A little bit of piety can take you a long way—especially if you promised voters a "new way" of politicsby / August 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Emmanuel Macron is having fun. The 39-year-old has now been French president for just over 100 days, and he has enjoyed every second of it.
He was lowered from a helicopter into a submarine in July; looked like an extra from Top Gun when he met military personnel later that month; played tennis in a wheelchair to promote Paris’s bid to host the Olympics in 2024.
Even his more somber moments, like the expansive and dull speech he gave to his parliamentarians in Versailles, are tinged with a sense of mischievous self-awareness—“look at how serious I’m being,” the glint in his eye seems to be saying.
His comms operation often capitalises on this, and videos and pictures of him shamelessly flirting with Justin Trudeau or picking up the phone of the Élysée switchboard have swamped the government’s social media channels.
Emmanuel Macron is having fun, but he probably shouldn’t be: his approval ratings are now the lowest for any modern-era president’s first 100 days, sitting at an uncomfortable 36 per cent, and down from 62 per cent when he was first elected.
His government’s record in Parliament doesn’t really explain this vertiginous fall: La Republique En Marche has passed several laws already, including ones on labour reforms and ethics in public life, both of which were important parts of his manifesto.
Then again, Parliament was never going to be the site of his downfall. His party has the kind of majority that probably keeps Theresa May up at night, and both (former) main parties are too consumed by their own post-mortems to form a coherent opposition.
Step away from the national assembly and the picture is already slightly bleaker. Four of Macron’s ministers had to resign early on because of a nascent expenses scandal, an army general quit in protest at the severity of cuts to the military, and the proposed reduction of housing benefits to young people by 5 euro a month inflamed the left.
This doesn’t quite paint the whole picture, however—if he is as talented and charismatic as a breathless press described him during the election campaign, the wonder boy of centrist politics should be able to survive these flesh wounds.
A seemingly minor incident may offer more of a clue. Emmanuel Macron tried to create an official role of First Lady for his wife Brigitte earlier this month, then backtracked as the widespread outrage and ridicule made the proposal too toxic.
While the idea wasn’t fundamentally daft, the message it sent was symptomatic of a wider issue: Macron isn’t your normal president, and as Emmanuel wants, so Emmanuel does.
Had he been more or less anyone else, it probably wouldn’t have turned into a controversy, but the one issue with setting oneself up as a “jupiterian” figure—to use his word—is that there is nowhere to hide, and little goodwill from the sort of long-established support base other politicians may enjoy.
It would be disingenuous to deny the enormity of the feat of Macron’s incredible rise to power, but every fairytale has a villain, and in this case it might just be the man himself.
Macron won by being fiercely ambitious and running a brilliant campaign, but he also won because there was no-one else to snatch the crown away from him.
The right had picked a candidate mired by personal and financial scandals, the left had gone for a little-known and controversial figure, and far-left Mélenchon and neofascist Marine Le Pen repulsed most mainstream voters.
Disappointed by five years of Hollande and despairing at the selection of politicians on show, France went for what it saw as the least bad option—someone who at least would provide some change from the never-ending war of two-party politics.
What it didn’t sign up for was a real-life showing of Tintin at the Élysée, and having to watch their supposed saviour so obviously having the time of his life, and forgetting that a bit of piety can take you a long way.
Macron was once mocked for saying in an interview that he thought that what French people wanted, deep down, was to be governed by a king again. He may well have been right—what Hollande and Sarkozy’s presidencies showed is that the French yearn for a head of state who doesn’t get distracted by their own human failings.
Noticing the symptoms isn’t the same as coming up with a cure, though—as Macron may well find out soon, the French have little time for insouciant monarchs.