(CN) — French President Emmanuel Macron’s political fortunes, brought to the brink by months of massive and violent protests in Paris, are on the rise again and the brash liberal reformist is, remarkably, poised to become Europe’s most important politician.
A confluence of factors, and Macron’s own political savvy, are providing the 42-year-old president with grounds for relief and even confidence, even as he remains deeply unpopular.
He heads into the summer holding sway in a number of major issues, including deciding who will become the next president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, and how Brexit-paralyzed Great Britain will behave in regard to Europe.
His political upswing can be traced to his ability to quell — for now, at least — the unrest and unruliness brought about by the Yellow Vest movement, which at times seemed setting the stage for a new French revolution.
Macron’s neoliberal and middle-class urban agenda — and his image as the gap-toothed smiling former investment banker — were the focus of so much anger in France. The protesters, supported by Macron’s political opponents on the left and right, demanded he resign.
In large part, he quieted the insurrection by dropping some of his reforms but also by partially embracing the protest movement and adopting its language.
For several weeks, Macron’s poll numbers have been inching back up. Last month, French opinion polls found Macron with a 40% popularity rating — a big turnaround. After he took office in 2017, Macron enjoyed the support of more than 60% of French people, but that dipped into the mid-20s, the political graveyard zone, over the winter.
He won the presidency on a platform of pledges to renew France’s sagging economy and global standing while making Europe stronger and more unified. But his popularity sank in 2018, precipitated by a scandal involving his bodyguard caught on video dressed as a police officer and violently manhandling protesters at May Day manifestations.
By last Christmas, Macron was in freefall. His charm had worn off. The Yellow Vest movement, which began as roadside protests in rural France over fuel taxes, were in full swing and had brought central Paris to its knees. In awe, the world watched as protesters stormed government buildings, burned cars, clashed with riot police and ransacked the Arc de Triomphe.
Columnists wrote Macron off: Smug and isolated inside his presidential palace, the Elysee, it looked like the “Macron effect” had run its course.
Top ministers and allies were jumping ship; his brand new party, the Republic on the Move, was at risk of losing its grip in parliament; and his opponents, chief among them far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her National Rally, sensed blood in the waters and attacked him mercilessly.
But Macron is clawing his way back.
On a personal level, he’s done that with a strategy to dispel the image French have of him as a Jupiter-like and aloof president with his head in the clouds.
To achieve that, he vowed to listen to the concerns of the protesters and in January opened an innovative nationwide listening and talking session — the so-called Great National Debate. He’s spent a lot of time meeting people around France and in his videos he can be seen holding hands for long stretches as he listens earnestly and talks.
On a policy level, he’s agreed to cut taxes, halt pension reforms and raise the minimum wage — concessions to the protesters. In April, he vowed to cut more taxes and promote the use of referendums in France, a key demand of the Yellow Vests.
The Yellow Vest protests continue, but they are greatly diminished and attract less attention. Last weekend was “Acte XXX” — the 30th consecutive weekend of protests. But the number of protesters nationwide has dropped to about 10,000 compared to around 300,000 when they began.
A tough and often brutal police response to the demonstrations — the use of plastic bullets, water cannons and truncheons have been heavily criticized — and natural fatigue and discord among protesters are other reasons that explain the smaller numbers.
But Macron’s fortunes and lofty aims to overhaul both French society and the European Union have been buoyed mostly by the outcome of the European elections.
Macron came into political office in his own insurrection against the establishment: As a former finance minister under a Socialist government and a Rothschild investment banker, Macron crafted his own political party, the Republic on the Move, and won the Elysee, the presidential palace, and then a majority in parliament, the National Assembly.
For the European elections in May, Macron created a new party, called Renaissance, and it picked up about 22% of the votes, a good showing and second only to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally at 23%. Macron has succeeded in dismantling the old two-party system in France, which Socialists and Republicans dominated.
But the game-changer is that Macron’s party is aligned with liberals in the European Parliament and this addition of Renaissance parliamentarians will allow the liberal group to become one of the major groups in Brussels for the first time.
Until now Europe’s traditional centrist powers — the Socialists and Democrats on the left and the European People’s Party on the right — have held a majority. When the parliament convenes next, they are expected to need Macron’s liberals to make a majority.
As a sign of Macron’s newfound influence, he’s even gotten himself another new party.
This week the group of liberals in the European Parliament, who called themselves the Alliance of European Liberals and Democrats, announced they were changing their name because Macron was unhappy with the word “liberal” because of its negative connotation in France.
“Macron’s party was adamant that it wanted to avoid the word ‘liberal,’ which is often used negatively in France as a representation of heartless ultra-capitalism,” Politico reported.
So, after creating the Republic on the Move and Renaissance, Macron now has Renew Europe too.
“Our new group in the European Parliament has chosen a new name: Renew Europe,” the liberal group’s leader, Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, announced Wednesday on Twitter. “We’re stronger than ever and have the unique chance to shape Europe.”
On the European stage, Macron is poised to become even more influential, and perhaps the EU’s leading voice with the pending departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It is uncertain what Merkel will do next, but her time in the chancellorship is ending.
Last year, she announced she will not run again for chancellor in 2021 and she ceded control over her party, the Christian Democratic Union, to her chosen successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
But it is far from clear if Kramp-Karrenbauer or another German politician can fill the shoes of Merkel, who is seen as Europe’s most powerful politician and its steady hand.
With the fourth-biggest economy in the world and Europe’s strongest, Germany, Europe’s most populous nation, obviously plays a major role in European affairs. But in the vacuum that is opening with the pending departure of Merkel, no other German politician has come to the fore to replace her.
There is a chance that Merkel will choose to stay in politics and even run to become the next president of the European Commission, the executive body of the EU.
Just this week, Macron said he would support a Merkel bid to replace Jean-Claude Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister who is president of the European Commission.
“If she wanted it, I would support her,” Macron told a Swiss French-language television, RTS. “Of course I would, because firstly I think we need someone strong. Europe needs new faces and strong faces, so we need personalities that in effect embody that.”
Regardless, Macron appears to be in a position of power as Europe struggles to find a new equilibrium at a time of great uncertainty with the United Kingdom fighting over whether it wants to be part of the EU and Germany fighting over who will become the next chancellor.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)