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Macron one year on: unloved but unchallenged

Emmanuel Macron gives a press conference at the Elysee, April 16 2018 REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool

A year ago, on May 7, Emmanuel Macron became the youngest president of France’s Fifth Republic. His election was hailed by many as the beginning of a new era for France as he vowed to shake up the country and Europe. He's been hyper-active but what has he achieved?

Despite being the first French president not to have done compulsory military service, on the day of his inauguration Emmanuel Macron rode up the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris in a military command car.

Five days later, he paid a visit to French forces deployed to fight jihadists in west Africa.

After doubts over whether the 39-year old with relatively little experience in politics, and none in elected office could fill the presidential shoes, Macron sent out a clear message that he had commander in chief credentials.

[It was] “surprising how quickly Emmanuel Macron slipped into the role,” says Adam Plowright, author of The French exception, Emmanuel Macron extraordinary rise and risk. “It was a seamless transition.”

And it was no accident.

“This was a man who’d spent his whole life thinking about politics and the role of the State,” Plowright continues, “a man who’d talked about politics with his school-friends as a schoolboy. So in some ways in his head he was prepared for the role. But I think it surprised a lot of people how quickly he managed to adopt the poise and mannerisms the French expect from their presidents.”

The self-styled Republican monarch

Macron also sought to distinguish himself out from his predecessor François Hollande who, having promised to be a “normal president”, ended up being seen as an indecisive leader, lacking in authority.

“He’s used the man who was his own political mentor as really a sort of anti-model” says Plowright.

“We’ve seen Macron make very deliberate attempts to show himself as very much the boss, somebody who makes decisions even if they’re unpopular.”

Macron has cloaked himself in the symbols of power, using the pharaonic Pyramid of the Louvre Museum as the backdrop for his victory speech on May 7 and using the sumptuous Versailles palace, former seat of French kings, to welcome Russian president Vladimir Putin.

But his critics deride him for having illusions of grandeur and authoritarian tendencies.

At a demonstration organized by the hard-left on Saturday [5th of May], opponents carried effigies depicting him as Napoleon, the Roman god Jupiter, or a crown-wearing monarch.

Having championed negotiation, bottom up democracy and a listening ear as head of the En Marche (On the move) movement he founded in 2016, Macron was, and remains, the big boss.

“[En Marche] was also an incredibly vertical organization in the sense it was centered around Emmanuel Macron who took all the big decisions, often on his own, without consulting even some of his closest advisers.”

One of the challenges now facing Macron’s LREM (Republic on the move) political party is how to marry the ideals of the grassroots EM movement with the reality that it was about bringing Macron to power. Some members have publicly thrown in the towel.

The reformist “President of the rich”

Macron was elected on a “neither right nor left” programme aimed at transforming France into a more business-friendly country. He promised to reform its institutions, freeing up the market to allow France not just to compete, but thrive in a globalised world. At the same time he promised to protect the weakest from the ravages of globalisation.

So far he’s focused on the first part of that pact. There has been an anti-corruption “moralization” law; a reform of the labour code using presidential decree to make it easier to hire and fire; and a finance law which got rid of the wealth tax and replaced it with a 30 percent flat tax on income.

Most recently Macron unveiled plans to scrap the 30 percent exit tax which was set up in 2011 to dissuade high-earners from investing capital outside France.

“He presented himself as a man that was going to liberate French entrepreneurs and encourage investors to come to France,” says Plowright. “So on that side of the agenda he’s been very effective. He’s changed the image of France overseas, and we see that with the amount of foreign investment which is coming into France and which is up sharply since his election.”

While Macron has benefitted considerably from “economic tail winds” which have seen a slight upturn in the European Union as a whole “the French economy is going better, growth has increased and unemployment has fallen,” says Plowright.

There have been other big reforms: university admissions, the railways, a terrorism and domestic security law giving the police greater powers and new, controversial, immigration and asylum legislation to speed up the asylum process.

Such measures have gone down well with the right-wing voters. But the effects of the other, more social, side which was supposed to soften the sharp edges of the global economy, have yet to be felt.

“He wanted to introduce protections for the self-employed to allow them to claim unemployment benefit," Plowright explains. "He has a very ambitious programme for bringing in full life training and investing massively in adult education which is all about his idea of protecting people against [inevitable] changes in the workplace. We haven’t seen the full results of that."

That legislation is going through parliament, but until it's passed "We're definitely seeing a president much more focused on trying to improve the business environment in France and the other side of it will I think take longer to come through.”

In October last year France's own finance ministry published data showing the new finance law would chop off an average of more than half a million euros on the country's top 100 wealthiest households's tax bill. And overall, 1 per cent of France’s families would capture about 44 per cent of the tax breaks.

So it comes as little surprise that Macron's critics on the left and far-right have dubbed him “President of the rich”.

Plowright says it important to understand Macron’s background: born into a family of doctors, he went through some of the most elite universities in Paris before becoming an investment banker with Rothschilds.

“He’s someone who’s spent his adult life among very privileged people, I call them life’s winners: people who’ve been successful, are generally wealthy. That’s the background to that label.”

“On the income tax there’s no doubt that what he’s done in scrapping wealth taxes will lead to greater inequality,” Plowright continues. “You will see the highest earners will undoubtedly benefit from some of that. But Macron's view is that the greatest inequality in any society is unemployment.”

Plowright admits it’s a “political gamble” and unemployment (currently around 9% as opposed to the eurozone average of 8.5 per cent) will have to come down further.

Macron’s opponents within the Communist-backed CGT union meanwhile continue to question the merits of job creation if they're insecure zero-type contracts.

The opposition

Macron’s LREM has a majority in parliament and little opposition. His party has knocked the stuffing out of the centre-right Republicans, the far-right National Front is divided and going through an identity crisis, only the hard-left France Unbowed seems able to sing a genuinely different tune as anti-Macron demonstrations on May 1st and May 5th both showed.

Rail workers are striking two days per week until June in response to proposed changes to their status as part of the reform of the SNCF railway, Air France staff are striking over proposed pay cuts and students are protesting reforms to the high school certificate (Baccalaureat) and admission to university.

Plowright says the protests come as no surprise.

“Every French president that comes into office knows that very early in their term they’re going to be tested by trade unions and street protests which are very much part of French political culture and Emmanuel Macron was certainly under no illusions that he would face exactly the same situation.”

Plowright believes there’ll be more protests over upcoming changes to the civil service and huge protests when Macron tackles pension reform next year. However, he doubts there'll be sufficient pressure from the streets to force the government to change course.

“Their logic is that they intend to go to the end, they’re not going to be forced into u-turns or compromises in the way some of their predecessors were. And I think they’re reading the situation correctly in that there is not enough support in the country for these strikes.”

Macron is keen to show he’s not for turning on his reform programme. On a trip to Greece in September 2017 he announced he was “fully determined and won’t cede any ground, not to slackers, nor cynics, nor hardliners.”

The champion of Europe

Macron came to power as an unflinching Europhile: Europe’s national anthem, Ode to Joy, accompanied him on his three minute walk to the Louvre to make his victory speech on election night a year ago.

“He came into office as the sort of visionary for Europe,” Plowright says, “a man with a real blueprint for how he thought the European union should develop and a lot of that was about deepening the links between the members, deepening the organization as a federal organisation of states.”

Macron’s idea is that if Europe is to defeat the euro-sceptic forces rising in countries like France, Italy, Austria and Hungary then we need a stronger not weaker Europe: one that protects people better. He's pleaded for the bloc to go further in linking its economies, governments and armies.

“The big question for me going forward is how much support he has for that agenda and what is absolutely critical is Angela Merkel in Germany,” analyses Plowright.

But weakened after difficult elections last September, it’s not clear whether the new German coalition is prepared to sign up to Macron’s agenda.

“If they don’t I think that agenda is dead in the water.”

Macron needs allies outside the Franco-German alliance and for the moment Plowright doesn’t “see that many”. “So a lot of that will come down to his powers of persuasion.”

There’s no doubt Macron believes in those powers.

“He’s been described as being able to seduce a chair and has been very effective throughout his career at building sometimes unusual relationships often with people much older than him,” Plowright explains.

“They include his wife, who’s 25 years his senior, and we’ve seen him sort of deploy powers of seduction on Donald Trump with whom he’s built an unlikely relationship.”

Macron scored a PR coup when he invited Trump as guest of honour to the Bastille Day military parade on July 14 2017, marking the centenary of the US entering the first world war.

With the special relationship between Britain and the US now soured, Macron has sought to represent Europe and European ideals: arguing against Trump’s protectionism, against US withdrawal from Cop21 climate change agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. The two men hug, nod and slap one another one the back but there are no concrete results yet.

“Trump at least respects him and will listen to him, [but] whether he will take his advice is another matter,” says Plowright. “There’s no evidence he’s swayed Trump on any of the main issues.”

The Globe-trotter

Armed with his catchphrase "France is back", Macron has globe-trotted around all four corners of the world, telling audiences about his economic reforms and positioning himself as the pre-eminent leader in Europe.

He’s visited Beijing, Washington, New Delhi and Sydney, and has welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egypt's leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Paris within the last year.

While Macron's secured a lot of positive headlines for his diplomacy Plowright questions how much weight he has in influencing leaders and their policies, notably on the Syria conflict, the Iran nuclear deal and climate change.

He cites the example of the political crisis between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia last year when Macron invited Lebanon’s president Hariri, enabling Saudi Arabia to save face.

Macron was like “a fireman, a go-between, somebody who lowered the tensions and who enabled a solution to that crisis. So I think that’s one area where he’s been successful.”

Other positives are keeping the issue of climate change high up the agenda when Donald Trump is backing away from American commitments; and talking about west Africa and the need for stabilisation and security measures via the French-led G8 Sahel project which is fighting jihadist groups in west Africa.

“But beyond that, there’s no evidence that he’s swayed Donald Trump on any of the main issues, there’s no evidence that Putin listens to him on Syria… [or that] the Chinese president sees Macron as an important partner. Time will tell.”

Unloved, unchallenged and very determined

As a young, business-friendly, fluent English speaker, Macron has had a good press internationally. But he still needs to win over the country as a whole. A poll on Sunday showed 55 percent of respondents were disappointed with his first year.

“Clearly at this stage he doesn’t have the backing of a majority of French people, he’s damaged by this reputation of being president of the rich,” Plowright admits.

“And even within his own party we’ve heard people stress the need [for more] of the social side of his manifesto to come through to help his public image more broadly. Where he’s lost support has been particularly amongst voters on the left who voted for him.”

But as Plowright points out his opponents are faring worse.

“At the moment Macron might be unloved, but he’s unchallenged in the sense that all of his political opponents are much less popular than he is. And that goes across the board from the far left to the far right.”

What’s more, he seems to care little about popularity, at least for the moment.

“He has a different vision to career politicians and he’s said himself he doesn’t intend to be in politics his whole life,” says Plowright.

If he completes this five-year term in office, it will be his longest-ever job.

“My sense from talking close to him is that he would rather be a one term president but who’s seen as having implemented everything he said he was going to do […] than to be a two-term president who made compromises to stay in power.”