As he finally leaves Paris for a few days’ holiday in an undisclosed location, an embattled Emmanuel Macron must be rueing the day he so comprehensively creamed Marine Le Pen in the television debate that sealed his election victory last spring.
Macron won two-thirds of the vote in the second round in good part because most of the French, including many of Marine’s own supporters, judged that her performance, better suited to an after-dinner boozy get-together, disqualified her from the job.
Ever since, the Front National has been in disarray, with divisions, accusations, resignations, and a likely forthcoming split. As a result, the FN, once hopeful of 30 or 40 seats in the National Assembly— which would have qualified it twice over to form a Parliamentary group — is all but absent from the political scene, with only eight, mostly demoralised, MPs.
Ideally, Emmanuel Macron’s Opposition would have gathered the tattered remnants of a split centre-right and decimated Socialist opposition, with two extremes more or less cancelling themselves — the FN on one hand and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s radical Left France Insoumise on the other.
Now, the president’s poll numbers, as for every single one of his predecessors at around this time of their first year in office, are in free fall (from 54 per cent to 34 per cent favourable opinions in three weeks) and his magic is no longer working.
His wife is unpopular, his ministers contradict him, the untested new faces of his parliamentary party are making a conspicuous hash of parliamentary protocol, the military are nursing bitter grudges after he pushed the Chief of the General staff to resign, a resentful press covers the gaffes of his Élysée spin doc rather than her too-rare releases, and parading a number of foreign heads of state at Versailles or on the Champs-Élysées no longer cuts it.
And in the Assemblée, the only clear opposition voice, out of proportion with their numbers, comes from the historically pro-Chávez Mélenchon and his 17 FI MPs. The presence of a strong Front, sharing with FI a basket of populist positions (protectionist, anti-cuts, anti-Euro, anti-Europe, pro-Assad), would have opened up almost infinite possibilities to tar one with the other’s brush.
But the Front National’s effective absence means Mélenchon et al can play the part of every Trotskyite strain in every left-wing movement in history: boasting that they hold the high ground, apportioning blame and excommunications, guilt-tripping the rest as not being combative or ideologically pure enough. This, “Méluche” has been doing with gusto.
When housing benefits were threatened with a five-euro monthly cut, a measure PM Édouard Philippe expected to pass unremarked, Mélenchon up-ended onto his Parliament desk during Government Question Time a shopping bag of discount groceries he said cost just that (pasta, white bread, milk, tomato sauce, tinned vegetables), pushing Macron to withdraw the measure.
When Donald Trump came on official visit for Bastille Day on the Champs-Élysées, FI staged an anti-Trump march at the site where the actual Bastille stood.
Among their most effective guerilla actions, FI took the lead in denying an official status to the President’s wife: the unexpectedly successful petition started two weeks ago by a friend of Paris Socialist Mayor Anne Hidalgo, which garnered a quarter of million signatures to protest the creation of an official “First Lady”, was a catch-up strategy to regain some initiative from FI.
That specific case, though, may prove emblematic of the growing disconnect between the new president and the country which elected him: the Brigittegate shambles is essentially a Macron own goal. Misreading his campaign successes as a national aspiration for quasi-Scandinavian openness and transparency in politics, the president decided to apply his financier’s experience of analytic accounting to the Élysée budget.
Coming after the five years of François Hollande’s messy love life, and the large amount of fantasising over the attendant security costs, this seemed like the perfect solution. The newly-minted Première Dame would not receive a salary; the office costs every single presidential spouse has incurred from the days of Madame Pompidou would simply be accounted for separately.
Beware the French demanding “transparency”: what they really mean is the right to endlessly investigate, examine, ruminate, envy and criticise their neighbours’ or their betters’ lives. There has never been a time when the maxim from the 18C poet Jean-Pierre de Florian, “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés” (“Live hidden if you want to live happily”) has not applied in France: all understand it as a healthy attempt to escape the national passion for inquisition, thinly disguised in the “égalité” part of the national motto.
As political mores changed over the past 30 years, from genteel corruption to a kind of armed watch with skirmishes, this passion has been pandered to with a number of measures from the wealth tax to the requirement from ministers or MPs to declare, instead of their list of interests, the detailed makeup of their personal holdings.
There are many reasons why Brigitte Macron’s popularity is on the wane, including an unhealthy, and probably misogynistic national love-hate for expensively-dressed women with political influence and a mind of their own. Call it the Marie-Antoinette complex, except that Brigitte Macron pays for, or borrows, her clothes. The French, denied future opportunities to criticise, immediately declared Brigitte didn’t know her place and that there wasn’t one, officially, for her anyway.
In this, as in other crises, Emmanuel Macron has backed down. (The difference with or without a First Lady status will be negligible, since no one expects Brigitte Macron to do less than Carla Bruni, or the very active Bernadette Chirac, whose Élysée staff numbered 18 people.) He has seemingly abandoned his promise to change France’s electoral system to include a part of PR. Having barred MPs and senators from employing relatives (a move that was seen as doubly hypocritical during Brigittegate) in the new Transparency Bill voted by the Assemblée, he gave up on forbidding them any consulting activities.
And the times he has stood his ground have not necessarily been felicitous. The expected cuts to a national budget perennially in the red, required to make good his promise to Brussels that France would finally abide by the Maastricht criteria of keeping the budget deficit under 3 per cent of GDP, have alienated his left-wing voters (see housing benefits above). Announcing that the armed forces would have to retrench by €850 million this year, moments after committing to French troops’ continued deployment in the war against Isis and Boko Haram, did not go down well with his right-wing voters to begin with.
It got worse after Macron lashed out publicly, on the eve of his first Bastille Day as president, at the Chief of the General Staff, Pierre de Villiers, who’d expressed strong disapproval behind the closed doors of the Defence Committee of the National Assembly. Villiers pretty much resigned on the spot, the military released on YouTube the video of the entire Defence Ministry applauding him as he left the building, and the entire affair left a sour taste.
The French may often not be fond of their police, but they do love their army, and they were shocked to hear the 39-year-old whippersnapper they had elected tell a 61-year-old Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq veteran, “I am your chief and I need from you neither pressure nor comments.”
Macron also stood his ground when his chief press secretary at the Elysée, Sibeth Ndiaye, came under criticism for saying she had “no problems with lying to protect the President”, before sending an unfortunately phrased text confirming the death of the country’s most admired political figure, Simone Veil (“The old bag has popped her clogs”). But this is mainly emblematic of his newly adversarial relationship with the media. Long gone is the lovefest of the campaign, when he courted a coverage almost uniformly flattering.
Now the Élysée press room has been moved from the Palace to a building across the street, the president has decided to pick which papers are allowed to follow him; all news images are taken by the Élysée’s own cameras; and interviews are being shunned for carefully-crafted Facebook and YouTube videos.
Having watched, from the inside, the gregarious François Hollande’s descent into record unpopularity, Macron decided that there, too, he would take the exact opposite way to his predecessors. No one has his mobile number; aides and ministers have been threatened with the sack should they leak; and aides led by Ndiaye regularly call up chief editors to complain about coverage they dislike.
This, Macron believed, would not be taken amiss by voters who regularly express their contempt of journalists. Amazingly, he seems to have failed to take into account that journalists still provide the spin with which his presidency is perceived: the abrupt freeze in the relationship is mirrored in his recent coverage.
As he packs his bags for a few days of rest, he may ponder that most of the political credit he so counted on to pass his difficult reform of the employment code seems to have been used up even before Parliament recess comes to an end.