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Is French President Emmanuel Macron’s aura wearing thin?

The French president has been accused of acting more like a monarch and has been making many mistakes

opinion Updated: Aug 04, 2017 09:22 IST
France,Emmanuel Macron,Donald Trump
Only 54% say they are happy with French President Emmanuel Macron. Descriptions of his character and personality range from imperious, arrogant, hasty, autocratic and ambitious to inexperienced, callow, headstrong, over-confident and disappointing — hubris, in short(Reuters)

The glitter appears to be wearing off with unusual speed. France’s 39-year-old wunderkind president, Emmanuel Macron, is slipping in the popularity charts with an astonishing 10-point slump last month.

That such a slide should occur during the first 100 days of ‘grace’ is unprecedented for any president in the history of the French Fifth Republic. Only 54% say they are happy with their president. Descriptions of his character and personality range from imperious, arrogant, hasty, autocratic and ambitious to inexperienced, callow, headstrong, over-confident and disappointing — hubris, in short. Clearly the complaints appear to have more to do with style than substance.

Only recently Macron appeared to have the magic touch, getting everything right, especially in matters of foreign policy. His bone crusher handshake with United States President Donald Trump went viral, and he chalked up a succession of diplomatic triumphs that included his riposte to Trump’s decision to pull out of the climate treaty.

“Swift, smart and typically self-assured” was how The Guardian described Macron’s ‘Make our planet great again’ slogan against Trump. Then came the invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a sumptuous reception at Versailles, followed closely by Trump in Paris for the Bastille Day Parade on July 14. The Guardian called the young president’s debut “near faultless”.

Since then, an emboldened Macron has been making mistakes. Part of that might be due to the very nature of the French presidency and the almost limitless powers invested in the head of state, with fewer constitutional checks and balances than in the US. Macron might have begun overplaying his hand.

Recently, he attempted another solitary diplomatic coup by bringing warring Libyan factions to the negotiating table. Macron personally got the two principal Libyan protagonists talking and they promised to hold presidential and legislative elections next year.

Neither the European Union nor Italy were either consulted or included in the talks. The reaction in Rome was one of unrestrained fury. After all, the majority of migrants coming to Europe set sail from Libya and Italy has long called for international help in dealing with search, rescue and resettlement operations, receiving only lip service from the international community. Macron suggested setting up “hotspots” in Libya as forward immigration posts this summer. The proposal was greeted by howls of protest and the president quickly retreated.

In his dealings with Italy, Macron has appeared to take the high-handed, somewhat condescending manner that characterises France’s historic attitude towards its transalpine neighbour.

At the G20 summit last month the French president came under fire both at home but particularly abroad for suggesting Africa’s challenges were “civilisational” and that providing financial aid would be pointless when “there are countries where women are having seven or eight children”.

To add to Italian ire, Macron took the snap decision to nationalise (albeit temporarily) STX, the giant shipyard that makes the world’s biggest ocean liners, to prevent it from falling into Italian hands, going back on a deal that had the benediction of an earlier French government.

Macron caught the popular French imagination and coasted to victory defeating the extreme Right candidate Marine Le Pen. Subsequently, his political movement, Republique En Marche won an absolute majority in parliament giving him almost absolute powers to move ahead with his agenda which is a mix a market-friendly labour reforms with a dose of old fashioned welfarism.

But critics now say that Macron has betrayed his campaign promises with a slew of budget cuts that will affect students and the poor, whereas cuts in wealth tax will favour the wealthiest 10% in France. He also proposed deep cuts to military budgets that drew an angry response from the chief of the armed services that led to a nasty public showdown terminating in the army chief’s resignation.

These incidents have sown a certain malaise about how Macron views his presidential function. “Monarchical rather than Presidential,” was how one newspaper described Macron’s understanding his office. He has said he would prefer to govern through decree than lengthy parliamentary debate, a proposition certainly not to everyone’s taste.

The French have a strange relationship with their president. They seem unsure as to what they really want him to be. They disliked the humility and “normality” of Hollande as much as they disliked the brash, bling-bling showiness of Sarkozy. Their ideal remains General de Gaulle who managed to combine all the desired qualities: Powerful as a king, but democratic; strong, but not autocratic; self-assured, but not over the top; intellectual but not a show off, stately and not cheap.

It’s a difficult balancing act. As Macron with the party that bears his initials (En Marche) is beginning to find out.

Vaiju Naravane is a senior journalist

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 04, 2017 09:18 IST