Affairs: The debate / France
Should Emmanuel Macron stay or go?
When the French president was elected in 2017, his landslide victory seemed to signal a transformative moment for a nation divided and unsure of its footing on the global stage. As he seeks re-election, our panel discusses whether he has earned the right to serve again.
In April, Emmanuel Macron will ask his fellow citizens for a second stint in the Élysée Palace. Any president seeking re-election is a known quantity; for Macron, who seemed to come from nowhere in 2017, aged 39, the contrast with his first campaign will be especially stark. Unlike most recent outsider candidates in the West, Macron wasn’t a know-nothing yahoo with a grudge or a grandstander hoping that voters would mistake celebrity for authority. After a career in finance, he had served as an adviser to then president François Hollande, before being appointed as economy, industry and digital affairs minister in 2014. For a self-styled outsider, he was quite an insider.
Macron’s 2017 manifesto promised not only to reform France but to transform it. That would have been uphill work at the best of times. Alongside the pandemic, the challenges he has faced include France’s sclerotic bureaucracy, its plodding economy and an entrenched tradition of theatrical political dissatisfaction, agitated by populist provocateurs, such as the gilets jaunes (yellow vests).
The question of whether he should be granted a second term will be a simple one to answer if this year’s election becomes a choice between Macron and thuggish nationalist Marine Le Pen, as it did in 2017 – or, worse, between Macron and odious far-right crank Éric Zemmour. But on his own merits, does he deserve another go?
Meet the panel
Araud was France’s permanent representative to the UN from 2009 to 2014, before serving as the country’s ambassador to the US until 2019. He was also its ambassador to Israel between 2003 and 2006, under the presidency of Jacques Chirac. Araud has held posts at Nato and the French foreign affairs and defence ministries.
Belgian journalist, author and broadcaster Ockrent is a former editor in chief of weekly magazine L’Express. She has occupied prominnent positions across the French media, serving as a news anchor on networks Antenne 2 and tf1, and as chief operating officer of France 24 and Radio France Internationale.
Joseph de Weck
De Weck is the author of Emmanuel Macron: Der Revolutionäre Präsident, a German-language essay on Macron’s France. He is Europe director at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic and geopolitical risk consultancy, and a contributor to publications including Foreign Policy and Internationale Politik Quarterly. He has a background in financial and trade diplomacy.
In his 2017 manifesto, Macron claimed that he would transform France. Has he achieved this?
gérard araud: In 2017, France faced a populist wave that was coming from both the far right and far left. Many were attacking the establishment; they were ready to toss the table because they believed that they no longer had a place at it. Macron came from nowhere. Before, you typically had to have been around for about 30 years to be a presidential candidate. He only became known in politics in 2014, so it was quite a feat. He was sort of a centrist populist, sweeping away the traditional parties.
“Macron was represented as the enemy but the real enemy was the bourgeois technocrats who had been in power for decades”
He now has a bloc in parliament, La République En Marche!, which he didn’t have in 2017. Is there a Macronist constituency?
christine ockrent: Yes. It explains why, despite the gilets jaunes and coronavirus, he has maintained a high level of public support. The paradox is that he might have the constituency but he and his small group of friends have not been able to transform themselves into a political party in the conventional sense.
ga: He was elected as the candidate of the haves against the have-nots. That has had consequences. And he didn’t have political experience; he had never been elected. He comes from the upper-middle class and went to the best schools but he doesn’t really know the French people. It was a lonely victory and he has remained a lonely person.
Macron’s polling numbers are holding up well. He currently has an approval rating of 42 per cent, which is far better than Nicolas Sarkozy’s or François Hollande’s at the same point in their presidencies. Do the French actually like him?
joseph de weck: I wouldn’t say that they like him but they do respect him. That’s a big difference between Macron and his two predecessors. Hollande was seen as risible and Sarkozy as “President Bling-Bling”. Macron’s relationship with the French people is very Gaullist. As Christine and Gérard have said, he is quite alone. That was the case with Charles de Gaulle, who also saw himself as a patriot, belonging neither to the left nor right, who had a direct relationship with the nation. In the gilets jaunes crisis, Macron spoke straight to the people. In his 2017 campaign, he won respect for not shying away from difficult debates with, say, the unions.
“I would give him credit for the economic reforms but the political climate has worsened”
ga: This might be a caricature but he was elected by people who feel at ease in the globalised economy. He has never proved that he is also responding to the concerns of people living in small cities, in suburbs – people who feel excluded by globalisation. There’s also something in his style. He is too slim, too elegant. He has a problem relating to the man on the street. His lack of political experience has amplified awkward moments. Take, for example, his speeches in front of the [gilded Élysée Palace] decorations, which could be taken as a provocation by people who are suffering. That makes him look grand bourgeois, even if he’s not particularly.
How well has he done in facing down populism?
ga: What was striking when we had the gilets jaunes crisis was their hatred of Macron. He’s a centrist, a moderate. There is no rational reason to hate him. You can disagree with him but why hate him? There was an incredible level of violence directed at him personally, to the point that he couldn’t freely get out of the presidential palace. So there is this irrational element. Joseph is right; he went out to speak after the most violent moments of the unrest but he basically spoke to the local elite. He has not yet bridged this rift between him and a lot of the public.
co: Macron was effectively represented by the gilets jaunes as the enemy but the real enemy was the system, those bourgeois technocrats who had been in power for decades. That system now has Macron’s face on it. In France, the presidential election is meant – and was meant by De Gaulle – to create a link between the person elected and the people at large. Everything is personalised.
Have Macron’s economic reforms helped France through the pandemic? Unemployment is now lower than it was before the crisis, while investment and new company registrations are up.
co: I think so, though it’s impossible to separate the coronavirus crisis and the economic recovery from the huge injection of public money that no left-wing politician could have dreamt of. But Macron had promised to reform the country and everybody is for reforms – as long as they don’t affect them personally. He managed to reform the railway system but didn’t succeed with the retirement system. The perception of him as the president of the elite has put a haze over many of the changes he has tried to enact, including in the health system. But if you take away the effect of the pandemic and try to make an assessment of Macron’s social and economic performance, you’ll see that he has done the job, more or less. Nobody’s ever satisfied, especially the French.
jdw: I’m currently promoting my book in Germany. When I list what Macron did in the two years before the pandemic, people are impressed because almost nothing has been done in terms of economic reforms in Germany in the past 16 years or so [since Angela Merkel became chancellor]. The problem is that Macron achieved this by centralising power in the Élysée and being confrontational. He didn’t democratise France’s political institutions as he promised and as many wish. I’d give him credit for the economic reforms but the political climate has worsened.
Coronavirus was a major challenge for every government. Macron went in hard, making a coronavirus pass a condition of entry to all sorts of places. Was his approach a success?
jdw: In times of crisis, you see that a centralised system can be a big advantage. Merkel was unable to take decisions that were as bold as Macron’s in July; he basically asked the whole population to get vaccinated. Macron will probably capitalise politically on this but the French system has its own risks. What if you have a bad guy at the top who makes bad decisions? But right now we’re seeing the upside of that system.
“Because he looks like a liberal icon, people don’t realise that Macron is a realist who believes in the balance of power”
Macron has an expansive vision of France’s role on the world stage; maintaining a military presence in West Africa and the Sahel, for example. But has it veered towards the grandiose? I’m thinking of his curious appearance in Beirut just days after the port explosion in August 2020.
ga: Because he looks like a liberal icon, people don’t realise that Macron is a realist who believes in the balance of power. For instance, he accepts that talking to Vladimir Putin is unavoidable so he tried to open a channel of dialogue, for which some European countries criticised him. He has a grand vision of France’s role on the world stage but he has little experience of foreign policy. That has led to initiatives that went nowhere, like Beirut. But beyond these theatrical episodes, there were some fundamentals that he followed successfully. On the European side, he has worked well with Germany, which is never easy for France, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, because the French economy is much weaker. Another example of his realism was his relationship with Donald Trump. He had no personal sympathy for him. As France’s ambassador to the US at the time, I can say that Macron had no illusions about him. But he knew that he had to maintain a relationship with the most powerful man in the world and he succeeded. The Sahel is another example of his realism. He has reached the conclusion that military intervention, which was not his decision, is a dead end and he is trying to extricate France from it.
What about upholding French values at home? For example, his decision to award a posthumous Légion d’honneur to Samuel Paty, the teacher murdered by an Islamist fanatic in 2020.
“The perception of Macron as the president of the elite has put a haze over many of the changes he has tried to enact”
co: He has a clear vision of this. The problem is that the French are obsessed with what we call the memory question. It’s not so much our history but the various antagonistic memories of what that history is. Macron is trying to move that forward but it’s difficult trying to digest all of the contradictions of our national memories, especially after the terrorist attacks of 2015, which further ignited the quarrel over laïcité, or secularism, a tradition that we are extremely proud of. He has tried his best. And it isn’t just secularism’s fight against jihadist Islam; there’s also the fight of French culture against the US import of wokeness, the cancellation of colonialism, and so on.
“Macron has achieved the most in terms of domestic politics. He has been far more effective in realising his vision than many of his predecessors”
Have Macron’s attempts at atonement for aspects of French history been meaningful? He reached out to the Harkis, France’s allies in Algeria, and appeared at a memorial for pro-Algeria protesters massacred by Paris police in 1961. He also asked Rwanda to forgive France for its role in the 1994 genocide.
ga: In Rwanda, there was not one vote to gain by doing that. That was very courageous.
jdw: It was unsatisfactory for a person of my generation. It didn’t go far enough.
As a foreigner in France, you’re still often surprised by how much history weighs on this country, how present it is in today’s politics and how difficult it is for the French to face their recent past. If you have to explain to a foreign public how someone like Éric Zemmour can exist, it’s very difficult. So there’s still a lot of work to be done.
co: It has been a very difficult task and Macron has had the courage to take it on. This has probably helped people such as Zemmour but Macron has been brave. The French are very difficult people.
If Macron wins in April, he’ll be the first French president to be re-elected since Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. If he does get another term, where will he figure in the pantheon of presidents of the Fifth Republic?
jdw: Macron has achieved the most in terms of domestic politics. He has been far more effective in realising his vision than many of his predecessors, which also explains the strong opposition to him. If he does win again and gains a parliamentary majority, we might see 10 years in which we have one president with a parliament that more or less agrees in terms of economic policy. That kind of stability would be unusual for France and it would place him among the most successful French presidents.
ga: Macron’s re-election would not solve the deep political and social crises that France, like the UK and US, is facing. It would be considered a defeat by the far right and the gilets jaunes but because of our system – and because it is likely that there will be a lot of abstention – we will have a president for whom 25 or 30 per cent of France will have voted. I hope that he will be re-elected but I fear that it would solve nothing, considering the problems that are tearing Western societies apart, especially in France.
co: As for trying to reform France, all I can say is bon courage.
“His re-election would not solve the deep political and social crises that France, like the UK and US, is facing”
One of the world’s 10 biggest economies, France is now the only member of both the EU and Nato with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. If there’s an ideal testing ground for xenophobic populism, France is not it. If Macron ends up in a run-off against Le Pen (or worse) this year, we wish him every success. But even judged solely on his merits, France could do a lot worse than Macron, for whom inexperience won’t be the handicap it once was.