Thursday 21 September 2017

A little less 'Jupiter' would help stop Macron-mania fading out

French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by his wife Brigitte, holds a baby as he visits the Robert-Debré paediatric hospital in Paris this week. Photo: Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron, flanked by his wife Brigitte, holds a baby as he visits the Robert-Debré paediatric hospital in Paris this week. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

August is the month when Paris is left largely to tourists as French officialdom takes to the coast and countryside for the annual holiday.

But for those who comprise President Emmanuel Macron's new administration, the summer break will be overshadowed by plunging ratings less than 100 days after his glittering inauguration. Several recent opinion polls have indicated that what the media had called 'Macron-mania' - the French fascination with its youngest president in the country's modern history - is fading.

As France's Ifop polling agency put it: "Apart from Jacques Chirac in 1995, a newly elected president has never seen his popularity rate falling as quickly during the summer after the election."

Even his much-maligned predecessors, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, had higher approval ratings at this stage of their presidencies.

Mr Macron's defenders counter that his overall ratings remain healthy, with over 50pc of French saying they approve of their 39-year-old president. But after the summer holidays comes the difficult task of implementing an ambitious domestic agenda, and Mr Macron will need all the popular support he can get.

Mr Macron's electoral triumph earlier this year upended France's staid politics, with his neophyte political movement trumping the country's traditional political divides to win both the presidency and control of parliament.

Presenting himself more as a centrist, the former investment banker and economic minister drew support from both left and right but given his main challenger was the far-right Marine Le Pen, his victory was less about what he actually represented and more about a popular swell to keep Ms Le Pen out.

Some attribute Mr Macron's plummeting ratings to an attitude that many French now complain is close to imperious. For such a young president - and one who sought to present himself on the campaign trail as very much a citizen of the world - he has shown a curiously old-fashioned love for pageantry.

Nicknamed 'Jupiter' for his aloof manner, Mr Macron keeps the media at a distance, eschewing direct questions, including the traditional Bastille Day interview, in favour of more staged public appearances.

But the growing gripes about Mr Macron go beyond questions of style. His goal of reducing France's budget deficit to the EU target of 3pc and making the economy more competitive requires navigating a whole range of interests and sensitivities. Plans to slash the military budget by €850m prompted a very public spat with General Pierre De Villiers, the head of the armed forces, last month, which culminated in De Villiers's resignation. Around the same time, the word 'authoritarian' started creeping into French media commentary about the president.

Other measures such as cutting housing subsidies and social security allowances, while at the same time proposing an easing of the wealth tax, have raised hackles.

And plans for a shake-up of labour laws, which would weaken worker protections, have galvanised France's powerful unions, raising the spectre of strikes and protests later in the year.

As domestic challenges mount, Mr Macron has been busy on the international stage, hosting US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Paris and convening talks aimed at resolving the Libyan conflict. While building up France's diplomatic profile after it took a dive during the Hollande years might appeal to some, for others the real work needs to be done at home.

Mr Macron's recent plan to boost the role of his wife Brigitte by giving the function of first lady legal status as an official of the state did not go down well, with some interpreting it as more evidence of his imperial tendencies.

"In terms of style and approach, it seems our new president thinks of himself as a mix of de Gaulle and Napoleon," one disillusioned Mr Macron voter told me this week. "It's too much, particularly when we have yet to see much of what he can actually deliver where it matters - in France."

Mr Macron's victory earlier this year not only staved off the prospect of a far-right incumbent in the Élysée Palace, it also gave France - knocked sideways by a string of deadly terrorist attacks since 2015 - a much-needed confidence boost.

But Mr Macron's habit of micro-managing and personalising power - his apparent need to be 'chief' is now increasingly mocked in French cartoons - carries risks, not least that he will have to shoulder all responsibility for what may go wrong.

Poor polling aside, Mr Macron has a large parliamentary majority behind him and with the rest of France's political factions weak, divided and dazed after this year's ground-breaking elections, there is much he can capitalise on. A little less of the Jupiter act might help.

Irish Independent

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