

Mr Macron still retains the solid support of 71% of those who voted for him in the first round of the presidential election. His parliamentary majority is robust, and he runs one of the few single-party governments in a politically fragmented Europe. Yet the highly centralised presidency of the French Fifth Republic, and Mr Macron’s tendency to micro-manage, mean that he is the one who needs to show that he has regained control of the agenda. The president has recruited a new team. Whether it succeeds is ultimately up to him.

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