French president Emmanuel Macron during a video conference on 23rd February 2021 © Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Emmanuel Macron promised a new French liberalism. Now he’s crushing it

He arrived as a clean slate for progressives to write their hopes on. Four years later he has set the stage for the Fifth Republic’s nastiest election ever
March 2, 2021

In February, France got a sneak peek at the presidential race taking shape for next year: far-right leader Marine Le Pen and President Emmanuel Macron’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin faced each other in a TV debate. Coinciding with the Assemblée Nationale’s discussion of a new law on “separatism,” the debate centred on immigration, integration and Islamism. These are the issues already setting the rhythm in the race for the Élysée—issues that seem strange priorities amid a pandemic. 

Darmanin, standing in for his boss—who not long ago was seen as the last best hope for European liberals—described Le Pen as “too soft on Islam.” The country’s most famous chauvinist, looking stunned, found herself defending her fellow citizens’ right to religious freedom. Skimming through Darmanin’s newly published book on “Islamist separatism,” she responded: “Your book, I could have written it.”

Le Monde feared that Darmanin’s stance had offered Le Pen an unexpected gift: “de-demonisation by proxy,” which is to say the more devilish her opponent was willing to appear, the less diabolical she would seem. A recent poll showed Macron and Le Pen nearly neck and neck in the presidential runoff, with Le Pen on 48 to Macron’s 52 per cent. A researcher for the Institut Montaigne think tank told me he feared the debate in the country could entrench the parity between a “Le Pen-ised government” and a “presidentialised Le Pen.” 

It should be shocking that this is shaping up to be a competitive contest. Last time round, in 2017, Macron campaigned as a “barrier against the far right,” and received two votes in every three (65 per cent) against Le Pen, leader of the National Front. (She has since rebranded her party National Rally.) But back in 2002, although the mainstream conservative Jacques Chirac mustered a mere 20 per cent in the first round, he was able to rally a broad “republican front” mopping up everyone to his left, in order to block Marine’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen: Chirac ultimately won 82 per cent of the vote. Even though his own majority was still comfortable, Macron seemed conscious that he had been unable to duplicate the breadth of Chirac’s “front.” Speaking on election night, the youngest French ruler since Napoleon claimed to have heard the nation’s “anger, anxiety and doubts.” He promised that he would “do everything, during the five [following] years, so that the French would no longer have any reason to vote for the extremes.” Four years on, his plan for obstructing Le Pen’s path to power has turned out to be emulating her most prejudiced policies.

It was never meant to end this way. In 2017, liberals elsewhere in the world—recently buffeted by Brexit and Trump—heralded the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron as their next hero, a leader to follow in the “modernising” footsteps of Tony Blair and Canada’s Justin Trudeau. Just before his election, the writer Ben Judah interviewed the young hopeful for the Times on a train ride through France. Judah found Macron enigmatic to the point of “unsettling,” but also “effective,” a recognisable “social democrat,” and a patriotic voice of tolerance. All of these judgments were in accord with that of enlightened observers overseas.

The French themselves were always more circumspect. Macron’s brand of liberalism was at odds with his country’s traditions. Un liberal, in French, implies not principally social tolerance, but the laissez-faire economics associated with post-Thatcher Britain. Many of those who had in 2012 elected François Hollande, a socialist who had pledged to tax the rich, remained suspicious. But Hollande ultimately left his base disillusioned and his party weak and exhausted. Though a centrist independent, Macron could pick up
support among them by offering progressive policies, such as environmental protection, while at the same time seducing pro-European, pro-market conservatives. This second group found him more palatable than the scandal-dogged standard-bearer of the mainstream right, former prime minister François Fillon (currently appealing a prison sentence for misusing public funds) and the anti-European Le Pen. 

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Yellow vest protests were provoked by Macron then crushed with a brutality he brushes off © STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP 

In short, sheer luck presented Macron with the implosion of both the mainstream left and the mainstream right. But he was shrewd in navigating this extraordinary situation, utilising the networking skills he had used to get rich during a banking career to make up for his lack of an established party machine. This was enough for him to emerge—fairly narrowly—at the top of a crowded first-round field. In the second round, the majority of the electorate picked him for reasons unrelated to his programme: rather, it was because he was a clean slate—and he was not Marine Le Pen. 

In 2021, the slate is no longer clean. Countless strikes, defections reducing his own parliamentary majority, a global pandemic during which his cabinet has struggled to organise the delivery of masks and vaccines, and the economic crash that has followed have weakened Macron’s position. And it has become impossible to ignore the signs that the president has more in common with Le Pen than anyone previously imagined.

In 2017, Macron vowed to avoid “singling out Islam and blurring Islam with terrorism,” and never to point to those “4.5m French citizens of Muslim faith” as if they were “the problem.” Brave words for a centrist in a land reeling from the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks—and words he has since betrayed. He has steadily lapsed into the very tropes he warned about, and leads a France of deepening divisions—which he could soon deepen again. In the estimation of Judah, who took that optimistic train ride with Macron four years ago, the president of this discordant republic now feels “tempted” to fight for re-election within a “clash of civilisations” framing. So what went wrong? 

In April 2016, Macron—at the time an economy minister in Hollande’s Socialist government—launched a “citizen initiative” called En Marche! Immodestly matching his initials, it marked the beginning of what would become his party, now called La République En Marche, and had the purported aim of solving the “blockages” holding France back by taking ideas from across the spectrum. A product of France’s elite schools and then Rothschild’s bank, the young minister revealed himself a staunch neoliberal by hectoring a factory worker on strike: “the best way to pay for one’s suit is to work.” His already large ego made headlines as early as 2015, when he lashed out at MPs resisting his labour reform as “those who don’t want to change the country.” 

Macron didn’t want mere change—he wanted total disruption. It came in August 2016 when, in a Brutus-like move to Hollande’s Caesar, he quit his post and announced his intention to run for the top job in 2017, dropping the pretence that En Marche! had been a simple “club.” The Elysée palace today is run the way En Marche! was from its infancy: everyone answers to “the Boss,” as the first supporters of his one-man band party called him. 

Perhaps people should have paid more attention to his strange pre-election ruminations on the monarchy and “the absent figure of the king, whom I fundamentally believe the French people never wished dead.” But despite his imperiousness, with a promise of change, he attracted candidates to his slate from all parties and none. At first. 

In recent times, MPs have been deserting his parliamentary majority en masse, and raising alarm about its lack of internal democracy. Many of his well-known supporters have repudiated his policies, such as the economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, who advised him to care more about inequality. Environmentalist Nicolas Hulot quit as ecology minister live on the radio in 2018, admitting he could no longer “lie to himself” and that the government was prioritising business as usual over a much-needed green transition. Such green policies as there were came uncoupled from any sense of economic fairness—notably, the proposed hike in fuel taxes that inspired the “yellow vest” protests. 

Rather than engage with critics, the president developed a love for arrogant punchlines, blasting his fellow citizens—or perhaps from his point of view, his subjects—as “slackers,” “defiant Gauls” and, recently, “66m prosecutors.” He publicly told off a teenager who had called him by a nickname. He has made grandiose, fanciful claims, such as pretending Notre-Dame can be rebuilt in five years (architects don’t think so), and even frightening Trump-like statements that have turned out to be false, like his wild claim in January that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65. 

“In just four years, he has alienated every progressive element—even constitutional liberals”

The candidate of 2017 promised to “make the planet great again” by cutting down on CO2 emissions and banning pesticides, pledged to invest in hospitals, declared gender equality his mandate’s “greatest cause,” swore he would deliver a “cleaner politics” within his cabinet by forbidding any conflict of interest and pledged to guarantee asylum rights, among other measures. In the years since, Macron has allowed CO2 emissions to grow and been described as a “hypocrite” with a “catastrophic track record” by Greenpeace; he has imposed austerity on public health, with moves that have included closing hospital wards during a global pandemic; and he has retained in government a man facing allegations of rape, the aforementioned Gérald Darmanin. (Darmanin denies wrongdoing and at this stage the police have spoken to him as a witness rather than a suspect, but Macron has not asked him for a leave of absence, keeping him onboard despite nationwide feminist protests.) His “cleaner politics” project was buried with the Benalla scandal, a cover-up in which one of his aides actually passed himself off as a policeman and beat protesters. As for asylum seekers, instead of being provided with reliable refuge, as of February they were being chased by authorities after having their tents confiscated in the Calais winter cold. 

In less than four years, then, he has proceeded to alienate just about all the most progressive voters who put their trust in him in 2017: greens, feminists and the egalitarian left have all given up on him early. Perhaps such radical disillusionment was always likely—the precedents of Mitterrand, Hollande, or indeed Blair or Wilson in the UK might suggest as much. 

Less expected, however, was the way Macron alienated constitutional liberals, who soon condemned his government’s decision to write the French “state of emergency” (introduced after the 2015 Paris attacks) permanently into law. Civil libertarians who had welcomed his arrival were aghast at the repressive tactics used against the yellow vests. Police violence hit protesters and passersby alike, dousing them with tear gas, injuring them with rubber bullets: 25 yellow vests lost an eye or a hand to police weapons. In Marseilles, an elderly woman living close to a protest died after being hit by a police teargas grenade. As the UN and the Council of Europe condemned this brutal crackdown, Macron repeatedly refused to acknowledge that police violence was real. Members of the press, too, have been brutalised by the police and even arrested at protests. 

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The president’s anti-Muslim interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, stood in for him in February’s TV debate with Marine Le Pen © Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Is there any achievement at all? If so, it is on the world stage. Judah—a senior analyst at the Nato-aligned Atlantic Council—rates Macron’s one great success as his EU policy: “He has helped move Germany on from its austerity logic on Eurozone debt and expanded French influence in Brussels and across the continent.” 

But this progressive observer rates him as “quite a poor domestic president.” And the way that he is campaigning could soon make him something worse. The danger of a leader ignoring a portion of the electorate—which, in the case of Macron in his new incarnation, specifically means ignoring anyone who isn’t a conservative voter—has precedent. Namely, the divisive aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum, which set off the global shockwaves that Macron’s original election in 2017 had calmed. “It’s unlikely, but if we get a French ‘2016,’” Judah says, alluding to the possibility of a populist win by Le Pen, “it will be a much nastier affair, because the far right will be able to undermine the republic much more easily than people realise,” he said, citing the president’s ability to edit the constitution. 

Judah, a dual British-French national, will be able to vote, and would go for Macron in a runoff against the far right, because “having Le Pen cronies in charge of intelligence and the police is a terrifying prospect for French minorities.” But he has struggled to convince friends on the left, whom the president has “taken for granted,” that when push comes to shove it will be worth siding with Macron a second time.

Looking back, Macron’s “neither left nor right” slogan was exposed as a façade very early. Two of his first decisions set the course of a presidency that would steer towards greater inequality: in summer 2017, he ordered a major reduction in tax on the rich and cut housing aid for students. Everything since has been of a piece with those choices. Fast-forward to 2021, hospital workers are left exhausted and furious by a spending squeeze followed by a mishandled pandemic. In the locked-down economy, living conditions for the poorest have taken a hammering. Thousands of students now queue for soup kitchens; a wave of youth suicides has rippled
across society. 

Covid-19 is putting a strain on societies around the world, of course, and is not in itself a problem that can be laid at the president’s door. What is his responsibility is the priorities his government pursues in this emergency. He is driving through the new separatism law, which has provisions to crack down on online hate speech and the foreign funding of religious groups. But it is also a thinly veiled attempt at controlling Muslims under the pretence of fighting extremism—precisely the sort of divisive culture war politics that the Macron of 2017 suggested he would avoid. 

French Islamophobia has deep roots, dating back to its bloody colonialism, a subject on which the president has been inconsistent. In 2019, on a visit to the Ivory Coast (which has somewhat more Christians than Muslims), Macron mouthed standard liberal homilies, conceding colonialism was a “grave mistake”; but by December 2020, he was striking a different note in the context of Algeria, ruling out any official apology for French crimes. 

“How long can Macron avoid answering for his failures and betrayals, just because there’s no credible alternative?”

Under the cover of grand talk about “laïcité,” the general principle of secularism in public places, the thing that keeps bubbling up is the country’s inability to comprehend and accept one specific religion: Islam. Ostensibly, the argument is usually about security—the politics of Islamism and extremist ideology, not religion per se. But you can see that this is disingenuous by how much of the debate is consumed by what women wear: the “hijab row” resurfaces with regularity. It is a decade since the National Assembly passed, by 335 votes to one, a law to ban the full-face veil (or niqab) in public. This kind of veil is associated with the most conservative Islamic interpretations but—even so—it would be unimaginable in Britain to achieve such a consensus. In 2016, another moral panic was whipped up with a so-called “burkini” ban. 

One might have hoped that an avowedly liberal presidency would have drawn a line under such posturing and put France at ease with multiculturalism. But in 2019, Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, stirred things up anew—arguing that “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society.” And that was before school teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded at the hands of an Islamist terrorist last autumn, an appalling crime that should have been answered with steely calm and inclusive resolve—“protecting is not dividing,” as Macron himself put it in 2017. Instead, it was answered by the ratcheting up of divisive rhetoric. 

Though it all, the French media has appeared strangely reluctant to call Macron out on his most serious betrayals. Everyone in France knows his presidency is in disarray, with the pandemic widening the gaps that his policies have dug between the upper and lower classes. How long can Macron continue to avoid answering for his failures and betrayals just because there is no credible alternative?

Ten years ago, Marine Le Pen caused outrage when she compared Muslim street prayers to foreign occupation. Now interior minister Darmanin complains about halal and kosher food aisles in supermarkets, damns Le Pen as “too soft on Islam” and plots to outflank her from the right with the president’s blessing. It looks very much like a crude plan for a second-round contest against Le Pen, in which the Macron strategy is to grab so much of her terrain that she is left with nowhere to stand. Gabriel Attal, the spokesman for the French government, protests that it would be “absolutely cynical” to scheme and calculate towards this scenario delivering an easy win, and insists that he “hopes for a 2022 runoff without Le Pen.” But it is becoming harder and harder to avoid reading the Macron regime as playing exactly this dangerous game. Judah is not alone among formally sympathetic observers in sensing that Macron is making a “strategic mistake,” which could, by agreeing to fight on Le Pen’s turf, raise the chance of her victory.

Macron’s original sin was to believe that his election equalled a stamp of approval on his programme, when only 24 per cent of the electorate positively voted for him—the rest wanted to stop a far-right politician from becoming president. Forgetting this has led him to interpret his mandate as a personal licence to do anything—including his dangerous new project to further polarise French society in a risky gamble to cling on to the Elysée. The French wished for an alternative to Le Pen, not her feeble simulacrum.