29 June 2021

Macron’s presidency has entered injury time – can he come back?

By Margot Stumm

If the French football team are looking for consolation this morning, they should probably have a chat with their president. He too knows what it’s like to be a much-touted, all-conquering new force, only to see your best laid plans crash and burn.

Granted, Emmanuel Macron’s political career isn’t exactly over, but to say the shine has come off his project is putting it mildly. Worse still, if the recent regional elections show one thing, it’s that a sense of profound decline has set in among my compatriots.

It all seems a far cry from May 2017, when Macron swept to power on a tide of youthful optimism, with an energetic vigour that appealed as much to foreign opinion columnists as to the average French voter. Sure, the public were favourable to his positive, polished prospectus – but many were just as keen to deny his opponent, the ghastly Marine Le Pen, any chance of entering the Elysée. (In that respect it resembled Jacques Chirac’s victory against Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, back in 2002. “Vote for a crook, not a fascist,” summed up the feelings of many French voters back then.)

But it wasn’t just in the presidential election that Macron was successful. Leading his ‘grande marche’ all over the country, he aimed to bridge the gap between traditionalist conservatives and new liberals. He succeeded spectacularly, with his neophyte party La République En Marche winning over 300 new deputies. Fast-forward four years, however, and more than 50 of them have now parted ways with LREM and moved on from the ‘Macronie’. So how on earth can he repeat the trick in 2022?

For all his Olympian ambition, Macron’s first term has been marked by almost unending crisis, culminating in the last 18 months of curfews, vaccine squabbles and economic upheaval. As elsewhere, the pandemic quickly changed the government’s relationship with a society that was already weakened and disconsolate. Nothing epitomised that like the yellow vest movement, which started in December 2018 as a protest about fuel taxes and morphed into a struggle against Macron’s entire social and fiscal reform agenda. Though the French have always enjoyed a good demonstration, the last few years have felt different: a climate of violence, endless protest and division has become the norm and the president’s once sunny outlook an artefact from a bygone age.

Macron’s lack of surefootedness has been exposed by the pandemic. At first he declared that France was “at war” with Covid and determined to eradicate it entirely. He then changed tack, realising his earlier promises were unrealistic, and staked a bet that France could live with the virus, while avoiding further lockdowns or curfews. He had bet big once before and won big, so why not try again? Unfortunately, he couldn’t repeat the trick and we’ve ended up with an endless cycle of locking and unlocking, with huge restrictions on people’s civil liberties.

Arguably the worst aspect of his time in charge, however, has been Macron’s conduct on the international stage. The panic and beggar-thy-neighbour games he instigated with other countries over the vaccine rollout is a prime example. He must shoulder a great deal of responsibility for the shameful, wrongheaded decision to suspend the AstraZeneca vaccine in March of this year, not only slowing the rollout down, but sowing doubt among much of the public as to its effectiveness. Most bizarre was that while Macron was towing the EU line about the potential risks of blood clots, his own prime minister, Jean Castex, was insisting that people should trust the effectiveness and safety of the jabs. Joined-up government, this was not.

The last 18 months or so has not been about conventional political decision-making, but making swift choices in highly uncertain, changing circumstances. All over the world, countries and states have taken on extraordinary powers, to the point of telling families who they could and could not have Christmas dinner with. A presidential campaign, on the other hand, is all about looking ahead to the future and new opportunities. How does one run a successful campaign in this context, and with a public that is scarcely paying attention?

To gather the scale of disaffection, just look at the last two rounds of regional elections. Even accounting for the restrictions of the pandemic, it’s telling that turnout has not been this low since the early 2000s, with just 33% voting in the first round and 34.5% in the second. Yes, the weather was nice and the cafes were open again, but the apathy around these elections strongly suggest a public that is completely uninterested in a re-run of the 2017 race. Neither Le Pen nor Macron’s parties won a single region, while the older, traditional parties enjoyed something of a resurgence.

France stands out among Western democracies in its capacity to reject its leaders. Rare is the French president who manages to get re-elected, and there’s little to suggest that Macron is about to become one of the exceptions. His strongest challenge is likely to come from the centre-right Républicains, among whom three figures who triumphed in the regional elections stand out: Xavier Bertrand, Valérie Pécresse and the party’s former president, Laurent Wauquiez, who may fancy a tilt at the top job after some time in the political wilderness.

Le Pen, meanwhile, is a busted flush. Her family have been on the political scene for decades, never quite making it into power but always flying the flag of disgruntled opposition. Some of her Rassemblement National party might not mind: sticking it to the establishment, not taking decisions themselves, has always been their raison d’être.

As for Macron, should he fail, his will always be a story of what might have been. He came in with such high hopes, such energy, such grandiose promises to shake up a sclerotic economy and society. After a term marked by chaos, insecurity, conflict and a soul-destroying pandemic, is it any wonder that people have lost faith in him, or that they are looking once more to the classic centre-right and socialist parties that have defined the country for so many decades?

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Margot Stumm is Events Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.