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By old-established custom, France’s political life springs back into action only in early September, as the country’s cabinet ministers, parliamentarians and senior civil servants return from summer vacations.
This tradition is being upheld this year as well; parliament has only begun debating this week the crucial changes to labour laws that are the foundation of President Emmanuel Macron’s promised economic reform.
However, in all other respects, this is hardly a normal return to politics. For although Macron is still hailed as the one successful politician who succeeded in overturning the anti-immigrant and anti-EU populist wave which threatened to overtake Europe, big cracks are appearing in his edifice. And that is even before its foundations are properly consolidated.
The fall in Macron’s approval ratings has proven to be deeper and faster than that of almost any other politician in modern France. In July, according to YouGov, Macron’s ratings slumped seven percentage points, from 43% to 36%. All this after his party, La République En Marche, won an absolute majority in France’s parliamentary elections barely three months ago.
As French pollsters IFOP noted, ‘never before has a newly elected president witnessed such a fast decline in popularity during the first summer following his election’.
Macron is still hailed as the one successful politician who succeeded in overturning the anti-immigrant and anti-EU populist wave which threatened to overtake Europe, big cracks are appearing in his edifice
One explanation for such a steep drop in popularity is Macron’s curious love for the trappings of the presidency. He has addressed sailors on France’s aircraft carrier wearing a pilot’s bomber jacket; and summoned ministers and MPs to gilded palaces for dressing-downs.
Macron’s close advisers claim that this has nothing to do with the president’s elevated opinions of himself, but is part of a strategy to restore pride in national institutions and ensure that patriotism does not get hijacked by the far right.
Perhaps, but the endless staged ceremonies are beginning to grate and are already attracting puns from the media. There is a fine line between acting as a powerful president – something the French like – and behaving like kings, whom the French have in the past decapitated.
And despite his assured demeanour, Macron has also been guilty of some fundamental political errors. The first was to claim, soon after he came to office, to have discovered that France’s finances are in worse shape than he anticipated.
He is right: the country’s public deficit is 3.2% of GDP – or €2.1 trillion – way above the 3% limit dictated by France’s membership in the Eurozone, and government spending accounted for 56.2% of GDP in 2016, the highest in the EU.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has said that this situation is ‘unsustainable’, adding: ‘We are dancing on a volcano that is rumbling ever louder. The French are hooked on public spending. Like all addictions, it doesn’t solve any of the problems it is meant to ease. And like all addictions, it takes will and courage to detox’.
However, Macron’s claims that some of these awful figures surprised him convinced few voters, since he is an investment banker by profession and served as economy minister until last year. Presumably, therefore, he had plenty of time to study France’s financial books.
‘We are dancing on a volcano that is rumbling ever louder. The French are hooked on public spending. Like all addictions, it doesn’t solve any of the problems it is meant to ease'
And the measures he has taken to address France’s finances look unusual. After praising the armed forces and surrounding himself with honour guards, Macron abruptly announced a cut of €850 million in the defence budget. This publicly humiliated General Pierre de Villiers, the chief of the armed forces, who resigned claiming that he could ‘no longer guarantee the protection of France’.
He then announced that the armed forces will get a handsome rise in the 2018 budget and beyond, without explaining why, if this were the case, the abrupt cut in spending was so necessary a mere six months earlier.
There was, then, the rather curious affair of the president’s determination to regularise the status of his wife as France’s ‘first lady’ complete with an office and a budget.
Although this was an admirable exercise in upholding transparency and good governance, it merely attracted attention from intrepid journalists who turned their focus on the other costs of the presidency. Among their findings was that Macron is partial to applying large dollops of make-up, all courtesy of the French taxpayer.
And the much-hyped reform of France’s labour laws has come under scrutiny, too. Hovering at around 9.5%, France’s unemployment rate is more than double that of Germany (3.9%) or Britain (4.5%).
Unemployment was a key pillar of his election campaign, and he vowed to slash joblessness to not more than 7% by the end of his presidential term in 2022 by liberalising France’s complex labour code, which runs to approximately 3,000 pages.
Macron's proposed reforms are hardly revolutionary and will probably not seriously dent French unemployment figures, especially among the young
Yet the reforms announced by his government will allow only small or middle-sized French enterprises to negotiate their own salary packages outside union-mandates ones.
Other measures include bringing down the cost of shedding workers, and France’s powerful unions will have less of a say in collective bargaining – employers will negotiate on a company level instead.
This is hardly revolutionary and will probably not seriously dent French unemployment figures, especially among the young.
And, as parliament returned to work this week, so did the threats of workers’ strikes. Further battles lie ahead, over the budget, and over the ambitious European agenda which Macron envisages after the German general election later this month.
Paris is probably expecting too much from a weary German chancellor who is determined to help her French ally, but may not be able to deliver on much of what Macron envisages.
Sources close to the government claim that Macron’s difficulties are just the teething problems of any administration’s early days. And they also justifiably point out that he has been more courageous than any of his predecessors in mapping out both tax and expenditure cuts as key instruments in stimulating France’s sluggish economy.
Still, Macron remains vulnerable, if only because he has personalised power to such an extent that he will shoulder all the blame for what may go wrong. And, while he has succeeded in destroying France’s old political party system, he has yet to create a suitable substitute.
Benjamin Agnew, an undergraduate at Manchester University, has provided background research for this article.
Banner image: French President Emmanuel Macron and then Chief of the Defence Staff General Pierre de Villiers during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Élysées. De Villiers resigned after Macron announced a €850 million cut in the defence budget. Courtesy of Christian Liewig/ABACAPRESS.COM.
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.