One year on, France is conflicted about Macron

The journalists’ hostility to Macron goes beyond politics or ideology: he’s trying to force them to embrace reality
May 17, 2018

One year after his election it’s hard to tell from French coverage of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency that, despite the chaos of demonstrations, train strikes and a string of unpopular reforms, he is more popular at this stage than his three predecessors were. With an approval rating of 44 per cent, Macron has retained the support of nine tenths of those who voted for his En Marche! movement, also winning the approval of half of republican and a third of socialist voters.

Macron has been ushering his country towards a profound social change and in doing so is encountering the usual pushback. Remarkably, he has done this while preserving his popularity—and yet the French media is portraying severe civil unrest and a nation divided. The gap between the media depiction of the Macron presidency and the satisfaction indicated by the polls was laid bare in the television interview held in April to mark Macron’s first year in office.

During an often uncomfortably hostile two-and-a-half hour grilling, Edwy Plenel, an investigative journalist, and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, a political talk-show host, painted Macron’s presidency as divisive and unpopular. “Many French people doubt you and your choices,” Bourdin said. “And they’re losing their patience.” Plenel suggested that Macron should not have called his party En Marche!, meaning “forwards.” “You should have called it, En Force [“by force”]. You’ve divided the country instead of unifying it.”

My family is divided on Macron—my daughter likes him and my son doesn’t—but they both agreed on the mauvaise foi, “intellectual dishonesty,” of Plenel and Bourdin’s line of questioning. “You’d think the country was in flames,” my daughter said.

We wondered if the generation gap may lie behind Plenel and Bourdin’s hostility to the young upstart Macron, whom they pointedly referred to by name rather than the traditional Monsieur le Président. But we agreed that the key to their antagonism lay in Macron’s response to Plenel’s question on gender inequality.

Once Macron had pointed out that En Marche! was the first party in French history to send an equal number of male and female MPs to parliament, he went on to denounce what he sees as a lasting hypocrisy in French political life: when it comes to inequality, leaders and the electorate itself, on both left and right prefer words to actions. The constitutional refusal to consider positive discrimination or gather statistics on ethnic minorities doesn’t help.

Bourdin and Plenel’s righteous indignation, Macron suggested, is no longer enough. It’s time to dismantle the hierarchies of privilege: that culture of “insiders” and “outsiders,” inherited from pre-revolutionary France. These structures grant civil servants a guaranteed job for life, while a young developer in charge of a company’s cyber-security is guaranteed nothing. They also mean that a French-born Muslim male, because of his surname, will be four times less likely to get a job than someone with a French, Catholic- sounding surname.

This embrace of action over discourse and reality over ideas is where Macron stands out, not only from his three presidential predecessors, but from Bourdin and Plenel themselves. By actually naming the causes of inequality he bursts the bubble of the French equality myth, which has so long survived on illusion and storytelling.

The journalists’ hostility to Macron goes beyond politics or ideology: he’s trying to force them to embrace reality. He wants them to see that France is not an island of enlightenment floating in an ugly sea of commerce but a nation subject to the tides of global capital. Like other nations, it faces a plethora of special interests, be they corporations, banks, monopolies, oligopolies and trade unions, which have to be tamed.

For Macron, governance means embracing global capitalism in all its imperfections, not wishing it were otherwise. If he can plant that insight within French politics, then France really will be en marche.