CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – He was compared to Barack Obama – a young and optimistic political star bringing hope and big ideas to France, a nation suffering through years of political pessimism.
Now, 16 months since taking up residence in the Elysee Palace, the political fortunes of French President Emmanuel Macron – who promised a “Revolution,” as his autobiography was grandly titled – are in trouble, and his big, centrist ideas for France and Europe face running aground.
On Wednesday, his interior minister, Gerard Collomb, resigned in what was just the latest blow to Macron. Collomb, a close ally, had said he wanted to run for mayor of Lyon, but political analysts see his departure as more evidence of trouble within Macron’s government. At the end of August, Macron’s highly popular environment minister and TV personality, Nicolas Hulot, quit, saying he felt frustrated by a lack of progress on climate policies.
“Clearly, the honeymoon effect is over, and it has been over for a long time,” said Sylvain Brouard, a political sciences expert at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News on Thursday. “His credibility in the public is pretty low.”
The fading of Macron’s star has been steady, and even dramatic.
Macron was elected in a landslide victory over far-right leader Marine Le Pen in May 2017 after building up his own political movement – La Republique En Marche – around pan-European ideals and promises to re-invigorate the French economy.
Shortly after his presidential win, his En Marche party seized about 60 percent of seats in the national assembly, France’s lower chamber.
It was, indeed, a revolutionary moment. For the first time since France’s Fifth Republic was founded in 1958, the two major parties – the Socialists on the left and the Republicans on the right – were not in the run-off for president.
The national assembly results crushed the historic left-right dynamics too. About 75 percent of incoming deputies had never held a seat and about half of the new lawmakers were women.
Macron’s ascendancy gave rise to comparisons to France’s most powerful politicians of the past – Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand.
Then, Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker at Rothschild, crusaded to turn France’s stagnant economy around by overhauling the welfare system and making its economy more flexible.
Since taking office, his government has made it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, cut a tax on wealth, trimmed housing benefits and took on the debt-ridden state railroad system. Macron is not done: He’s aiming for changes in pensions and education, among many other initiatives.
The problem is the economy hasn’t improved.
“The outcomes haven’t been very good,” said Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London.
In spite of Macron’s efforts to kick-start things, France’s economy is still stagnant and unemployment remains high.
In the past 15 years, France has fallen far behind Germany. In 2002, for instance, France and Germany were nearly par in terms of unemployment and per capita gross domestic product. Today, the average German is about 17 percent richer and Germany’s unemployment rate stands at about 3.5 percent, more than half that of France.
Disappointed, much of the French public now sees Macron as a president for the rich – and, to boot, uncaring.
“He comes across as arrogant, aloof and out-of-touch,” Marliere said. “He is not seen as having much empathy.”
This picture has hardened after he was caught telling a youth to call him “Mr. President” and in another episode, telling an unemployed aspiring gardener that it was easy to find a job.
Incredibly, Macron’s popularity is not much better than that of the very unpopular Francois Hollande at this point in their presidencies. On Thursday, Le Figaro newspaper reported a new poll pinning Macron’s popularity at 30 percent for October, only 7 percentage points higher than Hollande’s, the least popular at this point during a presidency.
“He seemed almost a man walking on water a year ago, so charming,” Marliere said about Macron. Now, he said, “the public in France is really turning against him.”
Marliere said French presidents, whose powers are unmatched in any other democracy, often face the danger of becoming isolated, living in a kind of alternate world inside the Elysee.
“The trouble is if you don’t delegate enough,” he said, “it becomes a sort of bubble. He’s very close to that situation.”
For now, Macron is not expected to stop pushing forward with his agenda to “transform” France and Europe.
But there are serious doubts about whether he will be able to accomplish what he set out to do.
A next big test will be the European Parliament elections in May. Macron’s ambitions in Europe are as outsized as those for France. He wants to build a new centrist alliance and push to bring Europe ever closer together by strengthening the euro monetary zone, developing a European budget and expanding Europe’s military.
In this context, he has set himself up as Europe’s liberal savior, someone Europeans can trust in the face of rising nationalism and populist governments.
Brouard, of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, said Macron’s message in European politics is akin to how he campaigned for the French presidency when he defeated Le Pen, the far-right leader.
“It’s either him or chaos, the extreme,” Brouard said. “He is doing the exact same thing in Europe – it’s either me or the far-right.”
But this strategy carries a lot of risk, Brouard said, and could end up strengthening far-right and anti-European forces.