The popularity of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has slumped—but then inside Macron the populist is Macron the elitist.
Emanuel Macron is not a happy man. The popularity of the French president has dropped so low as to make his US counterpart, Donald Trump, look like a rock star in comparison.
One manifestation of Macron’s falling out with the masses has been the gilets jaunes movement, staging weekly protests against initially his energy tax and eventually everything he seemed to stand for. He appears to most voters as an arrogant technocrat with sympathies only for the problems of the rich. Never mind that two years ago he saved France from the neo-fascist clutches of the Rassemblement National leader, Marine Le Pen, and Europe from the widening revolt signified by Britain’s ‘Brexit’ referendum.
When he was elected in 2017 Macron was viewed as the one democratic politician who could stem the tide of populism sweeping the European continent, as well as the new world. This is odd because, viewed through one lens, he is a populist himself.
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Populism is a kind of politics where the leader claims to speak directly for ‘the people’, eschewing the role of democratic intermediaries. In most countries where populism appears the existing parties are viewed as corrupt, representing only moneyed interests or simply out of touch. Macron was able to succeed because such views were common in France, as they are in many countries experiencing a populist revolt.
Some of the conditions in France are special to the Hexagon. Macron himself noted that French voters preferred strong presidents, as if elected kings, but then moved in the direction of regicide. All recent French presidents have experienced this phenomenon, with precipitous declines in popularity soon after receiving their mandates. There are many reasons for this but the most obvious are 30 years of lacklustre economic performance and a seemingly intractable unemployment rate which rarely dips below 9 per cent.
As with his predecessor, Francois Hollande, whom he advised, Macron advocated making layoffs easier so companies would not be afraid to hire new personnel when consumer demand seemed promising. He campaigned on this. But the new president’s first actions were to abolish the wealth tax and to introduce other measures viewed as friendly to France’s 1 per cent. Macron hoped to stem the outflow of entrepreneurs and create an atmosphere intended to encourage investment.
Such policies are a far cry from populism, though many leaders who have been called populists—such as Trump or the Hungarian leader, Victor Orbán—have offered hidden giveaways to the rich elite, while making it clear they share the racism and bigotry evinced by their supporters. By these measures Macron is clearly in the liberal camp.
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In terms of political structure, however, he mimics the constructions of illiberal regimes. In the early days of the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, facilitated the amalgamation of his confederation, absorbing peripheral nations with the slogan ‘national in form, socialist in content’—each turned into its own ‘Soviet socialist republic’. Macron’s politics are populist in form, elitist in content.
This view of La Macronie as populist can be attributed to the lack of institutional intermediaries. It was the collapse of the party system which enabled the rise of ‘Jupiter’, Macron’s grand name for himself. This undermining of institutions had been accomplished first on the right, as the former president Nicolas Sarkozy transformed the old Gaullist party into his own personal entourage.
On the left, it was the complete ineptitude of Hollande as a politician which undermined the Socialists. Hollande presided over a highly factionalised party when he was its secretary and he lacked any charisma to hold the factions together when the time came to implement economic reforms. He managed the amazing feat of achieving a personal popularity score of 4 per cent when French voters were last polled to that effect.
The cherry on Macron’s electoral cake came just before the 2017 presidential election when his most likely rival, Francois Fillon—earlier a Sarkozy henchman—was revealed to be thoroughly corrupt, accepting bribes in the form of extravagant clothes and having padded public payrolls with jobs for his family, often with no measurable output. This left Macron as the only possible establishment standard-bearer against Le Pen.
Thus the upstart candidate marched to victory based on the luck of having no serious opposition.While a competent, even brilliant, technocrat, Macron had no need of the skills most democratic politicians learn: coalition-building, inclusion, persuasion. Never having held electoral office, he did not even know he needed these skills.
Consequently, his behaviour was arrogant and high-handed. A product of France’s elite schools and of a career where his actions were unlikely to be corrected by failure, he was convinced of his own brilliance and insisted others act accordingly.
They didn’t. As so often in France, they took to the streets–this time wearing yellow vests as a symbol of their disenfranchisement. Once again though, Macron is lucky. It is not only that presidential and parliamentary elections are a long way off—the elections for the European Parliament take place in May but these are considered relatively inconsequential in France—but also that there are simply no political structures to get in his way. The ‘ellow vests’ have eschewed any organisational strategy that might make them durable. The French party system is decimated and even Macron’s La République en Marche is not so much a party as a fan club, the bulk of its members having no serious political experience.
The saddest part of all this is not just that France stumbles on but that Europe and other advanced countries have few politicians to turn to in defence of democratic civilisation. Leadership in Britain, Tory or Labour, is incompetent. Merkel’s Germany has reached its climacteric. Italy’s non-fascist opposition is balkanised (as, of course, are the Balkans) and no countries east of the Elbe river offer reassurance. Brussels is perceived by many as out of touch. The list goes on and the prospects are depressing.
Oddly enough, hope might come from the other side of the Atlantic. The Trump regime is facing its endgame and the Democrats newly elected to Congress will certainly speed his demise. If civilisation can survive the interim, the populist tide may turn well before Macron needs to confront the voters.